Food Addiction

Intriguing study findings begin to explain how and why it's so hard to be good.

By Jack Challem

Food Addiction ChocolateThere's nothing quite like the satisfaction of biting into a freshly-baked cookie, a chocolate truffle, your favorite kind of ice cream — whatever confection you find most heavenly. Perhaps you get the same kind of "high" from a slice of cheesy pizza with a perfect, chewy crust. Unfortunately, cravings for these foods, and our inability to have just a bite and then stop, can sabotage the best efforts to lose weight and control blood sugar. You may hear someone jokingly say, "I can't help it. I am totally addicted to Reese's Peanut Butter Cups." What if it's not a joke? Could food addiction be real?

"Hi, my name is Susie and I'm a sugar-holic."
The "high" from eating certain foods can lead to compulsive overeating comparable to alcohol binges. When does a strong desire to eat something cross the line from a simple craving to a food addiction? It could be when that desire is so overwhelming there no longer seems to be a choice (i.e., to eat or not eat). Other signs: using food to "feel better" and regularly eating when you're not hungry.

Simon Thornley, Ph.D., a researcher at the Auckland Regional Public Health Service in New Zealand, recently made the argument that high-glycemic foods (sugary treats, white bread, potatoes) tend to be more addictive than low-glycemic foods (protein foods, legumes, some whole grains, green vegetables). On the other hand, you don't often hear people having overpowering cravings for salmon or Cobb salads.

Writing in the November 2008 issue of Medical Hypotheses, Thornley made striking comparisons between food addiction and tobacco addiction. Both are often characterized by the following:

1. consuming increasing amounts over time,
2. difficulty cutting back,
3. loss of control, and
4. withdrawal symptoms.

Thornley cites research showing that both addictive drugs and foods can affect neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that regulate mood. Chief among these neurotransmitters is dopamine, which can create the "high" feeling associated with drug use, sex, and even shopping.

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Last Modified Date: June 27, 2013

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