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One of the most common initial reactions to the concept/phrase of ‘food addiction’ is rejecting it as a made-up concept. This is somewhat understandable given the number of new disorders that have come about in recent history.  Having an addictive reaction to food can seem difficult to believe compared to things like alcohol, smoking, heroin, cocaine, etc.

But as we gather more data, especially focused on neural reactions, we’re finding food to have similar responses to abused substances.

As Michael Moss showed us in his amazing February 2013 NY Times article, the makers of food have gotten smarter over time about making food more addictive, and they know it.  Of course, it’s not just snack food, but fast food and others as well. For the most part, there are 3 things they can leverage in food to make it more addictive: sugar, salt, and fat. While it’s hard to get a complete picture in a 5 minute video, there’s a decent quick overview in this ABC News video from September 2011.

Make no mistake: modern processed food is very much an engineered product.

Saltsugar and fat are the three pillars of the processed food industry,” Michael Moss said. “And while the industry hates the world ‘addiction’ more than any other word, the fact of the matter is, their research has shown them that when they hit the very perfect amounts of each of those ingredients … they will have us buy more, eat more.”

And this starts showing us exactly why food addiction is such a recent phenomenon.  The addictive nature of food is something that’s only been really maximized and engineered in recent history.  People that would have been food addicts 50 years ago weren’t exposed to the kinds of foods we get exposed to now, so they didn’t suffer from the addictions we do now.

Just like with alcoholism, smoking, or other substance abuse addictions, the neural reactions to these engineered “hyperpalatable” foods varies from person to person.  Some people will have no addictive reaction at all, some (like Tennie in the above picture) will have an extreme reaction.

Several studies by professors of psychology at the University of Washington, Princeton University, the University of Los Andes (Merida, Venezuela), the Yale University School of Medicine and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have shown that the excess intake of sugar can produce what is called endogenous opioid dependency. This means that the brain of a food addict is creating its own opium-like drug. He or she then experiences the same effects as if they had ingested any other opium-like substance. [ link ]

What’s interesting is that research is even pointing to a cause:

In addition to the phenomenon of opium-like chemicals being created inside the brains of addicts, there is a body of research pointing to what is called a malfunction of serotonin production

Serotonin synapses in the brain signal the alleviation of physical and emotional pain, and someone without enough serotonin can be quite anxious or depressed. The highs become too high and the lows become too low. When refined carbohydrates (sugar, flour, alcohol) are ingested, serotonin is manufactured and released  [ link ]

Just like with alcohol and many drugs, there is a withdrawal that can happen from sugar, too.

When the sugar-sensitive person tries to stop using the sugar that evokes this wonderful beta-endorphin response, the receptors start screaming. This is called withdrawal. The person experiencing withdrawal may feel cranky, irritable, and out of sorts but never knows it was last night’s sugar binge creating the horrible feelings. Cravings loom large as the beta-endorphin receptors scream and relief is as close as a can of soda or a doughnut. The physical dependence on sugar to relieve the discomfort of withdrawal reinforces the need to use more and more. The addiction grows into a real problem. [ The Sugar Addict’s Total Recovery Program ]

We already know that different substances create different levels of dependence among users.  The foods that have been engineered to increase their addictive qualities are just trying to increase the level of dependence their users have.  This has the unfortunate side effects of having food be more addictive for increasing percentages of the population and the resulting complications.

It has been shown, for example, that obesity rates in countries such as France and the United Kingdom have been rising in parallel with increases in the availability of highly processed foods and fast-food chains.

Further reading: