Is there such a thing as food addiction?

By Liz Meszaros
Published February 12, 2020

Key Takeaways

Did you know that you can actually be addicted to food and--perhaps less surprising--that certain foods can be more addictive than others? Food addiction is a compulsive or uncontrollable need to eat. This compulsive behavior may occur as a response to emotional distress, such as sadness, stress, or even anger. Importantly, unlike overeating or binge eating—which may also be induced by emotional distress—food addiction is just starting to be recognized as a true disorder. Those affected are unable to control their consumption of certain foods. But, how does food addiction work, and why are some foods more addictive than others??

The existence of food addiction as a diagnostic construct is a somewhat controversial topic. Many health experts argue that it is not a true addiction while others argue that it should be referred to as an “eating addiction” rather than as a “food addiction.”

In a systematic review published in Nutrients, researchers evaluated evidence to determine the validity of food addiction as a unique construct in humans. Specifically, they analyzed 52 quantitative, peer-reviewed studies to determine whether food addiction fulfilled the following symptoms of addiction: brain reward dysfunction, preoccupation, risky use, impaired control, tolerance/withdrawal, social impairment, chronicity, and relapse.

Here’s what they concluded: “Each pre-defined criterion was supported by at least one study. Brain reward dysfunction and impaired control were supported by the largest number of studies (n = 21 and n = 12, respectively); whereas risky use was supported by the fewest (n = 1). Overall, findings support food addiction as a unique construct consistent with criteria for other substance use disorder diagnoses. The evidence further suggests that certain foods, particularly processed foods with added sweeteners and fats, demonstrate the greatest addictive potential.”

The guilty culprits

But, not just any food causes addiction. Some foods are more likely than others to be addictive (think chocolate, cheese, and chips). And, as with other addictive behaviors, biochemical reasons are the basis. Highly palatable foods (those full of sugar, fat, or salt) can trigger the same reward and pleasure centers in the brain as addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin. These types of foods trigger the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway, whichleads to good feelings—but also to cravings for those good feelings.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and New York Obesity Research Center studied addictive-like eating in 518 study participants, using the Yale Food Addiction Scale as a reference. Among these participants, 7% to 10% were given a diagnosis of food addiction. Even more distressing was the researchers’ finding that almost all participants (92%) engaged in addictive-like eating behavior towards some foods—ie, they repeatedly had the urge to stop eating these foods but couldn’t.

Participants were also asked to rate 35 foods on a scale of 1 (not likely) to 7 (extremely likely) on how likely they were to have problems with controlling their consumption of these foods.

Foods that were ranked highest for addiction by the participants were processed foods that were high in fat and added sugars. Among the top culprits were pizza (4.01), chocolate (7.73), chips (3.73), cookies (3.71), and ice cream (3.60).

On the other hand, those that ranked lowest for addiction were unprocessed whole foods that were generally healthy, including cucumbers (1.53), carrots (1.60), beans (1.63), appleas (1.66), and brown rice (1.74).

A closer look at some of the foods you are likely to be exposed to daily can show why they have the potential to be addictive. Hint: It has to do with the activation of various neurotransmitters.

Chocolate. Chocolate is perhaps the worst—and historically, the most revered—member of the addictive foods posse. Chocolate has been scientifically proven to bind to the same pleasure centers in the brain as alcohol and certain drugs. Its mood-altering capabilities are almost unmatched in the food world. Here’s why: Chocolate increases serotonin levels (calming) but contains small amounts of phenylethylamine, which act like an amphetamine and stimulate brain cells to release dopamine (stimulating). Chocolate’s texture also feels—and tastes—good in your mouth, which stimulates the production of oxytocin, another feel-good hormone. It’s no wonder this delicious substance was worshipped by the Aztecs as far back as 1900 BC.   

Cheese. Have you ever been to a party or an event where the cheese tray wasn’t mobbed? This is because cheese is highly addictive. In addition to being high in fat and cholesterol, cheese also contains a substance called casomorphin, which binds to the opioid receptors in the brain. It’s as simple as: Attach to neurotransmitters; Release dopamine; And it’s ”cheese addiction activated.”  

Carbohydrates. The addictive powers of carbohydrates likely don’t need explaining to anyone who has eaten a whole bag of potato chips, tortilla chips, or pretzels in one sitting. And who hasn’t? Movie night, anyone? Although foods that are high in carbohydrates don’t contain any compounds that bind to brain receptors, they are addictive for another reason. The body turns carbs into glucose, which stimulates the release of dopamine and gives you a quick boost of energy. Double addiction potential. The fly in the ointment is that this quick energy is quickly used up, and your body will crave more simple carbs to stay energized.  

Sweetened drinks. Sodas, lemonade, and sweet teas stimulate dopamine release because they contain a lot of sugar. Plus, if there’s caffeine involved, the energy boost is doubled. Your brain loves all of this and wants more.

French fries. Who doesn’t love French fries? And who can stop eating them until they’re gone? Answer: No one. These carbs are perhaps the triumvirate of addictive foods because they are crisp, hot, and salty. The feel-good crispiness in your mouth, the comfort of eating something hot, the salty flavor—all of these sensations cause your brain to release oxytocin. What’s not to love? Not to mention the fat content in fries, which triggers receptors in our mouths that signal the brain to eat more.

Ice cream. A lot of people are absolutely serious about getting their ice cream fix, and not just in the summertime. Did you ever wonder why? Very simply, it’s due to ice cream’s high sugar content and creamy texture. The sugar gives you a boost of energy that quickly dissipates, leaving your brain wanting more. The creamy texture and richness make it pleasurable to eat, releasing oxytocin. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!

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