Food Addiction?

Read time: 2.5 minutes

I’ve written about the addictive quality of food that works at the subcortical level of our brain, in the nucleus accumbens. Here’s where certain addictive food stimulates pleasure in much the same way drugs and sex do.

But the nucleus accumbens’s operational features don’t end with addiction and pleasure; they include laughter, fear, aggression, and the placebo effect. The accumbens, then, is thus more than a reward center. It’s a complex area stimulated by and responding to many events.

In the past I’ve mentioned David Kessler’s book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. In this book Mr. Kessler writes about the scientific method used by the food industry to understand and create food combinations that maximally stimulate the nucleus accumbens. Their goal: turn food consumers into food addicts. For profit.

It’s a well-written book and I believe most of it to be true — the science is supportive. I’ve also written about addictive food being mostly processed food — whose base ingredients are typically cheap commodity grains, mostly in the form of flours (even “whole”). These flours are the empty canvas on which aggressive flavors like salt, fat and sugar can be splashed. The result is a “hyper-flavored” food product that stimulates the nucleus accumbens.

People familiar with this food-addiction concept generally make the effort to avoid certain food. Their effort makes sense, just as anyone who wants to kick cigarette addiction would avoid smoking them.

The problem food and cigarettes have different degrees of effect in humans. So the comparison between addictive food and cigarettes (or hard drugs) may not be valid in human.

Addiction is Multifactorial

Even if food and drugs exert the same addictive qualities, this field of study has brought into light the fact that addiction goes beyond the chemical itself, extending to other factors equally (and sometimes more) important in creating the addiction.

Such factors include environment, marketing, peers, emotion, thought patterns, beliefs, cultural meme, and perception of self-worth. These factors strongly affect our eating behavior and addiction… food composition being just a brick in the wall.

Many dietary idealists seem to place too much stock into the food-addiction concept without considering all of the contributory factors. (I was equally guilty, even as recent as during the birth of this blog, but my position has changed since. I no longer fear food that’s flavorful… or as I used to call “hyperflavored.”)

The Insular Perspective

The tendency to major in the minutia often leaves us with an insular perspective, causing us to see food with dogmatic eyes. We need a worldly view of food intake.

Consider for a moment cultures that live long, robust lives. These people not only put more years into their life, but also more life into their years. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.

In his book The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner interviews and observes centenarians from around the world. I was surprised (as you might be also) that centenarians regularly enjoy food outside of the “Paleo” diet, many consuming even candies and food believed to stimulate the nucleus accumbens and therefore considered addictive.

Yet, these populations exhibit no obesity, overweight, or accelerated degenerative diseases. Although their dietary composition varies significantly from one another, all have a common dietary thread:  They don’t overeat.

How can this be, if they’re consuming candy and grain- and flour-based food, otherwise considered by us as addictive food? The answer may lie in the absence of other contributory factors, as well as the presence of other elements.

Are We Blaming the Wrong Things?

So while North Americans run around and blame pasta, breads and sweets for our physical problems, traditional cultures on the other side of the world enjoy many of these things as a small part of their everyday diet.

Ultimately, I’m not saying abstinence from certain food is a bad thing. But the reason for abstinence would serve us better if it’s valid. Rather than blaming food, it’s time we assess our own eating behavior and the environment that causes it.

Intermittent fasting, it helps us assess our eating behavior.

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27 Responses to Food Addiction?

  1. Jake says:

    There is a drug company who has a antidote for heroin called Narcan. It brings people back from heroin overdose immediately because it blocks heroin from acting on opioid receptors in the brain. They have applied to the FDA for approval as a weight loss drug.

    As it does for heroin, Narcan blocks the opiates in grains from affecting the brain. Tests so far show it works in reducing people’s hunger for grain based carbs. By stopping their grain addiction, people are losing weight on the drug.

    • Johnny says:

      Just as there are people who rely on a pill for better health rather than becoming more active, there are people who rely on a pill for weight loss rather than eating more responsibly. Side effect not not considered.

      Best,
      Johnnh

  2. ChristA says:

    Great post. I have to agree with the last statement. Since starting IF I have been able to assess my eating behaviours much easier and importantly much more honestly.

  3. Audley says:

    Several years ago when my blood sugars were out of control, I went cold turkey low carb, no sugars, grains or even fruit. I felt like crap for a few weeks, de-toxing from sugar. I went through carb withdrawal. My diet, starting as a child, was sugars and breads and stayed that way until my 30’s, cutting back on pure sugar treats(loved that ice cream), but still tons of pasta and bread. I was already exercising, in fact my doctor told me working out staved off the diabetes by as much as 10 years.

    I believe foods can be addicting to those genetically predesposed. My mother’s side of the family is loaded with type 2 diabetics, I believe that was a factor to my carb addiction. Take alcohol, I can have a glass of wine or 2 and stop. Some alcoholics that I know say it runs in the family, they cannot drink because once they start, they can’t stop. They also believe it’s genetics.

    Since I have been on the IF bandwagon, I have endulged in the “forbidden” foods here and there. I can now eat small amounts of some of those foods, enjoy them, then stop. Ice cream and high sugar desserts are still off the list, (yes I tried some, didn’t go well), but the occasional slice of pizza is not. If I start eating them in the quantities I had in the past, it would be right back to 7 years ago…sick and addicted.

  4. Johnny says:

    I really like this post. I too have been caught up in avoiding this or only eating that. However, I am starting to believe that the real key is staying lean. My grandfather and my father were both lean. They both ate various foods from meats, fats to breads and sweets on occasion. However, they avoided overeating. I am sure they had their feasts from time to time, but it must have been rare. On top of that, both of them smoked cigarettes their entire lives. My dad lived a quality life into his 80’s and my grandfather lived till his mid 90’s. I believe it’s mainly due to staying lean.

  5. Sue says:

    Having just finished Gary Taubes “Why We Get Fat: and what to do about it”, I think that for some people food addiction could be a response to cellular starvation, even if they are overweight. I am a strong believer in the power of intermittent fasting helping one control ones attitudes around food and hunger, and I also think that for some, carbohydrates even in small amounts can be problematic. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ thing.

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Sue,

      I also read it, and also read his other book Good Calories, Bad Calories — twice. I’m not sure I buy into his hypothesis completely. In the end, I do agree with his assertion that it is the *highly* processed carbs we must watch for. Anyway, I think that anyone who ever reads his material should also judge it against counter perspectives. I’ll leave this to you:

      http://weightology.net/?p=265

      Respectfully,
      Johnny

      • Stephen says:

        Taubes is what you get when you mix cherry-picking with fantasy and financial interests. Not even one of his claims is backed up by science.

      • Johnny says:

        Agreed, Stephen. I read Taubes’ book GCBC twice, and then started reading some intelligent criticisms that revealed the way he used (and omitted) research to formulate and support his premise. Now the book reads like a Michael Crichton novel.

        Best,
        Johnny

  6. JMS says:

    Don’t you think it’s worth noting a difference between pizza, baked goods, and traditional “junk food” vs the chemically doctored stuff that requires lab equipment to produce it? I’ve read David Kessler’s book and found it incredibly helpful in explaining my behaviors around the most processed types of food.

    Is a freshly-baked French baguette really equivalent to a bag of Doritoes? Can we say that homemade french fries are quite as addictive as the ones we buy at a fast food joint? There is processed and then there is processed. It seems that the “addictive” properties of food correlate to the extent to which it has been processed. Sure, we can all overeat homemade treats, but I’d wager it’s easier to limit the consumption of these compared to the “bet you can’t eat just one” packaged products.

    It’s not a coincidence rates of obesity are rising in countries where rates of affluence (and access to fast food) is also escalating. The deadliest combination seems to stem from placing an great value on workaholism and cheap calories. The only countries not falling prey to the obesity epidemic seem to be located in Europe, where fast food is available but the strength of their food culture and respect for work/life balance trumps the patterns we see elsewhere.

    • Johnny says:

      Good reply JMS. Yes, there is a whole different aspect to eating behavior. And no doubt, highly processed and flavored food stimulates the reward center far greater than less processed foods. I’m not saying that this process does not exist, but I’m saying that there are other factors involved and that we can’t afford to blame it on “food” or “food corporation,” because — guess what — even with changes in legislations, the heavy lobbying behind the food industry means that nothing will change anytime soon, and that bag of Doritos will always be in your face at the checkout counter.

      We need to look within and at our own behavior, than to continue to blame the bag of chips.

      Best,
      Johnny

  7. Jordan D. says:

    “Addiction” is such a loaded term, and not everybody’s going to agree to which term to use. But there’s definitely something to it. Anyone who’s struggled with controlling what they put in their mouth knows this. It’s hard to control, it really is. And if we look at the physiological problems that result from abusing a substance, food can be just as damaging as anything else, although it may take a little while longer.

    Even if food isn’t as “addictive” as some other substances, it is a special problem, truly distinct from other forms of substance abuse/ self-destructive behaviors. Unlike tobacco, alcohol, narcotics, and behaviors like gambling, we have to eat. There’s no cold turkey or substitution for food. It’s always there. There’s no getting around it. Every single one of us has a permanent, lifelong relationship with food. It’s something that we have to deal with every single day of our lives.

  8. Johnny says:

    Keep in mind, readers, that this post is not really about the addictive qualities of food, because there’s no argue that different foods have varying levels of addiction for different people. Instead, this is a post that draws attention to the need for us to reflect on our own eating behavior, rather than blaming food.

    Best,
    Johnny

  9. lolo says:

    “centenarians regularly enjoy food outside of the “Paleo” diet, many consuming even candies and food believed to stimulate the nucleus accumbens and therefore considered addictive”

    most centenarians had fathers/ grandfathers that didnt eat shit ( and the shit they had was way healthier, less processed) . So of course that guys are fine. epigenetics. next gen pays the price.

    • Dean says:

      Hey Lolo, you’re just regurgitating something you’ve read somewhere else and referencing studies on worm and mice. You’re saying things way outside of your intellectual league.

    • Johnny says:

      Hi lolo,

      Dean is correct. You have a habit of drawing incorrect inference from what you read, of making poor assumptions, and of extrapolating data from studies. (And, your fundamental flaw is that you believe there’s only one diet.)

      The studies of epigenetics in rats are based on the controlled feeding of MOSTLY “junk” food. No one on this blog is saying that humans in the world can or should eat this way. No reader here is that dumb.

      You seem to fail at understanding the messages I’ve made clearly for over a year.

      Johnny

  10. lolo says:

    Dean, slow day? im sorry but that dsnt mean we all have that problem, this is not my native language, btw ( how many do you speak?) even then i think Johnnys point isnt 100% correct( bias maybe) so you have to take responsibility for your actions? good, agreeable, but some times you are just fked from the get go. example. i know a few large people as in grossly obese people. their NEW BORN babies?.. guess what also OBESE. i think i understand the concept.

    • Johnny says:

      Once again, lolo, you’re making bad assumptions. Your native language has nothing to do with your logic.

      This has nothing to do with whether I’m 100% correct or not, but it has everything to do with the freedom to chose a diet mostly of whole, real food while having the flexibility to enjoy and experience that offered by modern culture, traditional celebrations, and even personal satisfaction, while still becoming and staying healthy and lean.

      This blog is written for people who chose to liberate themselves from the prison of food fear and strengthen themselves with a deeper understanding of the food they eat, how it affect their bodies — whether that means they chose 100% or partial Paleo — and ultimately personal control.

      This blog is NOT written for diet militants like yourself. You know where the door is.

      Johnny

  11. JMS says:

    Hey there Melissa,
    I just wanted to mention that I can certainly relate to your experience with the addictive nature of eating and food. Interestingly, I was also terrified of feeling hungry, as though it would result in my immanent demise (and the “6 meals a day” mythology at the time didn’t help at all).

    Have you tried IF to any extent, even just pushing your normal eating times around by an hour or three?

    Over the last 4 years I’ve taken off 75 lbs, and I guess I sacrificed the glamor of quick weight loss in favor of learning how to keep it off and completely change my relationship to food and my idea of what eating should mean. Right now I’m taking off the proverbial “last 10 lbs”, and IF has been a key tool for me. I still have my food issues, but I’m proud to say I can keep formerly “forbidden” foods in my house and not feel compelled to eat them all at once.

    Anyhow, what I really want to say is that IF was probably one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever tried, and I think I’d recommend it to anyone with a preoccupation or addiction orientation toward food and eating. To realize you are not at the mercy of your perceived “hunger” is mind blowing, especially after years of constant snacking and overeating.

    Even if you don’t use IF in a regimented manner (aka fasting for at least 24 hours), it’s an amazing tool to use as a means to understand your hunger queues and what your body is capable of.

    By the way Johnny, I think this blog rocks right out. Finally – someone who has actually lost the weight and come around to live “normally” aka enjoy life without timed meals and Tupperware or frantic visits to the gym. Really cool. Keep it up.

  12. Audley says:

    I can understand what Melissa is going through. When I went through the change in diet and carb withdrawal, I thought of food ALWAYS. Always felt hungry. Drove myself nuts. It took months to start feeling better and telling myself how much better I feel without the foods that were killing me. Now, as mentioned earlier, I no longer obsess over food and can miss meals, better yet, have that slice of pizza once in a while and not feel guilty. I am now totally responsible for my food choices.
    Two things that changed my life: HIT training (no more obsessing over exercise and spending hours in the gym) and IF. More time for other things in life.

  13. Marc says:

    Johnny, that is a great post.
    My 2 cents for people that are struggeling a bit with their relationship to food and either wanting to loose weight or eat “healthier”.

    Part of the solution to the eating less equation (as Johnny has writtten again and again and again as the only true and tried “method” for loosing weight and being healthier) is lodged in ones upbringing/youth. You have to spend a little time re-connecting with what food meant to you in the formative years. As an example I will use myself. Between the ages of 10 and 15, i spent many friday and saturday nights watching movies with my parents. The ritual was a full “dessert spread” after dinner in front of the tv while engrossed in the movie. I’m talking cakes, chocolate, candy cookies, ice cream you name it and we had it. These are wonderful wonderful memories for me…it was quality family time. BUT….it also associated loving, cozy, comfy, pleasant, family time with serious indulgences of sweets, so they became one and the same.

    I’m sharing that with you, because I want you to figure out what “triggers” you to make the choices you end up regretting.
    Once you DO…you will have a much easier time sticking to your game plan. And once you are not so emotionally connected to food…you will be happy to see that “eating less” is really not complicated at all.

    Marc

  14. Johnny says:

    JMS, Audley, and Marc — thanks for your comments, as always. Great contribution.

    (Also, check out Marc’s link to his blog, Feel Good Eating, when you get a chance. Great meals, great site.)

    best,
    Johnny

  15. PHILLIP REDDEN says:

    All concerned,
    I too have issues controlling myself during the eating window. Dessert is my weakness and the sugar that goes with it. I realize that I would get ripped like Johnny if I just said no to crap food.
    I am a member of the US Navy and we are required to get some blood work done every year. I am pleased to report that Intermittent Fasting has greatly improved my Lipid and blood glucose from past years. I say IF because I have been eating too many sweets lately for my glucose to be at 91 compared to 101 from previous years WITH MORE sugar intake. I have been skipping breakfast for a year now and I was surprised at my numbers mainly because i had eaten a lot of pizza the day before the bloodwork was done. Triglycerides (72) was what I expected to be affected along with the glucose due to the high carb intake . I am posting this, to not encourage ABUSE of this terrific tool, but to post some real current numbers against numbers from 2002 when I was running 3-5 miles a day and had triglycerides in the 130 range.
    I could only imagine what it would be if I was eating a more Paleo/Cleaner diet and did a workout routine similar to Johnny. I believe that IF was a deciding factor in the better numbers because of the holiday season and my overeating sugar laden desserts. I WILL get my sugar addiction under control and believe that my transgressions have actually, at least for me, proven that it is healthier to skip breakfast on a regular basis.

    Phil

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  17. Lori says:

    Great blog Johnny,

    Hey Melissa, I totally relate with your ‘why do I eat desert when I’m not hungry’ plight. In my 20’s I was very lean, but also, very bulimic. I could not refrain from anything sweet and it was very unacceptable in my lean, athletic family to have extra weight, so I found a solution.

    Now at 42, with those days of total disfunction behind me, I’m still lean AND I still have that ‘I want desert and I want it now’ thought after dinner (and many times throughout the day), but I refrain.

    So, I might be one of those lean people who says no to desert … addressing your comment … “The lean people that I know will skip dessert if they feel full from dinner. It doesn’t appear to be a test of wills; in the same way that overweight people will rationalize.” … but I can tell you … it is always a test of wills.

    But in the end, I have to make a choice. Do I want to be healthy and happy and empowered or do I want to be used by food and miserable? I think it really is a fallacy that some lean people can just give or take food. Often it’s just as much of a battle to say no. And it’s sometimes hard to get out for that run or walk or hike, but nothing comes for free. If we want health, we have to choose health. 🙂

    Good luck! We can all do it. As humans, we’re mostly all the same in our struggle towards health. We might not look the same on the outside, but I think our frailties, insecurities and such are all pretty universal. Lean and large alike.

    Love yourself.

  18. Lori says:

    Hey Melissa,

    I left a reply as a new post by accident. See below.

    Cheers,
    Lori

  19. mary-jo overwater says:

    This was a fantastic post. I completely concur with the importance of exercising good old-fashioned discipline and self-control re: overeat or not, regardless of whatever dietary intake or schedule one is on. Having said that — I also think it is so important for people to eat fresh, seasonal, indigenous, unprocessed foods as much as possible and to partake of convenience foods (processed, fast, pre-packaged) and treats (candy, ice cream, desserts) occasionally, as intended, instead of habitually. The shift in our eating HABITS from the former class of foods (fresh, etc.) to the latter (fast-, processed-, etc) has occurred in the last 40 years with increased automobilization, TV and computer usage, and eating out at restaurants. People have less time to cook and EAT properly, often eating WHILE watching TV, on the computer, catching up on reading, and even while TRAVELLING (in their cars — gasp!). It’s no wonder the kcalories pour in, almost unnoticed and effortlessly. And food companies and other companies, governments, environmental agencies, etc. only produce and deliver what people demand — fast, tasty, convenient, and ALOT of food, more highways, more games and other media drivel to keep us on the couch. The ‘win-win’ environment (competitive supply of ‘health’ — be it foods, cycling lanes and walking paths, safer parks and recreational opportunities for our youth, etc. — to meet the high demands for ‘health’)will occur when people start to exert control again over their mindless eating and spend more time choosing fresh and cooking and eating properly, and engaging more in active lifestyles. Believe me, food companies definitely will respond so as to help keep up profit margins. It might take yet another generation for the ‘win-win’ to occur, but it HAS to start NOW and it has to start with individuals making healthier decisions, even if they have to push themselves to do so. If not, then we will most certainly see obesity approach 75% or more in the next few years. ‘Experts’ also need to minister more to REALISTIC, achievable, and sustainable goals for our clients and not to EXTREME regimes that may work, in the short run (most diets and work-out schedules ‘work’ to effect in weight loss and even in achieving improved fitness), but which may be totally alien to the food preferences and ACCESS to foods, activities, and time people have. IMO, it’s about TWEAKING peoples’ lifestyle habits toward health and making health absolutely ‘do-able’ and desireable and making people CLEARLY understand that it takes self-control and discipline, on their part, often on a DAILY basis. In the 30+ years I have been counselling people, I can say, with certainty, that those people who are lean, fit, and ‘self-regulators’ work at it. I think I have met just a handful of people over the thousands, who have said to me — “I eat whatever I want and I never work out”. And EVEN THEN, when I’ve analyzed their diets and physical activity levels, I have found that ‘whatever’ and ‘never’ actually translate to quite reasonably ‘healthy’ for both intake and output.

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