Now that we are firmly into the New Year, you may be analyzing your eating habits a bit more than usual. And you may notice that you find certain food positively irresistible—so much so that you not only indulge, but overindulge, knowing full well that you’ll regret it.
People who have problems with alcohol or illicit drugs exhibit these same behaviors. Is it fair, or even appropriate, to equate the chocoholic with someone who suffers from alcoholism or a heroin addiction? Is it really an addiction to be powerless when faced with sizzling hot fries with a side of ketchup?
There are some differences between the two scenarios, including how they’re perceived socially. But they’re both self-destructive. And when we compare the underlying biology of substance addiction to food addiction, the similarities are significant and beginning to gain a great deal of attention.
When a person with a drug addiction prepares to self-administer their drug of choice, certain neural pathways in the brain (referred to as reward circuits) predictably “light up” and produce the desired “high.” The same areas of the brain are activated when we see, smell, think about, or are about to tear into certain foods we find irresistible. In a 2010 landmark paper published in the prestigious journal, Nature Neuroscience, the authors concluded that “overconsumption of palatable food triggers addiction-like neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuits and drives compulsive eating. Common hedonic mechanisms may therefore underlie obesity and drug addiction.”
There are several reasons food addiction can be so devastating. First, as opposed to drugs where you can stop exposure, you can’t stop eating. In fact, your brain is telling your body to take in as much food energy as possible as rapidly as you can because, up until 100 years ago or so, times of feast for humans were typically followed by times of famine. This powerful drive can paralyze our ability to make healthy food choices. This is partly because the reward circuitry is so powerful, and partly because the rewarded state becomes the new normal and we seek to maintain it because without it, we now feel below normal. We feel bad.
Furthermore, foods that are typically addictive tend to be jam-packed with calories. Therefore when combined with our modern Western diets, they’re inherently bad for our overall health and typically contribute to obesity.
Let me be clear: Food addiction is not the same as overeating. Just as drug addiction involves only certain types of drugs (for example, opioids, but not antibiotics), a recent study has identified particular food types that elicit addictive-like behaviors. In addition to behavioral and neurological similarities between the person who can’t stop at one serving of cake, and the person who drinks to get drunk, there are genetic parallels as well, associated with dopamine signaling.
In other words, certain foods are highly addictive, and certain people are more vulnerable to those highly addictive foods.
In two studies reported in the same paper, the top 10 “problem” foods were almost identical.
In study one, which consisted of 120 people (18-23 years old), the top 10 addictive foods were chocolate, ice cream, French fries, pizza, cookies, chips, cake, buttered popcorn, cheeseburgers, and muffins. Sound familiar?
In study two, which consisted of 398 people (18-65 years old), the top 10 included pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies, ice cream, French fries, cheeseburgers, non-diet sodas, cake, and cheese.
Most of these foods are highly processed, containing large amounts of fat as well as an unnaturally high glycemic load (GL) thanks to ingredients like sugar and high fructose corn syrup, which causes blood glucose levels to quickly spike. Several are salty, too, but high fat and high GL each create a significantly stronger addictive draw than salt does.
So, in addictive foods, just as in addictive drugs:
- The key components are concentrated (for an effectively high dose),
- They activate reward circuits in the brain, and
- They hit the brain quickly, which reinforces the addictive connection between the food and the reward.
Are You at Risk?
Thus far, studies have identified two types of people at higher risk of having a food addiction: those who have a high body mass index (25 or higher), and those who aren’t necessarily overweight but who’ve noticed addictive-like behaviors in themselves, such as an inability to resist certain foods (even if they suffer negative consequences from eating them); a tendency to eat more than planned; and an inability to stop or cut back.
Non-overweight people with these self-admitted characteristics are particularly vulnerable to sweets (foods with a high GL). For overweight people, the greater the level of processing the foods go through, the stronger the symptoms of addiction.
What To Do
It’s time we acknowledge that food addiction is a real thing, and it isn’t funny. And indeed, as you can see by the referenced studies, the scientific world is rapidly moving to that position.
The foods most often involved with addictive eating behaviors are foods that can deal a devastating blow to our health. At the grocery store, shop the periphery of the store rather than turning down the inner aisles, where most of the highly processed foods are shelved. Also, avoid gifting cookies and candies. Instead, give a year’s subscription to monthly shipments of fresh fruits or vegetables.
Feeling deprived can derail any diet, but when the foods in front of us are healthy and still delicious, perhaps this can help keep all of us on a healthy path.