You’ve probably seen the headlines. “Sugar lights up the same areas of the brain as drugs!” “Substance use disorders and food addiction show up similarly in the brain.” You’ve also probably heard your friend exclaim that a certain food is “totally addictive.” Maybe you’ve felt this way too. So what do we actually know about food addiction? What does the scientific evidence actually show us? And, if it’s not scientifically sound, why does it feel so real?
CW: Research cited contains fat-phobic language.
What does addiction mean?
First, it’s important to explore the word addiction. If we look at the dictionary, it is defined as “physically or mentally dependent on a particular substance.” In the clinical space, there is no agreed-upon definition of food addiction, and it is not a diagnosis in the most up-to-date diagnostic manual (DSM-5). There is a section of the DSM-5 titled “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders,” but this only includes gambling. In fact, “overeating” (per the clinical definition) was specifically left out of this section due to insufficient evidence.
The scale that most research uses to quantify food addiction (called the Yale Food Addiction Scale) is based on substance use disorder criteria. Criteria include the inability to stop eating despite “negative consequences,” feelings of loss of control, and persistent and intense cravings. Sound familiar? More on that later.
Further, research has yet to find a specific “addictive agent” in foods, so this scale relies mostly on individual behaviors. Think of it this way. When looking at drug addiction, the first question on a scale might be “Was an addictive substance used?” That question can’t be asked and answered when it comes to food. So, can we really make a food addiction diagnosis? Can we use one person’s individual experience to qualify on a mass scale? My line of rhetorical questioning could go on for pages, but this introduction is all to say that food addiction is (1) not a clinical diagnosis, (2) not defined, and (3) is based on highly debatable evidence.
Now that we’ve gotten the term out of the way, we can look a little closer at the specific studies that the media (ahem, diet culture) love to highlight. I’ll be focusing on some of the bigger, most blown-up points.
Some foods stimulate the same parts of the brain that are stimulated in response to drugs
This claim is based on the fact that eating certain foods releases dopamine – a feel-good hormone. This is not false! However, what these studies fail to mention are the countless other actions that also stimulate these areas of the brain and release dopamine. Examples? Laughing. Hugging. Listening to music. Diet culture loves to leave that part out.
The release of dopamine is also associated with our internal reward system – our motivations, desires, and cravings. Okay, sure, both food and drugs light up this same system. But here’s the thing: food and drugs are not the same entity. Diving into the chemical structures of certain drugs versus certain foods, neural pathways, and brain imaging would take up this entire blog, but for the sake of time, the conclusion is this: foods do not exert the same neurochemical response as drugs. Unlike truly addictive substances, animal studies show that if the food or sugar is paired with something bitter, it will be avoided. Also, eating one specific type of food over and over doesn’t increase your tolerance, or produce withdrawal symptoms when without it. Is seeking pleasure from food and experiencing feelings of reward the same as true addiction? The evidence points to no.
When given sugar, rats exhibited addictive, out of control behaviors
Behaviors noted were compulsive, binge-like eating episodes. As with the previous claim, this leaves out one major factor. Before the rats were fed sugar, they were deprived of it. If you’re having a “ding ding ding” moment going off in your head, I’m right there with you.
What happens when we restrict a certain food? We want it that much more. Restriction makes food both more attractive and more delicious, leading to that feeling of losing control. When the body becomes uncertain of the next time it will be fed, it fuels feelings of intense cravings and obsessive food thoughts. If this reaction didn’t happen, we wouldn’t exist! The response that happens after restriction is biological; this response evolved in order for us to survive. Hi, we need food to keep living life! It makes sense then that in response to restriction, our bodies go into overdrive to make sure we are fed.
No single study, animal or human, controls for restriction.
Some of this sounds a lot like binge eating disorder…
Because we live in a fatphobic society, when you dive into the food addiction research, you’ll find fatphobia there, too. Certain studies will claim that food addiction is associated with both “obesity” and Binge Eating Disorder (BED). However, when you look at the larger body of research, you’ll find that (1) many individuals that struggle with BED are not in larger bodies, and (2) that many individuals in larger bodies do not experience any of the proposed symptoms for food addiction. This brings us back to the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Some researchers wonder whether it might identify eating disorders, and not food addiction at all. Again we see the immense impact of restriction and deprivation as it relates to these so called food addiction behaviors.
I’ve heard a lot about highly palatable foods…
Highly palatable foods are often described as foods high in fat and sugar. Two things we need to survive, might I add. In fact, the Yale Food Addiction Scale names that food addiction behaviors are specifically related to these highly palatable foods. Given that diet culture has decided dietary fat is now okay, it has found a new villain in sugar, which is the focus of most research on food addiction.
This view is supported by the same animal studies I mentioned earlier, in which, let’s remember, the rats ate a sugar-restricted diet before being fed pure sugar. Despite this demonization of sugar, researchers have not been able to pinpoint any specific addictive component of sugar. And because humans typically don’t eat a spoonful of sugar in a silo, they also cannot pinpoint sugar as the culprit for an addiction-like response. Maybe you’ve experienced feeling out of control with sugar. Maybe sugar is also something you try to restrict from your diet. I wonder… if these studies were done on a nutrient that was typically not restricted in our culture, would research find any evidence of food addiction?
P.S. Animal research shows that when rats were not sugar-restricted, they did not produce any “addiction” response to sugar.
P.P.S. Foods that aren’t highly palatable can also be overconsumed or craved.
Your experience is valid
The narrative around food addiction is not only NOT supported by evidence, but it can be downright harmful. There are so many other factors at play when it comes to certain behaviors around food, including eating disorders and disordered eating. Let’s not let diet culture use food addiction as another fear-mongering, fat-phobic tactic to get us to cut food groups out of our diet.
The bottom line is that there is no evidence to suggest food addiction exists. But that does not invalidate how it FEELS. It is extremely common to feel out of control around certain foods. I’ve heard countless clients tell me they can’t keep -INSERT FOOD- in the house because they fear they won’t be able to stop eating it. This can absolutely feel like an addiction. And this is what happens when diet culture tells us specific foods are “bad” and that we should never eat them. We restrict, restrict, restrict, until our human biology takes over and says “I need this to keep us alive.” And that response is a good thing, to be honored, not to be ignored.