Can Food Be Addictive?

Can Food Be Addictive?

Up until relatively recently, I thought I could eat pretty much what I wanted, so long as I managed to stay within my calorie goal. After all, calorie counting is the key to successful weight loss. Right?


You’ll notice I’m using the past tense. I no longer think that.

I’ve always totally understood the ‘once you pop, you can’t stop’ thing – but I thought that was just a lack of will power on my part. However, I think you’ll agree I’ve established some ninja-class skills of will power by now – and yet, there are still things that I just cannot put aside for later. Things that are bad for me.

I don’t often give into temptation – at least, not the really bad ones, anyway. On the whole, I’ve lost my taste for super-sugary or salty foods in favour of the healthy flavours I’m now used to – but once a month, when the evil-womanly-demon takes over (you know what I mean)… God damn it. I want a cookie.

Unfortunately, one cookie is never the extent of it – which is why, generally, I try to resist the temptation. But I’ve noticed over the last few months that there’s a big variation in the ways I respond to certain ‘bad’ foods, depending on how processed they are. A slice of cake made by my Mum, for instance, goes a long way to satisfy the craving – I can have a slice, and be pretty happy that I’ve got all I needed. A mass-produced, processed-as-heck cookie?

Not so much. Give me one, and I’ll want two more. And still, I won’t be quite as satisfied as with the homemade equivalent.

So why is that?

Partly, it’s because my Mum is a damn fine baker…but I don’t think that’s the whole story. There’s just something about really processed foods that makes you need to go back for round two – and there are an increasing number of studies that lean towards the idea that there’s an addictive element in there that’s making us fat. This isn’t just a matter of enjoying the taste of your food, and wanting some more – this is a chemical thing:

Addiction “is a loaded term, but there are aspects of the modern diet that can elicit behavior that resembles addiction,” said David Ludwig, a Harvard researcher and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital Boston. Highly processed foods may cause rapid spikes and declines in blood sugar, increasing cravings, his research has found.

Education, diets and drugs to treat obesity have proven largely ineffective and the new science of obesity may explain why, proponents say. Constant stimulation with tasty, calorie- laden foods may desensitize the brain’s circuitry, leading people to consume greater quantities of junk food to maintain a constant state of pleasure.

Source: Fatty Foods as Addictive as Cocaine?

That’s pretty scary, especially when it’s backed up with studies like this:

Psychologists at Princeton University began studying whether lab rats could become addicted to a 10 percent solution of sugar water, about the same percentage of sugar contained in most soft drinks.

An occasional drink caused no problems for the lab animals. Yet the researchers found dramatic effects when the rats were allowed to drink sugar-water every day. Over time they drank “more and more and more” while eating less of their usual diet, said Nicole Avena, who began the work as a graduate student at Princeton and is now a neuroscientist at the University of Florida.

The animals also showed withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, shakes and tremors, when the effect of the sugar was blocked with a drug. The scientists, moreover, were able to determine changes in the levels of dopamine in the brain, similar to those seen in animals on addictive drugs.

“We consistently found that the changes we were observing in the rats binging on sugar were like what we would see if the animals were addicted to drugs,” said Avena, who for years worked closely with the late Princeton psychologist, Bartley Hoebel, who died this year.

While the animals didn’t become obese on sugar water alone, they became overweight when Avena and her colleagues offered them water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.

A 2007 French experiment stunned researchers when it showed that rats prefer water sweetened with saccharine or sugar to hits of cocaine — exactly the opposite of what existing dogma would have suggested.

Source: Fatty Foods as Addictive as Cocaine?

So, in just that one quote, we’re faced with a few points – sugar causes rats to binge, and gives them the DTs when it’s not available; high-fructose corn syrup causes them to be obese; and saccharine or sugar is preferable to cocaine, as far as rats are concerned.

Now, these are rats, not humans. But I’m pretty sure the science behind that part’s already been covered off. I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about science, and I’m probably going to have to ask Matt nicely to help me explain this stuff better – but I can say from my own experience that I could eat, and eat, and eat Pizza Hut, and that while I’d struggle to get through 8 cups of water in a day, I could’ve easily downed a couple of bottles of fizzy pop when I was at my heaviest. Possibly even more.

I mean, I’m not kidding – my ex-boyfriend and I would order a takeaway that could feed a large wedding party, and then just eat to the point of wanting to throw up… Then we’d give it ten minutes and go back for more, despite the discomfort and absolute lack of pleasure in doing so. Not a good state of affairs.

And when I look back, I can mentally return myself to that nigh-on zombie state of just eating, barely even registering each mouthful, and certainly not really enjoying it. But there was something I got from that that seemed to ‘fill a hole’ psychologically. Now, it was a pretty crappy relationship – but I don’t think the entire problem there was emotional eating. It was compulsive.

With those sorts of behavioural patterns in mind, you can see why, when I first gave up eating processed foods, I hated it. I felt terrible. I had headaches, and I felt sick and depressed. Which, when you’re trying to make a positive change in your life, seems really rather uncalled for. But the thing is, I recognised it. I’ll be completely honest here – I’ve always been very good at acquiring bad habits. I’m an ex-smoker, and an ex-codeine addict (alas, two years on super-strong painkillers after my accident, and nobody warned me I’d get addicted to them – that wasn’t fun) and I’ve been through the mill to give both up.

So when I was giving up processed foods and was feeling very similar to how I felt when quitting opiates and nicotine, I had a very sudden (and pretty scary) realisation of just how much I’d come to depend on junk food. It took about three days to get past the worst of it, a week to start to feel normal(ish) again, and a couple of weeks in I felt better. Different, but better. Exactly like withdrawal.

What’s strange, though, is that it isn’t something I experience with unprocessed foods – even though I’m still eating a hell of a lot, and I’m a pretty good cook, if I do say so myself. I enjoy my food now more than I enjoyed those takeaways, or pretty much anything I was eating back then – but it’s a very different sort of pleasure. It’s cleaner, and it’s more satisfying – but I’m not completely free of it. Which is why, once a month, when the craving strikes, I’m very careful about what it is I go for. If I choose something mega-processed, I know I’ll have a few days after where I crave more of the same – but if I go for something that’s been minimally tampered with, I’ll enjoy it in the moment, ease the craving, and move on.

This really is just my experience talking – and everyone experiences food differently, I’m sure – but I do believe that you can pretty easily get addicted to junk food… Which returns me to the point about the calorie counting. Because if you’re sticking within your calorie goal, but making it up with sugary, salty, high-fructose-corn-syrupy foods, you’re going to find it more difficult to make your changes permanent ones, because these foods invite cravings and displace satisfaction – meaning no matter how much you eat, you’ll want more.

And given these foods tend to be pretty high in calories, you’re unlikely to be able to eat anywhere near as much as you want in the first place. Meaning you’re going to be miserable from the outset, and the whole ‘lifestyle change’ thing is going to get old pretty fast. I certainly couldn’t have lost the weight that I have without pretty much entirely cutting out processed foods – and I don’t think I’d be as happy as I am now without having done so, either. It’s a hard move to make – I’ve had to pretty much completely re-educate myself on the food front – but it’s worth it.

And now, I’m hungry – so excuse me while I go chef myself up a tasty breakfast!

15 thoughts on “Can Food Be Addictive?”

  • Without a doubt crap foods are addictive. Both in their ‘more-ish-ness’ and their lack of triggering the “full” feeling. You know this Slow Carb thing, with the “cheat day”. I can theoretically go buy 12 Krispy Kreams for breakfast. Historically have done. Yet it STILL doesn’t satisfy me as much as an “unhealthy” home-made omelette (cheese, salami, bacon, etc)…

    Plus. Diet start: “Healthy foods are so much more expensive”. Nope, not when you realize how MUCH crap you have to eat to gain that full feeling of satisfaction you get from a normal sized healthy meal.

    Anywoo, good article, as usual!

    • Thanks Dan! And yes – I keep planning to write a post about the ‘healthy foods are expensive’ myth, it’s so very wrong…

      Incidentally, that sounds like a damn good omelette. Might have to treat myself to one of those at the weekend!

  • Great article! Processed/junk foods are addictive – – I got in the habit myself of picking up something “fast” and “quick” for lunch, which led to me getting hungry sooner afterward and my midsection expanding.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Absolutely – it’s a difficult habit to break, but a little bit of forward planning at lunchtime seems to go a long way 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  • I love this! This is exactly why I am breaking off of processed foods! Thank you for sharing! I am going to post a link to this article on my blog.

  • Another excellent post.

    My weakness is still the occasional takeaway and what’s really bad is that I only really enjoy the first few mouthfuls, then I start feeling ill and bloated from it. Yet if I make the same thing myself I enjoy it more and find it filling without that stuffed ill feeling.

  • I lost 30kgs over 2 years but I’ve been on a the yo-yo diet path for too long and I’m sick of the feeling I get when my clothes get tight. It’s always a vicious cycle! My biggest weakness is chocolates. If I totally cut it off, there’ll come a time when I’ll start binging on it. (I polised a block of cadbury’s blackforest chocolate bar in a day) and then hit the gym like crazy for 6 days straight.

    But what I really want is to not feel guilty whenever I eat chocolate in moderation so that I’ll quit binging. Cutting back and having it just once a month sounds too extreme for me 🙁 Knowing myself, I’ll binge later on. Easier to justify that I’ve had a small amount of chocolate over the weekend, so no more for the week rather than once a month. =/ I just hope this works!

    And you’re a huge inspiration! So glad you were featured on Huffington.

    • Thank you so much! 30kgs over two years is an amazing achievement – well done you 🙂

      I completely understand the chocolate limit/binge thing – I do tend to do that myself! I find, though, that when I don’t have it so often, I enjoy it more when I do… I suppose it becomes more of a ‘less is more’ thing because psychologically I know it’s a real treat. That’s why, when I do have it, I tend to go for something really luxurious and tasty rather than just a regular chocolate bar… Mmmm. I’m already fantasising about it.

      But I have to say, I’ve been testing out recipes for the meal plan I’m working on (or rather, Matt’s working on – I’m being the royal tester and coming up with the crazy ideas) to put on here, and it’s ended up where I’m having a little bit of chocolate most days just to nudge the calories up to the amount I’m supposed to be eating – which rocks! So you never know – there could be a way… 🙂

  • Yes it is, especially processed foods with HFCS (which is in a lot of products). I stopped eating HFCS and most sugar about a year ago and took off 56 lbs. Combined with the weight loss from the past few years, I have taken off a total of almost 90 lbs. since 2002. I know that seems like a long time but I have been overweight since the mid “70s when I was in my 20’s. I am going to be 65 next year so I can tell anyone that it is never to late to change your LIFESTYLE!

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