The term “addiction” is normally associated with abuse or dependence on substances like tobacco, drugs, or alcohol. Is it possible for this term to be applied to describe someone’s relationship with food? According to some experts, food addiction can be a problem for those who display similar behaviors and tendencies also seen with drug and alcohol addiction. It seems odd that food could be addictive, but is it true? If so, what does this mean for the millions of Americans struggling with obesity in the United States?
What is addiction?
According to American Psychiatric Association (APA), substance use disorder, or SUD, refers to an “uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences” and mentions that “most severe SUDs are sometimes called addiction” (“What is a Substance Use Disorder?” n.d.). In circumstances with substance reliance to this extremity, it can prevent people from living their day to day life. Impairing their ability to secure relationships, have a social life, and thrive in the workplace. The pull to continue to abuse substances or continue certain behaviors is to keep the “high” going, with the thought that continuous use will make them feel better than without. Because of this, behaviors like gambling can also lead to addiction, which is also included in the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), used for diagnosing mental disorders, due to it having similar clinical expression to SUDs (“Substance-Related,” n.d.).
While “food addiction” is not officially found in the DSM-5, the article “Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating” argues that there are a lot of parallels between some people’s relationship to food and SUD (2019). These parallels can include intense cravings, diminished self-control, impulsivity, and the building of a tolerance that leads to increased intake for an equal reward. The article then mentions that “the model of food addiction may help us to understand elements of overweight/obesity beyond a simple lack of willpower” (“Food Addiction” 2019). Approaching some people’s problems with food and overeating from an addiction perspective might open up the doors for new ways to find solutions and help them.
For years, people have argued that due to the nature of food being necessary to live, it cannot be addictive. After all, if we stop eating we are compromising our health and ability to survive. However, the food addiction model explains that not all food is addictive. It is solely processed foods with high additives, such as sugar, salt, and fat, that can be addictive (UCtelevision, 2018). Though food is deemed “necessary,” it doesn’t negate the fact that problems such as SUD can arise from it.
A hyper-palatable food contains a specific combination of sugar, fat, carbs, and sodium in certain that are more addictive than others. (Fazzino Et al., 2019). Examples of hyper-palatable foods include donuts, chips, cake, candy bars, soft drinks, and fast food. These foods trigger a reward response in the brain when compared to normal foods, and make the consumer want more. You should avoid or limit these foods greatly as they can create a dangerous cycle of uncontrollable cravings and insulin spikes that may eventually turn into food addiction.
Over time, eating these types of food can lead to a downregulation of dopamine (the “reward” chemical) receptors in the brain. With the decrease in dopamine and the passage of time, a person can build a tolerance, then needing to consume more food to get the same reward feeling that they originally had from a smaller amount. Since hyper-palatable foods are also high in calories they can contribute to weight gain and obesity.
Dr. Ashley Mason, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF School of Medicine, mentions that we are not wired to deal with the neural experience of such foods (a twinkie, to be more specific), in a lecture she gave through the University of California Television about food addiction (UCtelevision, 2018). “You are not going to hunt for a twinkie in the wilds,” she says jokingly, “we didn’t evolve for that.” Robert Lustig, professor emeritus of Pediatrics at UCSF, mentions sugar and caffeine may be the only components in food that are in fact, addictive, and not fat or salt (UCtelevision & Lustig, 2017). In a lecture through the University of California Television, he mentions that fat and salt can play a role in the taste that makes foods more addictive. Having the knowledge that certain foods can affect the brain and one’s behavior in this way, it is easier to be more conscious of what foods to fuel your body and brain with.
Looking at the food addiction model can open new windows to understanding the difficulties people have when suffering from obesity or unhealthy relationships with certain foods. Given the obesity epidemic throughout the world and millions struggling with failed attempts at weight loss, being educated on the struggles one can develop with food can benefit eating choices in the long run. If you think you might be in danger of food addiction or want to know what foods work best with your body composition book an appointment with our Nutritionist today!
- Adams, R. C., Sedgmond, J., Maizey, L., Chambers, C. D., & Lawrence, N. S. (2019). Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating. Nutrients, 11(9), 2086. doi:10.3390/nu11092086
- What Is a Substance Use Disorder? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
- Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/File Library/Psychiatrists/Practice/DSM/APA_DSM-5-Substance-Use-Disorder.pdf
- UCtelevision. (2018, May 25). The Face of Food Addiction: Living Through and Beyond. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBGwQp0HuDQ
- Fazzino, T. L., Rohde, K., & Sullivan, D. K. (2019). Hyper‐Palatable Foods: Development of a Quantitative Definition and Application to the US Food System Database. Obesity, 27(11), 1761-1768. doi:10.1002/oby.22639
- UCTelevision, & Lustig, R. H. (2017, Jan 6). The Case For and Against Food Addiction, with Robert Lustig. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABHKmInKSo4