What makes food addictive?

There's been a lot of talk about whether foods can be addictive or not.  Sugar addiction has many converts who cut back on sugar or eliminate it entirely from their diets.  But if all food were truly addictive, how would we manage?  Someone with a substance use disorder can give up cocaine, for example; but we can't stop eating.  I think it's important to really look into this question in more detail.

Five years ago a group of nutrition scientists did a study that showed that HALF of all the foods eaten by Americans fall into the category of what I call "food-like substances."  In other words half of the food we eat is so highly processed that the scientists call them "industrial formulations" (like I said - food- like substances) that combine large amounts of sugar, salt, oils, fats and other additives.

These "industrial formulations" are linked to numerous health problems.

Eating these ultra-processed food-like substances is linked to increases in weight, diabetes and heart disease and other medical problems. Why do we eat these "foods?"   Of course these foods are scientifically engineered to taste good - they have the good stuff - sugar, fat and salts.  Often these foods are cheaper to buy.  But there's more to it.

Two sides to every story.
In a debate between experts on whether these same foods provoke addictive-like eating behavior, Dr. Gearhardt, a professor at the University of Michigan (my alma mater - GO BLUE!) found these ultra-processed "industrial formulations" were more likely to lead to "addictive-like" eating behaviors, such as intense cravings, a loss of control, and an inability to cut back despite experiencing harmful consequences and a strong desire to stop eating them.  (these are the criteria for a substance addiction)

Dr. Gearhardt's research listed pizza, chocolate, potato chips, cookies, ice cream, French fries and cheeseburgers at the top of the list.  Here is her rationale as to why these foods cause addictive eating behavior:

  • just like cocaine and cigarettes, they come from natural products
  • these natural products are then stripped of the components that would make them more slowly absorbed (fiber, water and protein)
  • then they are processed even more into products that are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, enhancing their ability to light up regions of the brain called the dopamine reward system that regulates reward, emotion and motivation.  
  • Just as menthol helps to mask the bitter flavor of nicotene, the final step in this creation of industrial formulations (not food) is the addition of other additives to strengthen their pull by enhancing properties like texture and mouth-feel.

The frequent combination of fats with carbohydrates which is not found in foods in nature is another way these foods pack a punch.  Many foods found in nature are rich in either fat or carbs, but not in both.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY: German researcher, Dr. Hebebrand disputes the notion that any food is addictive.

Dr. Hebebrand's point is that unlike cocaine or alcohol, eating these ultra-processed foods does not cause an "altered state of mind."  He also states that there is no one compound in ultra-processed foods that can be singled out as addictive (unlike nicotene in cigarettes, for example).  He goes on to point out that while 50% of America's food intake are from these industrially concocted food-like substances, studies suggests that there are many factors that determine whether people become addicted, including their genetics, family histories, exposure to trauma, and environmental and socioeconomic backgrounds.  Not just what food they eat.  He also faults the incredible amount of advertising that touts these low value foods which makes people want to try them.

So what does all this mean?

As you know, I've spoken about food addiction many times and my views fall in the middle between these two experts.  Here are my takeaways:

  1. Not everything we call food is really food.  Real food is food in its natural state, not something that comes in a box or bag.
  2. It's very important to be aware that certain "foods" are engineered to trap us into cravings and obsessions.  Consider eating less of those and not keeping them in your house.  After all they are not food!!!  
  3. Some people are more vulnerable to being hooked by these "foods."  That includes people who have a history of childhood trauma, have an eating disorder or are struggling with food / body image issues.  Know yourself and respect your vulnerability to these products.
  4. Stay aware of emotional triggers and recognize that certain emotions or stressful situations may make you even more vulnerable to these foods.  Act accordingly whenever possible.

If you're interested in learning more about food addiction, enter the book sweepstakes to win a copy of The Food Addiction Recovery Workbook.

All the best,
Dr. Carolyn

PS - If you're struggling with food addiction and you'd like some help, schedule a free consult to see if the Anchor Program is right for you.

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