Is Food Addiction Real?

I’m sure we’ve all had days — perhaps more than we'd like to admit — where just one small piece of cake has turned into three large slices. Is food addiction a real problem or would it be more accurately described as an eating addiction — an unhealthy relationship to ALL foods?

Mnet 138572 Food Addicition Lead

A recent phone conversation with a buddy from my college days left me pondering throughout the night: Is food addiction an actual term?

My friend — let’s just call her Mary — was complaining to me about her tough day at work and how she couldn’t wait to get home and binge on some Doritos.

I’m sure we’ve all had days — perhaps more than we would like to admit — where just one small piece of cake has turned into three large slices.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to judge. I’m here to pose the question that begs to be asked: Why aren’t we scarfing down green beans in the same manner we are the Wheat Thins? I mean, let’s be honest, nobody is “eating their feelings” with broccoli and cauliflower.

Which brings me to the conclusion that not all food is problematic. It’s a certain class of foods — those high in sugar, salt and fat — that consumers seem to struggle with.

Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Michigan, recently compared the struggles of people with food addiction to alcoholics trying to keep their habit under control.

“Often, they will try to have their own rules like ‘I’m going to try to not drink until after 5,’ or ‘I’m going to try to drink water between each drink.’ But when they start drinking, the intensity of the alcohol makes it really hard; something similar might be happening with food.”

A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the effects of high-glycemic foods on brain activity by using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Men between the ages of 18 and 35 that were considered overweight or obese each consumed one high-glycemic and one low-glycemic meal. Researchers found:

“Compared with an isocaloric low-GI meal, a high-glycemic index meal decreased plasma glucose, increased hunger and selectively stimulated brain regions that are associated with reward and craving in the late postprandial period — which is a time with special significance to eating behavior at the next meal.”

The research helped to demonstrate what many may feel after eating a high-glycemic meal. The rapidly digesting carbohydrates spikes their blood sugar initially, but quickly is followed by a crash just a few hours later.

The fMRI confirmed that the crash in blood glucose that the men experienced had intensively activated a region in the brain involved in addictive behaviors.

But, is food addiction a real problem for certain people or would it be more accurately described as an eating addiction — an unhealthy relationship to ALL foods?

A recent survey might help to answer that question. In honor of National Coffee Day earlier this week, a poll was taken of consumers, asking what they would be willing to do in order to get their daily coffee fix.

The numbers revealed the following:

  • 56 percent said they would be willing to be late for work and risk getting scolded at by their boss in order to get their morning coffee.
  • 51 percent would rather be on jury duty for a week than go without coffee for a week.
  • 69 percent would rather give up alcoholic beverages than give up coffee.

Previous research has demonstrated that refined sugar is more addictive than cocaine, giving consumers pleasure by triggering an innate process in the brain via dopamine and opioid signals. The abnormally high stimulation of these receptors have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms, thus leading to addiction.

While food addiction research is still in its infancy, its appeal seems obvious to me. While the foods and drinks we seem to get addicted to are engineered hyper-palatable sugar-salt-fat bombs that override our feelings of fullness, many may be quick to blame the processed food industry. But I don’t think that is the case at all.

While having an addiction — to gambling, to drinking or to eating sugary foods — is very much a real issue, I don’t think blaming the industry is a fair call.

In today’s food markets, there is an extensive variety of food and food products. While some are processed, there are also more fresh options for the health-conscious consumer.

What do you think? Have you or someone you know struggled with a food addiction? Do you believe it’s all in the head or is there something really in certain foods that is leaving consumers with an undying addiction? Comment below or reach out to be in private at