20 min read

Food Addiction: Should You Worry?

Food Addiction: Should You Worry?

Warning Note

This is a very serious, very sensitive subject and many people take a hard absolute stance on either side of it. I might get trolled here, or offend some people but I’m curious about the discussion.

I don’t completely disagree with a food addiction existence in the form of a psychological addiction, but I don’t believe we should fear monger people into believing sugar is as bad as cocaine either.  

I have yet to see any really convincing evidence that food in a broad sense is a physically addictive substance, but rather ‘engineered’ food might at the very least encourage people to eat way more of it than they should.

Every now and then I get trolled by somebody on the interwebz, and while my girlfriend certainly notices that my mood changes when it happens, I’m certainly not completely averse to engaging in it.

Despite the fact that it kind of stresses me out a little…

The smart thing to do would be to delete comments, downvote them or ignore them but sometimes I feel like engaging in a discussion will often validate whatever I previously wrote.

I don’t engage to convince the person who wants to debate me on the topic that I’m right and they are wrong (I appreciate the gap between our two points of view, something I wish more people would do), but rather help anyone that might stumble across the discussion gather a more informed opinion of both sides of a potential problem.

Hopefully that person, coming in with a fairly neutral stance finds something insightful sparked by the debate.

Of course I hope that reader’s interpretation leans to my point of view but if they find anything useful from the discussion at all, that’s still great.

Plus it gets me to do a little more research, and think a little further…

What I hate is that sometimes it’s like talking to a brick wall, other times we probably are agreeing on more than we disagree on.

When people stop making valid points, start attacking your character and making it personal, it’s usually time to stop engaging them in the discussion.

I certainly don’t engage in the practice because I expect to change the other person’s mind anymore.

That has never happened.

Possibly in the history of the internet…

Once people take a stand on one side of an issue they are more likely to push harder at every valid point you make.

That includes going wherever they can to discredit you, including personal attacks.

I’ve even had one person tell me that because I’ve answered more questions on Quora than I’ve asked that I must clearly be stupid…ouch!!

However, I often find myself having discussions with people who just have no understanding of research, are relying on other ‘experts’ who have taken the hard stance and probably shouldn’t even be making an argument.

They often fail to even read the research they do quote, but rather run off gut instinct or personal experience — and I always experience a little bit of schadenfreude when I do read research they quote and discover they’ve completely missed the point of the research…

It seems people read a book like Salt Sugar Fat and freak right out, hopefully this post puts some context back in people’s lives.

This is an article based off being trolled, so enough about trolling and on with the discussion.


Cake and Icecream
CC Uglix Flickr

I’m not an addiction expert, it’s actually a very complex subject and mechanism that we shouldn’t make light of. Before a legitimate argument can actually be created about the existence yay or nay of food addiction it helps to create a starting point.

If you go by Wikipedia, addiction is almost literally ANYTHING that leads to any compulsive engagement in naturally rewarding behavior or compulsive drug use, despite adverse consequences.

You can, by this definition become addicted to computers, video games, exercise, sex, praise from others, nearly anything that triggers some kind of dopamine (feel-good-hormone) reward mechanism.

That’s pretty loose…

Of course, by this definition, food addiction is certainly a thing, but so could possible addiction to nearly anything pleasurable.

Food addiction does indeed seem to be possible in the sense that it definitely triggers a dopamine response in the brain.

Certain types of foods, specifically salt, sugar, or fat, but particularly combinations of those foods in high quantity. Activate your pleasurable reward mechanisms to a much higher degree than say a steak or eggs.

I really like the way David Katz (obesity researcher) has put it, “Of Course Food Is Addictive, Why is Anything Else?

Others argue that food addiction is the sole factor in our obesity rates…it’s a nice thought (probably one of many influences on the multi-centric obesity problem) but there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to support that idea as the sole cause.

You can certainly develop cravings. Overeat specific types of foods, and potentially develop a binge eating disorder. If the frequency and dosage of eating that food is high enough.

That risk might be enhanced if you have a certain genetic predisposition to addiction too.

It’s the same mechanism that can make people addicted to playing a certain video game if the frequency and duration of play is high enough.

What we don’t really know in this regard is at what dosage and frequency of a type of food would result in a possible addiction.

I’d put most of the blame on heavily engineered foods like chips, crackers, candy bars, etc… most people know the types of foods I’m talking about.

However, clearly a dark chocolate bar with a little sugar shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as a snickers bar.

That makes it incredibly difficult for the scientific community to really have consensus on this topic.

Where do you draw the line between a video game addiction and an addiction to nicotine?

Where Do You Draw The Line?

I can’t help but wonder if people who are addicted to video games feel a little like this:

That’s not to make light of this situation, but hopefully just a bit of a smile on what is a rather gloomy topic.

I think it might represent how people with a serious Binge Eating Disorder might feel about people who casually claim to be addicted to their breakfast cereal.

Video game (or food) addiction can certainly be very intense and real sensations felt by certain people, I could never dispute that.

But do you run a really strong risk by playing a video game here or there?

And am I a bad person for giving people permission to indulge in a piece of pizza or some dark chocolate every now and then?

How can we possibly compare that recommendation to an addicted smoker thinking they can have a cigarette every now and then..?..??.

Should we establish a difference between psychological addiction and a physiological addiction?

I’m having a difficult time finding literature (outside of some brain imaging studies on rats) that give a clear indication that food (even sugar) is physically addictive.

However, psychological addiction is certainly a thing and certainly what Dave Chappelle’s character in Half Baked (the clip above) feels.

Your brain can literally convince you that are addicted to something and create the physical signals of need.

So if you take it that step further it seems like food addiction is more likely a psychological addiction and should not be half-heartedly placed in exactly the same realm as cigarettes, cocaine or alcohol.

The Genetic Composition of Addiction

Genes are always a tricky subject to discuss, because most people don’t fully understand them.

Instead they view genes as an absolute death sentence.

Unfortunately for us, our genes don’t tell the whole story all the time. Just because you have a particular gene or lack thereof, does not actually guarantee anything.

That traditional attitude towards genes discounts the obvious importance of gene expression, effort, environment and behavior in the context of genes.

However, it’s still incredibly likely that addictive behavior could be linked to a genetic expression.

Specifically when we’ve identified a gene overexpression variant that is very heavily linked to that sort of loose addictive behavior.

That’s not to say you are guaranteed to have an addictive personality if you have the potential for this gene variant. As that ignores the importance of the gene overexpression.

Actually over-indulging in behaviors that stimulate the dopamine reward centre, like doing addictive drugs, excessive gambling, or excessive consumption of sugar are factors linked heavily with that expression in the first place.

If you’ve struggled with addiction somewhere else in your life, then you’re far more likely to express addictive behavior towards other things like food.

The moral there?

Avoid addictive drugs and excessive rewarding behaviors like gambling, sex, or sugar and you’re less likely to display addictive behavior in the first place, even if you have the potential for this gene overexpression. 

ESPECIALLY in early life.

And maybe that is part of the modern prevalence problem as more and more children are getting exposed to large quantities of processed sugars and fats at a young age.

This could be leading to a greater than usual overexpression and a greater likelihood of addictive food behavior.

If we helped create a more appropriate environment, it’s more likely this gene will never be expressed and no addictive behavior occurs.

Or at least we reduce addictive behaviors…

So perhaps prevention is the best overall strategy with regards to a potential food addiction?

The Big Bad Corporations

If you eat the odd cinnamon bun, piece of cake or indulge in a big mac from from the big yellow arch, will you become addicted to that food?

That’s the important question I think, because many people are quick to blame the food companies. For using a combination of ingredients that makes food more addictive in the sense that you can A) eat more of it and B) want more of it.

“Dwight Riskey, an expert on cravings who had been a fellow at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, where he was part of a team of scientists that found that people could beat their salt habits simply by refraining from salty foods long enough for their taste buds to return to a normal level of sensitivity.”

~ The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food (NY Times)

Yes shame on them, but speaking from personal experience, you can change your taste buds if you’re so inclined. I eat very little processed food because I don’t crave it, but I have in the past.

I share the traditional view that most big food companies are taking advantage of science to make us eat more of what we don’t need, I see no way around that.

I’m sure ideally they’d prefer for us to just buy a lot more stuff in general. That’s just good business practice, to sell more of what you sell. It’s a difficult business ethics problem to be sure.

However, I’m sure they’d also be happy to sell us more of things with little to no caloric impact. If people actually wanted that and it were possible to come up with tasty calorie free popcorn or candy bars.

It is not good business to kill your customers off young via obesity.

As a person who owns their own business, I can understand the trap of giving people what they want instead of what they need.

OK so I’m not some big bad conglomerate, and I prefer to give everyone more of what they need than what they want, but sometimes that’s a fine line.

I have to provide something people are willing to pay for and not only what I think people need.

There are economic questions at play that most of us fail to address. How does a company increase revenue and profit margins in the food industry if everyone has a pretty ‘fixed’ need for energy?

That’s a difficult question to answer.

To a certain degree the market determines what food producers make, and a lot of people want food that is quick, convenient, and tastes good. Generally more than they want healthful foods.

Is a society hell bent on convenience, and short on time to blame?

I’m not entirely sure, but it’s certainly an influencer on corporate behavior.

There are a ton of fitness products on the market doing the same thing.

Literally the folks over at Beachbody launched their new T-25 DVD fitness plan after beta testing what people wanted, not consulting research about what they needed.

End industry rant…

The Dosage Component of Addiction

Part of what is further difficult to define as food addiction is that salt, sugar and fat are supposedly addictive in that they trigger a dopamine reward response. But like any other addictive substances, it’s not guaranteed to cause addiction without the appropriate dose.

None of them seem to follow quite the same addiction pathways as physically addictive substances like opiates. In humans.

There is also an indication that a reduction in their consumption, lowers the average person’s sensitivity to overconsumption. In a very different way from other more physically addictive substances.

A big reason addiction is such a potent issue, is that it kills or sends people to the hospital who come off, and then relapse to their previous dosage. After having built up a tolerance.

That doesn’t happen with food. You don’t overdose on food. You don’t build up a tolerance to it.

There is a natural survival reward component to food not present in other forms of addiction.

Meaning sugar, salt and fat seeking, is a biological survival mechanism.

Evidence suggests that although there is a genetic component to addiction. In the case of food, it’s highly likely that it is a learned behavior rather than genetically encoded at birth. It’s psychological, rather than physiological.

This should make most of us hopeful that improving our food environment will help.

How small a dose is ideal? We don’t really know…

Is honey OK as a sugar? Sugar alcohols? What about sugar heavy fruits like dates? Or is it just foods with sugar added like cola and cake that are problematic addictive foods?

Is coconut oil OK as a fat? What about red palm oil? Or is it just hydrogenated fats from deep fried foods at fast food joints and many pre-packaged frozen foods?

What foods specifically lead to food addiction? No one really seems to know, it’s just a broad generalized term ‘hyperpalatable foods.’

That’s a big part of why it’s really hard to say it’s a thing or it isn’t.

It’s probably the foods that are unique to each case.

How Much is Too Much?

Based on current evidence, it appears that less than 10% of total energy intake should come from foods high in simple sugars and processed fats. Most people should aim to keep salt intake under an upper limit of about 2300 mg a day on average.

And when I say that, I don’t mean that 10% of your diet can be pure sugar and pure processed fat. It’s including anything else that happens to be in those foods.

Pizza or a chocolate sundae from McDonald’s are probably much more ‘addictive’ in nature than a pizza you made yourself at home and a 82% dark chocolate bar from a grocery store.

Context really matters.

It seems unlikely that people become addicted to foods that aren’t over-engineered to be highly rewarding.

Keeping the bulk of your food consumed to things like fruit, meat, nuts, grains, or veggies. Pretty much anything you’ve made yourself is the best course of action.

Focusing on higher quality ‘snacks’ is obviously important but having a little bit of a hyper palatable food every now and then doesn’t generally seem to be a major concern for anyone who doesn’t have a previous addiction.

I would highly encourage everyone to make those 10% of the highest overall quality they can muster.

Make the pizza yourself instead of ordering out, or order from a place that uses real ingredients as opposed to most commercial pizzerias or that frozen pizza-like food you might be tempted to eat.

Bake goods yourself, or buy small quantities from reputable local bakers.

If it’s too convenient it’s probably a risky food on the spectrum.

Good bread should only have a few ingredients in it, choose ones that keep to the yeast, salt, flour, water, egg.

Good chocolate, same thing, should have cocoa mass, vanilla bean, and a little sugar, avoid options made by big food conglomerates with tons of preservatives or additives when you can.

Though this certainly might not apply to someone who is already addicted to a particular food or has a history of addiction (the only course of action there is abstinence).


I’ve never enjoyed the perception of certain people being ‘moderators’ and other people being ‘abstainers’ but maybe the genetic component and environmental experience above sheds a little light on that concept.

The reason I don’t like it, is because it implies that certain people don’t have much control over their own behavior, when they probably do.

That being said, if you are actually addicted to something, abstinence is really the only option.

If you do have a food addiction, you should completely avoid the food you’re likely to eat in excess.

The hard part is how do you completely abstain from food?

The mechanisms of food addiction here are highly specific to each person, in the sense that it tends to be a few problematic foods that need to be abstained from.

Unfortunately, in the context of abstaining, tobacco is tobacco, but not all burgers are created alike.

I made olive, feta, turkey burgers tonight for dinner, should that be treated the same as a McDonald’s Burger?

Is there a possibility that you have a healthier substitute option?

I’d like to think so…

There is a possibility that a food you really enjoy has a variation that does not inspire addictive behavior, you won’t have that option with other addictions typically.

My Concerns

This recent research review paints a picture that most people needn’t worry about becoming addicted to food by indulging every now and then.

My main concern with the encouraging the line of thinking putting food addiction on par with other substance addictionand even many other psychological addictions, is that food is something we all must consume.

Whereas almost everything else one can become addicted to is not a requirement of living, food becomes a very unique and tricky subject within this topic of discussion.

I worry that labelling food on the broad spectrum of addictions actually encourages people to justify overeating to themselves, make light of the situation, and defend their behavior as out of their control, when it most likely isn’t.

People half-seriously drop phrases like, “I’m addicted to these,” all the time…

Is that really the kind of mindset about food we want the general public to possess?

It’s also fear-mongering in the media it’s most basic level, which I’ve always asserted is a terrible approach for long-term change.

Should we really make the general public fearful of becoming addicted to food if they have a little bit of sugar, salt or fat here and there?

It creates a label that certain types of food are all bad, rather than educating people to make better choices on the food spectrum.

The homemade pizza I make at home certainly can’t be compared to the fantastic pizza I can get from a local pizzeria, that can’t be compared to the garbage a chain like Pizza Hut puts in theirs…

Seriously, what is that bacon-like substance on that kind of pizza?

That’s why I’m tempted to take a perspective on food addiction that more closely resembles Merriam-Webster’s more stringent definition of addiction:

“a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)”

Actually the American Psychiatric Association (APA) follows a similar line of thought and has a far more stringent definition of addiction in that they only identify addiction as substance abuse and gambling.

By the APA stance, food addiction is not something they treat, but binge eating disorder is.

There is certainly something to be learned from the addiction research as it relates to overeating but is it food addiction or eating addiction?

Is Food Addiction Really Binge Eating Disorder?

Maybe I’m just a stickler for details, but the evidence I have been presented in favour of food addiction, sounds less like food addiction and significantly more like binge eating disorder (BED).

Are we confusing the two in media discussions?

The APA does recognize eating disorders as very serious psychological disorders.

To a point where I indicated above that I’m concerned about the two get lumped together inappropriately.

BED, is a very serious issue that should be treated as such.

The typical food-addiction-view creates a public shock perception that any sugar or fat consumption will lead to an increased prevalence of food addicts and actively encourages people to develop a poor relationship with food by labelling it as either good or bad.

Something that itself could contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

It does not seem to be the same thing as crack, the way it is made to sound in the media.

Public perception gives the impression that having a bit of chocolate leads to two chocolate bars, leads to ten…

The reality is that this is only likely to happen if you were already addicted in the first place and most people aren’t.

People often make light of food addiction, referring to it jokingly or using it to justify poor eating habits and behavior.

This undermines the seriousness of BED.

Having some chocolate won’t ’cause’ an eating disorder by itself, but eating three a day for a period of time and feeling like you’ve lost complete control over your chocolate intake might…

If that is the case, you should seek out medical advice or at the very least a support group like Overeaters Anonymous.

BED is the very serious psychological disorder that affects some people and needs to be treated very differently from the casual mentioning of food addiction.

There are a lot of other relevant factors for people suffering from BED, things like social surroundings, upbringing, stress, environment, self-esteem, etc…

In this review (the main research argument piece for food addictions existence), there are many quotes that make it difficult to discern the two as being any different.

“There is substantial evidence that some binge-eaters experience physical craving, that is, craving that can be characterized as being primarily physiologically-based rather than psychologically, socially or environmentally-based.”

Binge eaters? What about food addicts? I thought this paper was to show that food addiction is the issue?

“Binge eaters often talk about “having to eat” a particular food or food in general. They also describe the experience as “dying to eat” or “starving.”

Again, I only notice the language…

There is a wide spectrum of discussion about food addiction, but it mostly seems to revolve around binge eating disorder, rather than food addiction.

I’d recommend that we clean up the language we use and call it what it is, Binge Eating Disorder.

Is It Wrong to Recommend People Relax About Food?

The reason I started writing this article is because I recommended in another article that people should relax a little more about their food consumption, feel less guilty (feeling chronically guilty about the food you eat is a precursor to eating disorders) and learn to enjoy eating.

Someone trolled with, ‘would you tell an alcoholic to just have one drink?’

Obviously not, but the context is completely different.

If I publish a post that tells people it’s OK to have one or two glasses of wine a day, am I encouraging people to develop alcoholism?

You have someone who is addicted vs an average healthy person who is probably not.

I would feel comfortable telling most people that it’s OK to have 1-2 drinks most days, clearly that’s very different from telling an alcoholic it’s OK.

OK I hate that comparison, actually it’s a terrible one, comparing food addiction to alcohol addiction.

They shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.

If I give generalized advice like, ‘view food on a spectrum, rather than healthy or unhealthy and work towards enjoying higher spectrum foods,’ am I encouraging food addiction behavior?

I have a hard time believing that giving this general advice is immoral in anyway.

Nor would it lead to more people developing an addiction to food.

The evidence suggests that it might actually do the opposite.

But…when did common sense disappear?

When did people start throwing out context, to push some absolute thinking agenda?

Obviously any general advice given via an article is largely for the 90% of the population that is average and reasonably ‘healthy’ both physically and mentally.

When I tell people to give themselves permission to enjoy 10% of their diets. I’m obviously not telling people who have binge eating disorder that they should relax about eating a food they have an addiction to.

Of course that would be insensitive and ignorant, not to mention outside of my scope of practice.

I do wonder…

How many people really suffered from eating disorders 200 years ago. When we didn’t have calorie labels, fat free this, sugar free that, or actively tell the public that carbs are bad for them, no fat is bad for them, no animal protein is bad for you!

Certainly they must have existed, just remained unacknowledged, but I wonder if more knowledge about food has enhanced or hurt our fundamental relationship with food?

I’d argue that the prevalence of eating disorders has spiked since we more openly started encouraging the labelling of foods as good or bad. And that doing such is probably contributing more to the eating disorder problem than anything else.

For certain this issue is incredibly complex, I’d just like to see us discuss food more responsibly as a general rule.

Should You Worry?

If you don’t have a previous issue with addiction and keep processed sugars, fats and salts to an appropriate dose (less than 10-15% of intake), there doesn’t appear to be any reason why the average healthy person should worry about becoming addicted to food.

I think it’s actually time we stop fear-mongering people to worry about it, as it probably causes more problems than it solves.

This obviously changes if you have a history of food addiction, disordered eating, over-exposure, or a history of any kind of substance abuse.

Cole’s Notes

  • There is a genetic component to addiction. But it most likely requires a specific food and social environment to be fully expressed — you’re at greater risk if you’ve had a previous substance addiction.
  • By a broad definition of addiction, one can certainly become addicted to food. But the same can be said about nearly any other reward-oriented behavior including television and playing video games. This type of addiction is more psychological than physiological in human beings and can be overcome via therapy/counselling. The subject is very complex but most people don’t worry about becoming addicted to praise. Even though based on the same neurological responses, you can.
  • There seems to be a feed forward loop. Whereby people who believe they are ‘addicted’ to a food or several foods, tend to use it as a rationalization they have no control over. This feeds more consuption of those foods they have no control over. This is a psychological coping mechanism, more than anything, and likely a type of orthorexia.
  • The risk of addiction to food for the average person is probably very low. Particularly if you don’t have a history of addictive behavior. It would normally be characterized by a strong inability to ever control what you eat and when that occurs it is likely better classified as “Binge Eating Disorder.” (BED)
  • It’s more appropriate to refer to serious/legitimate cases of “food addiction” as BED. When the media lightly discusses ‘food addiction’ as it does, it discounts the actual seriousness of BED. BED is a serious psychological disorder where people indicate they lose control over some specific types of hyperpalatable foods. Therapy and counselling are the only real paths to overcoming BED.
  • It’s probably perfectly OK to recommend people enjoy a piece of cheesecake if they want every now and then. Provided that’s not a strong trigger food for an individual overcoming BED — in writing, I can’t predict who that might be and can only assume generalizations about the average healthy person.
  • If you worry about your control over a particular food; Feel intense/constant cravings for something specific; Never feel satisfied after eating a particular food; Or feel intense feelings of guilt over eating a food; You should probably seek out some help from a psychology oriented medical professional or support group — or if you know someone in this situation you should probably try to help them, get help.
  • Should you worry about developing an addiction to a food just because you have a little bit a few times a week? Probably not…

Read Also:

How Prevalent is Food Addiction

The Drive to Eat: Comparisons and distinctions between mechanisms of food reward and drug addiction.

Is Food Addiction a Valid and Useful Concept?

From Passive Overeating to “Food Addiction”: A Spectrum of Compulsion and Severity

Salt Sugar Fat