Is food addictive? Anyone who has ever drowned their sorrows in a pint of Häagen-Dazs will already know the answer to that question. But I am interested in the actual SCIENTIFIC answer to that question. On a dopaminergic and cellular level, does food cause addiction? The answer, quite simply, is yes. But there are a myriad of variables that factor in to this equation. What CAUSES addiction to food? Is it simply overconsumption? Or is it something more? If we look at the clinical definition of “addiction,” we find that it means “the continued repetition of a behavior, despite adverse consequences”. Anyone who has ever been overweight, or obese, or even halfway through that aforementioned Häagen-Dazs, will tell you that they WANT to stop eating but that they somehow “can’t”. No one CHOOSES to be obese. This is best exemplified by obese children. They are not choosing to feel different or to be unable to do the same physical activities as their peers. So what exactly is going on?
No doubt the “reward” factor of food is driving most of these behaviors, if not ALL of them. As stated in this 2011 study, “palatable food is consumed for its hedonic properties independent of energy status. Such reward-related consumption can result in caloric intake exceeding requirements and is considered a major culprit in the rapidly increasing rates of obesity in developed countries.” Now, if you’re not a science nerd, you may be wondering what exactly is “rewarding” about food. Well, you may be surprised to learn that the underlying brain circuitry involved in eating that Häagen-Dazs is nearly identical to doing drugs. Put scientifically, “human brain imaging studies have shown that food and food–related visual or olfactory cues can activate corticolimbic and mesoaccumbens brain circuits implicated in reward, most notably the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC), insula, amygdala, hypothalamus, striatum, and midbrain regions including the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and substantia nigra (SN) (Bragulat et al., 2010; Pelchat et al., 2004; Schur et al., 2009; Simmons et al., 2005). Somewhat shocking, isn’t it?
What Foods Cause Addiction?
Quite simply, most foods in the Western diet. There is a very interesting hypothesis stated in this 1993 paper that agriculture only developed due to the rewarding properties of food. Specifically, the rewarding properties of grains and dairy. Why else would humans choose a more laborious, otherwise less rewarding way of life? As stated in the paper “if agriculture provides neither better diet, nor greater dietary reliability, nor greater ease, but conversely appears to provide a poorer diet, less reliably, with greater labor costs, why does anyone become a farmer?” The possible answer: the rewarding properties of cereal grains and dairy. But what is rewarding about eating cereal grains? Well, scientists have found opioid activity in wheat, maize, barley and dairy. They’ve also discovered stimulatory compounds in these foods. One specific compound found by researchers is an analogue of MIF–1, a dopaminergic peptide.
In milk there is also beta-casomorphin 7, which is an opioid. Remember your mother’s suggestion to ‘drink warm milk’ before bed, to help ease the pain and help you sleep? Turns out that that was scientifically accurate. Why do people have such a hard time giving up dairy and grains? It’s because of these addictive properties and compounds found within. Most elements in nutrition have a biochemical and scientific basis. The paleo world is well aware of the other multitude of problems found in dairy and grains, but the wider world is completely unaware that their “healthy whole grains” are causing rewards and addiction in their brain circuitry.
It will probably be less shocking to you to learn that junk food is addictive. The taunting advertisement of “bet you can’t eat just one” from Lay’s® is scientifically all too accurate. As Mat Lalonde, organic chemist Ph.D from Harvard, has put it, “we are living in a world where food chemists make foods addictive for more consumption”. Re-read that sentence. It is terrifying and saddening. And definitely accurate. Here is a study you may not have heard of: Oreos have been proven to be EQUALLY as addictive as cocaine. Re-read THAT sentence again.
The Chemical ‘Bliss Point’
There are many compounds and elements involved in being addicted to junk food. The first trick used by food chemists is to use a few ingredients, in exact amounts (referred to in the industry as the ‘bliss point’) to make foods hyper-palatable and nearly impossible to stop eating. These ingredients are salt, sugar and fat. You will find that they are nearly always used in combination with each other, which is not an accident. Donuts are loaded with fat AND sugar. Potato chips are loaded with fat AND salt. We will not typically over consume foods that are ONLY fat, ONLY salt, or ONLY sugar. Food companies and food chemists know this, and they use it to THEIR advantage, not yours. Couple hyper-palatable foods with deceptive marketing, ever-increasing portion sizes, and an increasingly unhealthy culture and you have yourself a recipe for where we are today.
Worse Living Through Chemistry
As any obese person can tell you, they feel ‘out of control’ and struggle greatly to change their behavior, despite their knowledge that their behavior is hurting them. That sounds eerily similar to a drug addict’s patterns. What is the biological and biochemical basis for this? Well, it is down regulated dopamine receptors, an identical scenario in those who are addicted to cocaine and alcohol as seen in the following image.
Obviously there is more going on here, but the down regulated dopamine receptors are the major problem faced when addicted to food as obese people are. There is also the issue of leptin resistance, insulin resistance, and a whole host of other problems. But when you change your thinking about food, from a harmless, enjoyable experience, to something that can potentially be playing with fire, you start to see the world for the way that it truly is. Food companies do not care about your health, they care about their profits. Period.
Soda companies may as well be cigarette companies in terms of to little they care about your health, how much they care about their profits, and how they will stop at nothing to get your hard-earned dollar. Oh and it turns out that they ARE actually run by former tobacco executives. You may be surprised to learn that food giant Kraft® is owned by Phillip Morris. Yes, THAT Phillip Morris. Here is a quote from the former CEO of Phillip Morris, regarding the food industry: “As Philip Morris came under pressure for nicotine and cigarettes, it eventually started looking at the food divisions in light of the emerging obesity crisis. And there were moments in these internal documents where Philip Morris officials were saying to the food division, ‘You guys are going to face a problem with salt, sugar, fat in terms of obesity of the same magnitude, if not more than [what] we’re facing with nicotine right now.”
We are currently facing that problem due to our nation’s collective addiction to food. Here is one other quote from the former CEO, that is truly disturbing: “Within Coke they referred to their best customers not as you might think — ‘consumers’ or ‘loyal fans’ or something like that. They became known as ‘heavy users.’ And Coke had a formula … that basically said, ’20 percent of the people will use 80 percent of the product.’ And, as Coke saw it, it was worth their while more to focus on those 20 percent using 80 percent of the product than to try to generate more consumption by the other 80 percent. So the heavy users of soda became those people who were drinking as many as 1,000 cans of soda a year, sometimes even more.”
Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life
So what can you do to stop the addictive process that sometimes occurs due to intake of the foods mentioned? Well, you can eat different foods. Start including healthy fats, such as avocadoes, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil in your diet. Eat lots of vegetables, such as kale, spinach and broccoli. Get complete (meaning they contain all the essential amino acids) sources of protein, and eat them regularly. This could be wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef or pasture-raised eggs. Since many executives of former cigarette companies are now executives of food companies, I will use the smoking analogy to very simply illustrate my point. How do smokers stop being addicted? They change their behavior and avoid cigarettes. Change your behavior (consumption of addictive foods and beverages) and avoid these foods.