Is an addiction to food like an addiction to hard drugs?

In 2014, Michael Moss introduced America to the concept of food addiction in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us1. Although Moss hinted at the possibility of food addiction, he never directly accused Big Food of pedaling addictive substances. Unbeknownst to many of us there are numerous psychologists and neurobiologists who are studying the possibility of developing an addiction to hyperpalatable foods, generally described as processed foods high in one or more ingredients containing sugar, fat and salt. Despite the accumulating evidence that link brain scans of drug addicts and potential food addicts, food addiction is not yet recognized as a valid disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders2 (DSM-5) the authority of what is and is not recognized as clinical addiction. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating are recognized as disorders by DSM-5.


Addictive foods? Hyperpalatable?

A recent article online suggests that addiction to certain foods may be real and offers ways to help prevent us from becoming addicted. Some of these suggestions seem curious if food addiction operates similarly to drug addiction. One of the eight tips “Teach yourself to tolerate cravings” sounds a lot like talking about willpower—which a lack thereof is becoming a delicate code phrase that advantaged, thin people use to fat shame disadvantaged, overweight people. In drug or alcohol addiction, tolerating cravings is not a DIY technique but usually a part of a 12-step program with the help of a sponsor. The last tip in the list is to “Give yourself a break” which means that you can indulge in junk food from time to time. I do not think counselors of potential cocaine addicts would provide similar advice.

When I read Salt Sugar Fat, I considered the idea of food addiction as mere fantasy. Then, as I researched the topic for Chapter 4 of my book, I began to understand the scientific evidence that was being generated by credible researchers in the field. Those results are intriguing and described in detail in a book entitled Food and Addiction3. As a food chemist, however, there was a nagging question that was not addressed either in the book or the numerous journal articles on the topic. Alcohol, cocaine, meth, and THC are all specific chemicals that can lead to substance dependency and abuse. Hyperpalatable foods like french fries, cakes and cookies are complex mixtures of numerous natural and heat-generated chemicals and not a single compound. Is the same chemical or even a simple family of compounds formed when the ingredients are mixed for a wide range of hyperpalatable foods found on our supermarket shelves? Not likely. None of the studies on this subject even considered this potential flaw in their theory.

As I continued my library research I came across an interesting scientific article suggesting that the addictive nature of food was not due to substance abuse but rather to disordered behavior in eating. Instead of being described as a food addiction, it could be viewed as an eating addiction analogous to a gambling addiction. Based on my understanding of the chemical composition of foods, that description makes much more sense to me. The brain-scan data supports both interpretations, but an eating addiction is not burdened by the lack of a single chemical responsible for a disordered response to hyperpalatable foods. It seems to me that a redirection of research to an eating addiction rather than a food addiction would be more likely to be successful. An eating addiction would be more like an eating disorder. In a straight-forward book on Eating Disorders: The Facts 5  such disorders are viewed as a psychological condition. Placing blame on the victim or triggering foods is not considered helpful in diagnosing an eating disorder or developing a treatment strategy. Rather, treatment seeks to re-institute “normal eating” instead of focusing on good and bad foods or good and bad persons.

Drug addiction and obesity constitute major health challenges in the US and many other countries around the world. Both issues stem from complex origins and have confounded simple solutions or we would have solved them already. I support continued research into potential addiction to food or to eating. Equating street drugs and hyperpalatable foods tends to diminish the impact drug and alcohol addiction has on our society. In addition, labeling obese individuals as food addicts is unlikely to help make a dent in America’s growing weight problem.


Next week: Are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump obese?


For more details on this topic see chapter 4, “How Widespread is Food Addiction in Our Culture” of In Defense of Processed Food: It is Not Nearly as Bad as You Think 6.


1 Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, M. Moss, 2013, New York: Random House

2 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), 2013, American Psychological Association, Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing

3 Food and Addiction: A Comprehensive Handbook, K.D. Brownell and M.S. Gold (Editors), 2012, New York: Oxford University Press

4 “Eating addiction” rather than ”food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior, Hebebrand, J., O. Albayrak, R. Adan, J. Antel, C. Dieguez, J. de Jong, G. Leng, J. Menzies, J.G. Mercer, M. Murphy, G. van der Plasse and S.L. Dickson, 2014, ,  Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 47:295-306

5 Eating Disorders: The Facts, S. Abraham, 2016, New York: Oxford University Press

6 In Defense of Processed Food: It is Not Nearly as Bad as You Think, R.L. Shewfelt, 2017, New York: Copernicus Books



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