Food Addiction | SELF Principle

What makes food addictive? The Science of Food Addiction

What makes food addictive, and what are the most important things you need to do right now to lower your risk of developing an addiction to certain types of foods?

We all know obesity is an epidemic, but one thing that’s really concerning is the projections. By 2030, 85 percent of adults are projected to be overweight or obese. That is a staggering number.  Despite all of the diets, fitness gadgets, supplements, we have not been able to make a dent in this crisis.

In 2008, obesity-related health care costs were approximately $147 billion. Over the next 15 years, these costs are projected to increase by 15 percent.

When it comes to causes of obesity, only 20 to 30 percent is genetic. The rest of it is based on environmental factors such as food access, portion sizes, physical food, and the increasing prevalence of highly processed foods.

These highly processed foods have led to a concept called food addiction. Essentially, the definition for it is this loss of control over eating. This is despite having negative consequences such as diabetes, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, cancers, and more. 

Food addiction is very similar to drug addiction. In both cases, there is brain overstimulation. This leads to neural adaptation that reduces reward pathways, resulting in the reduction of dopamine receptors.

Food addiction is very powerful. In animal studies, rats are first fed highly addictive foods rich in refined carbohydrates and fat. Then the foods are paired with an electric shock to discourage eating. Despite getting shocks, the rats will keep going for this food.

Once the rats are used to this highly processed food, the researchers remove it and replace it with their traditional chow.  However, the rats actually refuse to eat and end up starving themselves. And this is the same concept in humans, is we are so addicted to this food that we keep going after it.

Food Addiction | SELF Principle

To measure food addiction, researchers use the Yale Food Addiction Scale. It’s a 25 item questionnaire using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) criteria for substance abuse. It helps quantify addictive eating symptoms.

When it comes to addictive foods, there are certain characteristics they have in common.  First, the foods are rarely in their natural state. Think of grapes, which are not addictive, versus wine, which is processed.  Other examples are fruits that have sugar or nuts that have fat. Neither is addictive in itself. But you take processed foods like cake, pizza, and chocolate rich in carbohydrates and fat, and they are highly addictive.

The key to remember is how easy your access to junk foods is.  If you have junk food in your home, you’re going to eat it. This is something that Chef AJ talks about a lot. She tells her clients you can’t have these highly processed foods in the home. I completely agree with that philosophy.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

When we talk about addictive foods, one way to think about them is through the glycemic index. A glycemic index is very simply a rating on how slowly or quickly foods cause an increase in your blood sugar. Low glycemic foods have a rating of 55 or less; medium glycemic foods have a rating of 56 to 69;  high glycemic foods have a rating of 70 or more. Some classic examples of high glycemic index foods include white rice, white bread, and potatoes.

But the glycemic index has a flaw in that it doesn’t take into account serving size. This is where the glycemic load comes in. It uses the glycemic index and the typical serving size to calculate a value for the glycemic load.  Low glycemic load values are less than 10, medium values range between 11-19, and high values are greater than 20. Some examples of high glycemic load foods include 1 cup of cornflakes (GL 21), ten large jelly beans (GL 22), or one snickers candy bar (GL 22.1).

Food Addiction | SELF Principle


Let’s dive into the research.  In a study by Schulte and colleagues, the authors proposed that highly processed foods are similar to drugs of abuse in that the ingredients are concentrated and cause rapid absorption.  In the case of foods, their highly processed nature and high amount of fat and refined carbohydrates are what the authors implicate in causing addictive-like behavior.

The study had two parts. In the first part, the authors looked at 120 undergrads, ages 18 to 21, 72.5% Caucasians, with a mean BMI of 23.  The participants answered twenty-five questions on the Yale food addiction scale, essentially asking how often they have problems with certain foods? And what they found was that the most problematic foods are the ones that are the same that we’ve been talking about.

The authors found that the most problematic foods had the highest-level processing, highest amount of fat, and refined carbohydrates. These foods included chocolate, ice cream, french fries, pizza, and cookies. On the flip side, the least problematic foods were beans, broccoli, cucumbers, water, and brown rice. All of which were closest in their natural state.

In the second part of the study, the authors looked at 389 participants, ages 18 to 65, 76.8% Caucasians with a mean BMI of 26.95.  This time participants were asked to rate on a Likert scale how likely were they to experience problems with each of the 35 foods presented—one being not problematic to seven being the most problematic.  Once again, the most problematic foods were highly processed and contained large amounts of added fat and refined carbohydrates.  These included pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies, and ice cream.

Bottom Line

So, what is the take-home message? The first is, even though food addiction is not an official diagnosis in the DSM V, food addiction is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. The highly processed foods with large quantities of fat and refined carbohydrates allow for concentrated dosing and rapid absorption.  These qualities make foods similar to drugs of abuse.

One of the best ways to reduce your risk of food addiction is by cleaning your environment. Don’t keep junk foods in your house.   Create barriers to getting junk foods.  Dr. Columbus Batiste talked about the idea that if you want junk food, wait 30 minutes.  In that 30 minutes, eat something healthy like an apple. If you still want the junk food at the end of the 30 minutes, then go for it. Chances are, this simple act of waiting 30 minutes will curb your cravings.

Finally, remember that a Whole Food plant-based diet is ideal because it’s naturally low in fat and low in refined carbohydrates. It is calorie-poor and nutrient-dense; it’s good for the planet; it’s good for your overall health; it’s good for the health of our children.

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Sean Hashmi MD
Articles: 56

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