Fast Food Addiction

More often than not, when your teen comes in at dinnertime, he tells you he’s not hungry – he already ate. When you question him, it turns out that he stopped by the nearest fast food place for burgers and fries – again. You have nothing against an occasional meal of fast food, but you know it’s not healthy to eat it every day.

Is it possible to become addicted to fast food? Some scientists believe that fast food such as hamburgers and fries could be as addictive as heroin. In studies of rats who were fed diets containing a similar amount of sweet, salty, and fatty foods as found in fast foods, the withdrawal of the food caused symptoms of anxiety. What is more, scientists noted changes in the rats’ brain chemistry similar to those caused by extended use of morphine or heroin.

While not all scientists believe there are brain changes indicative of addiction in people (or rats) who eat a lot of fast food, most health professionals believe that an abundance of salty, fatty, and sugary food causes the blood sugar to peak and then plunge, which leads to an increased desire for more of the same type of foods.

What to Do
Talk to your teen about the health consequences of too much fast food. Two good DVDs on the dangers of fast food are “Super Size Me” and “Fast Food Nation.” Rent one of these films and watch it with your teen. Explain to him that there is nothing wrong with eating fast food once or twice a month, but that you’re concerned about a steady diet of this type of food.

Involve your child in cooking similar but more nutritious foods at home. A lean grilled burger and oven fries might do the trick. You might also win him over with some number crunching – eating at home for free is much cheaper than spending money on fast food.

The first time a clerk at McDonald’s offered to “supersize” his meal, Morgan Spurlock enthusiastically agreed, then trotted back to his car and wolfed down a giant burger, fries and soft drink. He soon felt queasy, and minutes later, this unhappy meal came back up. Nonetheless, he continued to eat three daily meals at McDonald’s as part of the monthlong experiment that became the hit documentary movie Super Size Me.

By the end of the month, he was 24 pounds heavier and his health was rapidly declining. Interestingly, he also was craving the same high-fat, high-sugar, high-carb meals that once made him sick.

“At the beginning of the movie, the food was clearly toxic to his system,” says Mark Hyman, MD, author of UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss (Scribner, 2006). “But toward the end of the movie, he didn’t feel right unless he was getting that same food in regular doses. He was irritable, anxious and depressed when he wasn’t eating it because he was going through physical withdrawal.”

Spurlock’s case was so dramatic that many nutrition experts now use his movie to drive home a salient point: Not only is much of the fast-food menu unhealthy, but it can also make an addict of you.

The Fast-Food Fix

When most people refer to physical addictions, they’re usually talking about alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. But research now shows that some of the ingredients in fast foods can have a similar addictive effect. The iconic fast foods — big burgers, overstuffed burritos, fried chicken, fish sandwiches, French fries, soft drinks and milk shakes — are loaded with sugar, highly processed carbs, saturated fats and trans fats. And those are just the ingredients we know about.

Like thousands of other food additives in our nation’s food supply, many of the flavor- and texture-enhancing ingredients in fast food have not been tested, says Hyman. “The exact mechanisms of neurologic injury are worked out only for a few ingredients, such as monosodium glutamate and aspartame, which are excitotoxins that stimulate the NMDA receptors in the brain. But an analysis of the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, published in the Lancet in 2005, showed clear behavioral effects from food additives that indicate an addictive effect,” he notes.

“Fast food is often a perfect combined-delivery vehicle for all those elements in the food supply chain that are the most addictive,” says David Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center and coauthor of two books on food and diet, including Dr. David Katz’s Flavor-Full Diet: Use Your Taste Buds to Lose Pounds and Inches With This Scientifically Proven Plan (Rodale, 2007).

There’s the sugar, the fat, the salt, the refined carbs. But that’s not all: “The physiological dependence is furthered by the convenience, by the notion of a bargain, by the marketing campaigns. You feel deprived if you don’t get your fix,” says Katz.

One recent study by researchers at the University of Bordeaux in France found that caged rats overwhelmingly opted for sugar- or saccharine-sweetened water over cocaine when given the choice. Rat studies also have shown that eating high levels of fat can cause the ˙ brain to secrete a chemical that encourages more eating and discourages physical activity — and that one high-fat meal is enough to kick off this process.

“Both the sugar and the fat evoke brain chemicals called beta-endorphin and dopamine, which are also activated by heroin and cocaine,” says Kathleen Desmaisons, PhD, an expert on sugar sensitivity who pioneered the field of addictive nutrition. “When you put the fat and the sugar together, it’s more than one plus one. It has what’s called a potentiated effect, with a bigger addiction response, a bigger brain response. It’s like doing two drugs at once.”

Diners are generally drawn to fast-food restaurants — which account for about half of all restaurant revenues in the United States — by the convenience, the price and the skillful marketing, much of it aimed at children. Once you’re inside, it’s hard to choose the salads and other less-noxious menu items, because smelling the sugar and fried foods incites pleasure chemicals in the brain — the same chemical fix you get when eating these items.

After their meals, people tend to feel happy and satisfied. Later, however, their insulin levels crash, and their mood drops. They crave more of the same fat- and sugar-laden foods, and they only feel better once they eat them.

“The world is bright until the effect wears off,” says Desmaisons. “Then people feel grumpy and hopeless and inadequate until they have more. That’s the hallmark of addiction: They need more to get the same pleasant effect.”

So fast-food devotees tend to overeat to feed their addiction. Many experts assert that they also overeat because they’re not getting all the nutrients they require — even though they might consume as many calories in a single fast-food meal as they need to eat in an entire day to maintain their weight. The problem is that the foods they are eating are calorie-dense, but nutrient-poor: The most common fast-food ingredients offer almost nothing in the way of phytonutrients, for example, and tend to be very low in soluble fiber.

We know that the more foods become “food products” — far removed from the farms, fields and orchards where food naturally originates — the less nutritious they are. And the highly processed ingredients that form the base of most fast foods demonstrate that effect quite clearly.

“When they refine wheat into white flour, they take out 22 vitamins and minerals,” explains Elizabeth Pavka, PhD, LDN, a North Carolina nutritionist and wellness consultant. “They ‘enrich’ it by adding back only four vitamins and iron. If we do the math, we see that 17 vitamins and minerals are not present in white flour. When you feed the body all that sugar and fat and the food doesn’t even give you the nutrients you need, it’s a setup for poor health, obesity and all the major health problems we’re seeing in our country.”

Fast Food, Fast Weight Gain

It’s easy to understand how someone will gain weight if he or she frequently consumes 2,240 calories just for lunch (the combined caloric wallop packed by Burger King’s Tender-Crisp chicken sandwich, large fries and large chocolate milk shake). But it’s the nature of those calories, and not the calories themselves, that may be the greatest cause for concern. This particular lunch delivers more than 10 grams of trans fats, for example, which a recent study indicated may give both obesity and disease a major toehold.

Wake Forest School of Medicine researcher Kylie Kavanaugh, DVM, compared two groups of monkeys, one that derived 8 percent of their daily calories from trans fats and a control group that didn’t eat trans fats at all. She was looking for the impact of the trans fats on their cardiovascular health, but was surprised to find another adverse effect: The trans fat–eating monkeys gained three times as much weight as the control group, even though both ate the same number of calories each day. And much of the weight was belly fat, considered a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. (For more on this dangerous fat, see “Anatomy of a Pot Belly” in the November 2006 archives.)

The lesson from this study? “People can’t go to a fast-food place and eat a typical meal there and then figure they can eat salad for the rest of the day to make up for it,” Kavanaugh explains. “That one meal is more likely to put weight on them than a meal cooked at home or without trans fats, even if it has the same number of calories.”

The CARDIA study also highlights the hazards of frequent fast-food dining. In this 20-year study, researchers tracked the habits of some 5,000 healthy young adults living in four American cities and found that frequent fast-food consumption was directly associated with changes in body weight and insulin resistance — a warning sign for type 2 diabetes. In fact, it was a greater risk factor than a sedentary lifestyle or alcohol consumption.

“The typical fast-food meal is designed to prey on the average person’s primordial preference for fats and salts and sugar,” says Mark Pereira, PhD, associate professor in epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors. “These meals may be pleasing to the palate, but they are quite risky for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

In addition to seeing their subjects’ actual increase in body fat, some nutritionists believe that people who frequently eat fast food gain water weight as the result of inflammation (and suffer other assaults to their health) because they are sensitive to common ingredients in the food. Without realizing it, these people suffer from what is called a “delayed food intolerance” to the corn, wheat, soy and dairy found in most fast foods. “This creates an inflammatory response in the body, which responds by holding water to dilute the effect of a toxic reaction,” says nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, author of The Gut Flush Plan: The Breakthrough Cleansing Program to Rid Your Body of the Toxins That Make You Sick, Tired and Bloated (Avery, 2008). “People have other symptoms with these delayed food intolerances, too, including fatigue and digestive problems. It’s a very big deal.” (For more on food intolerances, see “Lesson Learned.”)

Coming Clean

Breaking a fast-food addiction is similar to breaking other addictions, experts say: Begin by admitting there is a problem, then make a plan to stop.

Gittleman believes the body needs to do some nutritional sprinting to get rid of the toxins present in fast food. In one of her earlier books, The Fast Track Detox Diet (Broadway, 2005), she calls for a week of highly conscious eating — lots of fruits and vegetables that maximize liver function; flaxseed and other foods that maximize colon function; healthy oils, small amounts of lean meat, and plenty of water, while avoiding excess dietary fats, trans fats, sugars, artificial sweeteners, alcohol and caffeine. A one-day juice fast and a three-day re-entry diet follow. (For more on Gittleman’s plan, see “Fast Track Liver Detox” in the May 2005 archives.)

Other nutritionists feel that fast-food addicts should taper off, rather than go cold turkey. Desmaisons suggests you begin by eating a daily breakfast that includes a good measure of healthy protein. The point is to fortify your body with good food and prevent the kind of hunger that sends you rushing for a fast-food fix.

Katz has a similarly pragmatic approach, especially with patients who say they can’t live without their fast-food fix. He allows them that fix — at least, for a while — but shows them how to make the rest of their diet healthier by reading labels and avoiding the sugar and fat hidden in other foods. Eventually, they can rehabilitate their taste buds and transition away from a fast-food preference.

“There are ways to satisfy just about any craving with foods that are good for you,” Katz says. “Our taste buds are very adaptable — if they can’t get the food they love, they learn to love the food they’re with.”

For more on fast food and trans fats, check out “Fat Chance” in the January/February 2006 archives and “The Lure, The Lie” in the March 2004 archives.

Kristin Ohlson Kristin Ohlson is a writer in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Fast food is addictive in same way as drugs, say scientists

Overeating might not be a simple matter of self-control. Lovers of burgers, fries, fizzy drinks and other fast foods could be in the grip of an addiction similar to that experienced by users of hard drugs, scientists claim.

Bingeing on foods that are high in fat and sugar may cause changes in the brain that make it hard to say no. By stimulating the brain’s natural opioids, large doses of the foods can produce a high that is similar, though less intense, to that produced by heroin and cocaine, they say.

The claims are based on preliminary animal studies but are being cited by lawyers acting for overweight Americans, who in a class action against the fast food industry are seeking compensation for the cost of caring for obesity. John Banzhaf, the lawyer who took on the tobacco companies and won, is leading the case. The group includes Caesar Barber, aged 56, who has had two heart attacks and is diabetic. He claims he ate in fast food restaurants for years without being warned of the health risks.

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Mr Banzhaf says that to win he only has to convince a jury that fast food companies share the blame for Mr Barber’s health problems. “We might even discover that it’s possible to become addicted to the all-American meal of burgers and fries,” he told New Scientist.

John Hoebel, a psychologist at Princeton University, and colleagues showed that rats fed a diet containing 25 per cent sugar developed withdrawal symptoms when the sugar was removed, including chattering teeth and shivering.

When the rats were given a dose of naloxone, a drug that blocks opioid receptors, the researchers noted a drop in dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of cells in the mid-brain linked with feelings of reward. Writing in Obesity Research, he says this is the same pattern of neurochemical activity seen in heroin addicts going through withdrawal. “Drugs give a bigger effect, but it’s essentially the same process,” he said. Other scientists, including Ann Kelley, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin medical school, have observed similar changes in brain chemistry.

But Michael Jacobson, director of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, said there was little evidence to back the claims.

Jeanne Randolph, psychiatrist at the University of Toronto with an interest in obesity, said it was well known that eating fast food and sugary snacks stimulated a cycle of instant satiation followed by a plunge in blood sugar, which triggered desire for another snack.

Yesterday Professor James Griffith Edwards, editor of the scientific journal Addiction, said: “Whether a burger habit can be regarded as an addiction depends on how you define addiction. The difference is not a qualitative one but a quantitative one. I am quite fond of dark chocolate but it is not going to destroy my life like a heroin addiction.”

5 Signs You’re Addicted to Junk Food

If you’re like many Americans, you probably consume more junk food than you should. Ice cream, baked goods, cookies, candy, chips, pretzels, crackers-even fancy sugar-laden coffee drinks make it into your daily diet. You probably know you should eat better-maybe you’ve even tried to cut back-but have you ever wondered if your junk food consumption is a full-blown addiction, rather than just a lapse in judgment? The word “addiction” doesn’t just relate to drugs and alcohol-junk food can take hold of us and control our eating habits in a similar way. These five signs could mean your junk food dependence has turned into more than a simple craving.

1. You crave junk food first thing in the morning.

Most people crave junk food during the mid-afternoon when they’re tired or bored, but if your cravings kick in first thing in the morning, there may be a problem. Similar to an alcoholic who needs a drink to function, your body may feel like it needs junk food to operate. You may be so used to being “high” on junk that your body goes through withdrawal, as it’s been several hours since the last fix you got before bed.

2. You have headaches several times a week.

A headache can be your body’s signal that something is wrong. If you’ve been consuming excess junk food in the form of sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors and sweeteners, your body gets accustomed to those items and has difficulty functioning without them. Just like with caffeine, your body relies on the junk food to get through the day. (Sometimes it can even make you depressed.)

3. You crave sweet or salty foods even when you’re not hungry.

Junk food consumption can become more about fixing symptoms like lethargy, headaches, jitters, and brain fog than about actual hunger. If junk food “cures” your ailment-even only temporarily-then addiction could be the reason. It may be time to cut back and resolve your symptoms without using junk food to mask them.

4. You can’t have just one slice, piece, or bite-if it’s open, you consume the entire package.

We often blame lack of willpower for our overconsumption of unhealthy foods, but processed junk food is designed to make us crave that salty or sweet taste. A great deal of time and effort goes into making food with just the right amount of sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors and sweeteners to keep us coming back for more. If you feel like you can’t have just one slice, piece, or bite, you may be addicted to one or more of those ingredients. (See: 7 Suprising Ways Junk Food Can Make You Miserable)

5. More than 50 percent of your daily calories come from junk food.

People who have a healthy relationship with junk food consume it only on occasion and in moderation. They see highly-processed sugary or salty bites as a treat-not a staple in their diet. If junk food starts to make up the majority of your daily calories-think breakfast pastries, pizza, ice cream, or potato chips all in one day-it may be time for a change.

Want to conquer your junk food addiction, improve your overall health, and lose weight? A junk food detox may be just the catalyst you need to make positive changes. Shape magazine’s highly anticipated launch of Junk Food Funk: The 3, 5, and 7-Day Junk Food Detox for Weight Loss and Better Health gives you the tools you need to eliminate your junk food cravings and take control of your eating, health and weight. Purchase your copy today!

  • By Dawna Stone

Credit: iStock

Which foods are addictive?

Here are the 10 foods most associated with addictive-like eating, according to research by Ashley Gearhardt, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Michigan:

  • Chocolate
  • Ice cream
  • French fries
  • Pizza
  • Cookies
  • Chips
  • Cake
  • Popcorn (buttered)
  • Cheeseburgers
  • Muffins

Do you find yourself craving ice cream, intoxicated by an image of french fries or unable to resist the candy jar at a co-worker’s desk?

Research shows you’re not alone. Certain foods — particularly processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat — don’t just taste good, they also can be addictive, said scientists at a UC San Francisco symposium on food and addiction.

Food addiction is still a controversial concept in the scientific community. But researchers find strong evidence that certain foods can trigger binging, craving and withdrawal, responses that are similar to those produced by addictive substances like alcohol, cocaine and tobacco.

“I don’t think sugar is more addicting than cocaine, but I do think sugar is addicting,” said addiction expert Mark Gold, co-editor of the book “Food and Addiction” and keynote speaker at UCSF’s Oct. 27 Sugar, Stress, Environment, and Weight Symposium.

Take heart, consumers. As with other addictive substances, you can break free of your cravings. Follow these tips from experts to cut down on sugar and break your junk food habit:

  • Identify your triggers: Awareness is an important first step. Pay attention to those moments when your cravings start so you can figure out what unleashed them. “You have to work to control the triggers as soon as possible,” said Kerri Boutelle, a UC San Diego professor of pediatrics and psychology who conducts clinical trials with kids and adults who are overweight and obese and have eating disorders.
  • Teach yourself to tolerate cravings: “Sugar cravings are a learned response,” Boutelle said. People can be trained to extinguish that response and ride out their cravings, once they realize that those urges diminish over time. Cravings might last 10 minutes, she said. Her research has found that people can gain more control over their favorite foods by looking at, smelling and only taking a small taste of them.
  • Plan your meals: If you already have a healthy meal prepared, that will help you avoid unhealthy choices. Try to follow the new federal dietary guidelines, which recommend a “healthy eating pattern” with limited added sugar and saturated fat, less salt, and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. “Not all foods are created equally,” said Ashley Gearhardt, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Michigan, who co-developed the Yale Food Addiction Scale to help identify people at high risk for food addiction. “You don’t see people binging on apples.”
  • Replace addictive foods with foods you like but don’t struggle with: “We need food to survive,” Gearhardt said. “You should enjoy eating. You’re not going to stick to a diet of gruel and broccoli.”
  • Limit children’s early exposure: Kids may be more prone to addiction than adults, so parents should limit their exposure to products with added sugar in their first years of life. Gearhardt, who developed a Yale Food Addiction Scale for children, found that 7 percent of kids meet the diagnosis for food addiction. “This might be setting them up for lifelong problems with eating,” Gearhardt said.
  • Reduce your intake of added sugar: Starting in 2018, the new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods in the U.S. will help consumers by listing how much added sugar is in a product. “The average amount of added sugar in the American diet is more than 20 teaspoons per day,” said Pat Crawford, senior director of research for UC’s Nutrition Policy Institute. “Since about half of this sugar comes in the form of beverages, we have to rethink our beverage choices. Water should be the beverage of choice.”
  • Manage your stress: Under stress, people commonly turn to comfort foods high in sugar and fat. Highly stressed people who eat a lot of high-sugar, high-fat food also are more prone to health risks than low-stress people who eat the same amount of unhealthy food. “Stress changes how we metabolize food,” said Elissa Epel, director of the UCSF Center for Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment and co-organizer of the food and addiction symposium. To counter those effects, eat mindfully, meditate and exercise, she said. “Exercise is a huge stressbuster,” Epel said.
  • Give yourself a break: Don’t judge yourself too harshly for occasional junk food lapses. If you take an all-or-nothing approach, you can feel even more hopeless after giving in to your cravings. Food cues are strong and can be difficult to avoid, and it takes time to learn your triggers and get better at making healthy choices. If you have a “learning lapse,” try to do better next time. “You put chocolate chip cookies in the office at 3 p.m. and nobody can resist them,” said Kimber Stanhope, associate research nutritional biologist at UC Davis.

Experts on food addiction, overeating, cravings, sugar, obesity and stress at UCSF’s symposium on food and addiction answer questions from the community in a Facebook Live session: (From left) Kimber Stanhope, UC Davis; Kerri Boutelle, UC San Diego; Ashley Gearhardt, University of Michigan; Barbara Laraia, UC Berkeley; Elissa Epel, UCSF.
Credit: University of California

The good news is that the growing spotlight on sugar and food addiction is helping drive changes in public policy that could make it easier for everyone to make healthy food choices. The new nutrition labels are a good example. And with diabetes and obesity reaching epidemic levels in the U.S. and around the world, more changes are likely:

  • Taxes: Berkeley passed the nation’s first soda tax in 2014 and three other Bay Area cities have soda tax measures on the November ballot. A new UC Berkeley study shows a 21 percent drop in the drinking of soda and other sugary beverages in Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods after the city levied a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Law: As food addiction science advances, changes in law could follow, said Michael Roberts, executive director of the UCLA Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy and a UC Global Food Initiative subcommittee member. So many food-related lawsuits already have been filed in California that it is known as “The Food Court,” he said.
  • Regulation: Sugar is toxic in current doses and should be regulated by the federal government, said UCSF professor of pediatrics Robert Lustig, whose video “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has more than 6 million views.
  • Public perception: “It’s not just about regulation,” said UCSF professor of pediatrics David Kessler, who pushed to regulate tobacco while commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “It’s how we perceive things. It’s much more effective than any regulation.” As with tobacco, the public perception could change on sugar. “You used to think smoking was very glamorous,” Kessler said.
  • Industry: Manufacturers are under pressure to create products with lower levels of added sugar. “We’re going to see some big shifts in the marketplace with products lower in sugars such as cereals, yogurts, spaghetti sauces and beverages,” Crawford said.
  • Research: Scientists want to find out more about the relationship between food and addiction, from causes to treatments. “We’re still in the midst of this obesity and diabetes epidemic,” Epel said. “We cannot ignore food addiction if we want to understand this epidemic.”
  • Environment: The food environment has changed over the past 40 years, with the rise in processed foods. Alternatives are emerging. Informed by its SugarScience research and education initiative, UCSF has phased out the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages across its campus, and other institutions are following suit. “We need to work together,” said Laura Schmidt, UCSF professor of health policy, lead SugarScience investigator and UC Global Food Initiative subcommittee member. “The stakes are high.”

UC Davis’ Kimber Stanhope explains how the effects of sugar can take your body down a vicious cycle known as metabolic syndrome.
Credit: Fig. 1 by University of California

Why Do I Crave Junk Food?

Melt in your mouth, drool-worthy, highly-processed junk food feels good to eat. You can thank sugar, salt and fat. This dynamic trio lures you in, bathing your tongue blissful sensation that triggers the sensation of pleasure. Indulging in pleasurable things makes one happy. It’s no wonder unhealthy food is so irresistible.

Cramming extra salt, sugar and fat into a processed food transforms rather bland flavours into ones that make your body go over the moon with excitement. This is the pursuit of most food manufacturers – to create a taste sensation that makes you crave more. Supermarket shelves are stuffed with processed and packaged foods making it a highly competitive environment. A food needs to be powerfully attractive to get consumers’ attention. One way to be attractive is to taste irresistibly good. Adding salt gives a food a flavour burst. Fat offers a pleasurable mouth feel. Sugar, if you can find that bliss point of perfect sweetness, can trigger human brain cells to send out an explosion of pleasure signals. The food that gives your brain the most exceptional pleasure is one you’ll crave and want to seek out over and over again.

Sugar Addiction: How Sugar is Bad For You

Oh, sugar! Is sugar really bad for you? You are so sweet. But, eating sugary foods causes cells in the brain to produce dopamine – it’s what gives you that pleasure sensation. If you eat more sugar, you get to enjoy more pleasure. So, you eat more sugar foods. But, after about three weeks of indulging in sugary foods, your brain develops a tolerance to it. The result is you have to eat greater amounts of sugar to get the same pleasure sensation you first got hooked on – this is called tolerance. Tolerance is the first aspect of an addictive substance. The second is withdrawal. If you remove sugar from your diet, your brain does not get that pleasurable dose of dopamine, to which there can be symptoms of withdrawal. Tolerance and withdrawal are also seen with alcohol, nicotine and other addictive substances. According to scientists, there is sufficient evidence from animal studies to consider sugar an addictive substance. Being addicted to sugar promotes overconsumption of sugar and increasing prevalence of obesity. Sugar is not the only addictive food we eat. Recent research identified salt and fat are also addictive. Eating bad food is addictive.

How Do You Stop Overeating?

We’ve all done it – started into a delicious indulgence and then eaten more than we intended. It’s boggling that the human body will eat more than it should. It’s not supposed to. The gut is designed to send signals to the brain. Leptin, the starvation signal, is produced in your gut and helps your brain know if you need to eat or, have had enough. But, when you eat more than you need it’s clear this signal isn’t being heard.

Let’s take this problem into the lab. Why do we overeat unhealthy foods? When researchers took three groups of rats and offered them varying indulgent diets there was a difference in how much they ate. One group had bland lab fare, another unlimited access to indulgent foods high in fat and sugar (bacon, cheesecake, pound cake and frosting), and a third group had bland lab fare as well as access to indulgent food for only one hour a day. The rats who had no access to the unhealthy foods did not overeat. Foods that aren’t processed, called whole foods, do not lead to overeating. Whole foods do not affect the brain in the same negative way salt, sugar and fat do. Whole foods are part of a healthy diet. Want to stop overeating? Avoid unhealthy, highly processed junk foods, instead reach for delicious whole foods. Get started with ideas in Best Foods For Weight Loss – Snacks.

Overeating can happen with even limited access to unhealthy foods. The rats who could only access the unhealthy foods for one hour a day, scarfed down a whopping 66 percent of their daily calories in that one hour alone! They barely touched their bland lab fare – they craved unhealthy food. Their pattern of obsessive binge eating quickly caused them to gain weight.

As for the rats who were given all day access to the high fat and sugar foods, they showed similar behaviours to rats hooked on cocaine or heroin – they needed to eat them to feel good. Eating unhealthy foods gave their brains positive reinforcement, ultimately motivating them to eat it again. And, again. Now, it’s easier to understand why you crave unhealthy food.

How to Stop Craving Junk Food for Good

Going cold turkey, from unhealthy foods can be challenging. Compared to mice addicted to cocaine, who took two days for the behaviour of their brains to normalize, the rats who had access to high-fat foods were still experiencing disruptions in their brains two weeks later. Breaking the highly-processed food addiction can be hard – according to University of Michigan researchers it’s hardest from days 2 to 5.

Cravings knock you over when you are at your weakest. In hard days, filled with responsibilities, you can feel overwhelmed and craving a high. Enter junk food! “Many will admit when they eat unhealthy they feel fogged out and struggle with low energy,” says Kimberly Gomer, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Centre and Spa. It’s too bad the human body isn’t hard-wired to be addicted to salad in times of stress: leafy greens are packed with energizing nutrients that offer clarity.

You do not have to do it alone! The Pritikin Centre creates an environment that supports a revolution in your eating habits and helps get you back to enjoying a healthy life. Come discover how good healthy feels.

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Take life to the next level, and be all that you can be. That’s what a vacation at Pritikin is all about. Live better. Look better. And best of all, feel better.

Studies on Food Cravings and Addiction:

  • Addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats: Role for dopamine D2 receptors. Nat Neurosci. 2010 May; 13(5):635-641.
  • Sugar Addiction: is it real? A narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine July 2018; 52(14).
  • What is the evidence for “food addiction”? A Systematic Review. Nutrients 2018 Apr 12;10(4).
  • Development of the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale. Appetite 2018 Sept.
  • Sugar Salt Fat: How the food giants hooked us. Review by Dr. JM Pogue. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent) 2014 Jul;27(3):283-284.

Is Junk Food Addictive?

You’re in withdrawal, experiencing everything from mood swings and anxiety to headaches and insomnia. Perhaps you’ve quit smoking or stopped your regular marijuana usage. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve cut back on those greasy fries, burgers, and other highly processed food.

A study published in the September 2018 issue of Appetite reported that people who reduced their consumption of highly processed foods experienced some of the same physical and psychological symptoms as those withdrawing from cigarettes or marijuana usage. While studies in mice have shown that reducing junk food can trigger withdrawal symptoms, lead study author Erica Schulte stated that this recent experiment offers the first evidence that these withdrawal-like symptoms can occur in people when they cut down on highly processed foods.

Based on self-reporting, the participants’ withdrawal symptoms were most intense between the second and fifth days after attempting to reduce junk-food consumption. It’s interesting to note that this is the same time span typically experienced during drug withdrawal.

For the study, the researchers developed a new tool modeled after the withdrawal scales used to assess symptoms related to quitting smoking or marijuana usage. This new questionnaire was given to 231 adults who had attempted to reduce their intake of junk food over the past year. Results indicated that symptoms of withdrawal from tobacco, marijuana, and highly processed foods were similar. Schulte said that because withdrawal is a key feature of addiction, showing that withdrawal occurs when reducing junk-food consumption provides more support for the hypothesis that highly processed foods might be addictive.

Nicole Avena is an assistant professor of neuroscience who has done research on food addiction. She was not involved in the above study but believes that it fills an important missing piece in the research on food addiction. Until now, there has not been a reliable way to measure withdrawal symptoms related to food in humans. Now this useful new tool developed by the researchers provides a valid measure that can aid in understanding the addictive nature of highly processed foods. She went on to say that more and more research has suggested that the foods we eat, which are often highly processed and contain excessive amounts of sugar, could cause changes in our brains that are similar to those seen with addictions to drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

There are some limitations to the study. For one, participants had to recall their withdrawal symptoms instead of having them measured in real time. Also, researchers did not measure the intensity of withdrawal symptoms compared to drug withdrawal symptoms. They also did not assess what methods (such as going “cold turkey” as opposed to gradually eliminating foods) the subjects used to change their eating habits.

More research is needed to further explore the valuable information gleaned from this study. In the meantime, perhaps just raising awareness of the possible addictiveness of junk food will be helpful for those who are working toward eating more healthy foods. We can now understand why it is so difficult to resist that last piece of pizza or chocolate cake. It is quite possible we are addicted.

Is Junk Food Addictive?

Junk Food Addiction

We like sweets and we like fats. That’s why we serve cheesecake for dessert instead of carrot sticks. Great for the taste buds but not for the waistline. And when the belt starts to become too tight, we try to forget the dessert. But some people just can’t. They have all the best intentions to shed those extra pounds, but they just can’t give up eating the sweetened fatty stuff. It is as if they were addicted to junk food. And they may well be, at least based on an interesting study carried out at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida. Let’s make something clear right off the bat here. The test subjects were rats, not people. And as with any other rodent study, extrapolation to humans may or may not be valid. Scripps neuroscientist Dr. Paul Kenny, like many researchers around the world, was interested in the vexing problem of weight control. Why do some people have such a difficult time controlling their food intake in the face of extensive publicity about the horrors of obesity? Could it be that their body chemistry has somehow gone awry? Could a rat feeding study possibly shed light on the situation?

Kenny fed one cohort of rats the usual rat chow while another group was allowed to feast on sausage, bacon and cheesecake to their heart’s delight. Actually their hearts probably were not delighted by the onslaught of fat, but that was not the point of this study. As one might expect, the rats on the fatty diet ballooned. All the animals were fitted with electrodes implanted in the brain designed to monitor the activity of their pleasure centers. No great surprise, the rats dining on the fat feast got a great deal of pleasure. Their brain neurons were pumping out more and more dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Dopamine fits into so-called dopamine receptors, much like a key fits a lock. When the fit is right, pleasure is sensed. And then a strange thing happened. The rats’ nervous system reacted to the increased levels of dopamine by curbing the activity of the receptors. Sort of a protective physiological reaction to an abnormal level of dopamine activity. And what did the rats do in response? They ate more, their bodies subconsciously wanting to produce more dopamine to counter the poor receptor activity. Even subjecting the animals to electric shocks when they approached the food was not a deterrent. Now, that sure sounds like addiction! Indeed, the chemistry here is very similar to that of cocaine addiction. Cocaine increases the stimulating activity of dopamine, which in turn provides so much pleasure that people are unable to give up the drug. We are not talking about physiological addiction here, such as seen with heroin. In that case serious physical symptoms are associated with withdrawal of the drug. The cocaine or the junk food addictions are based on not wanting to give up the pleasure associated with the activity. This can be very powerfully addictive psychologically.

The researchers went on to prove their point by cleverly using a virus to down-regulate dopamine receptors in healthy normal weight rats and noting their increased appetite for junk foods. So what does this mean for humans? That the pleasure we get out of eating fatty foods can be addictive. Pastries, ice cream, pizza, hamburgers, French fries fall into that category of being dopamine releasers. Nobody talks about being addicted to broccoli, apples or oat bran. But luckily humans have something that rats don’t. A brain capable of making intelligent decisions. And the intelligent decision is to limit junk foods even if this presents a challenge.

Addicted to fast food

Fast food is delicious. Hot, salty, greasy and easily available with little to no effort. When I’m overwhelmed with work/life it’s far easier to give up and take it easy and have fast food. Being prepared helps me stay on track with my diet and my finances and avoid the siren call of hot salty fries. It sometimes feels daunting to shop, prep, cook but if you consider how much time you spend going out to get fast food, or waiting in line – over a week the shop/prep/cook likely takes up less time.

Do you live in a dorm on a meal plan, or do you have a kitchen you can use? Can you can shift one meal a day to being home made to start?

Breakfast sandwiches (my personal favourite fast food) – cooking a fresh egg, having a toasty english muffin and a slice of real cheese is really easy to get together. I can even brew my own coffee in the time it takes, so it’s way quicker then sitting in line and way cheaper then a breakfast combo. If you do the math on buying breakfast everyday for a year, vs making your own you may be surprised at how much you can save.

For lunch or dinner you can buy chicken burgers to bake in the oven (or pan fry), bagged salad, bacon (raw or the microwave kind) cheese and tortilla shells and make your own crispy chicken “snack wraps”. Advanced level – make grilled chicken from boneless/skinless breasts, make a real salad, and/or roast some veggies to toss in as well, skip the tortilla if you want to cut back on carbs. I prep on Sunday to eat fresh Sunday and then have the leftovers M/T/W – wednesday night I’d prep something different for wednesday dinner, T/F/Saturday. I listen to a podcast or my favourite music while cooking and it’s pretty relaxing and a nice ritual. And just so easy at meals. All you have to do is smack the parts of it together at your meal time, and treat yourself to a show on netflix because you just saved 20 minutes not having to sit through the drive thru (not to mention the time you waste waffling on what take out to get) A spaghetti or a stir fry is also pretty easy to pull together, keeps well and very satisfying to heat/eat over a few days (you can make a bunch of sauce, freeze in smaller portions to thaw and have with fresh pasta – a nice meal for future you to enjoy). Some folks will meal prep an entire 5-7 days at a time, but that’s not for me. 3 days is my max for freshness of leftovers and this way I don’t get bored of it.

I also portion out nuts, crackers and chopped veggies and humus or dip into tupperware so i can easily grab from pantry/fridge and dump in my bag before heading out.

The idea that a person can be addicted to food has recently gained increasing support. That comes from brain imaging and other studies of the effects of compulsive overeating on pleasure centers in the brain.

Experiments in animals and humans show that, for some people, the same reward and pleasure centers of the brain that are triggered by addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin are also activated by food, especially highly palatable foods. Highly palatable foods are foods rich in:

  • Sugar
  • Fat
  • Salt

Like addictive drugs, highly palatable foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine. Once people experience pleasure associated with increased dopamine transmission in the brain’s reward pathway from eating certain foods, they quickly feel the need to eat again.

The reward signals from highly palatable foods may override other signals of fullness and satisfaction. As a result, people keep eating, even when they’re not hungry. Compulsive overeating is a type of behavioral addiction meaning that someone can become preoccupied with a behavior (such as eating, or gambling, or shopping) that triggers intense pleasure. People with food addictions lose control over their eating behavior and find themselves spending excessive amounts of time involved with food and overeating, or anticipating the emotional effects of compulsive overeating.

People who show signs of food addiction may also develop a kind of tolerance to food. They eat more and more, only to find that food satisfies them less and less.

Scientists believe that food addiction may play an important role in obesity. But normal-weight people may also struggle with food addiction. Their bodies may simply be genetically programmed to better handle the extra calories they take in. Or they may increase their physical activity to compensate for overeating.

People who are addicted to food will continue to eat despite negative consequences, such as weight gain or damaged relationships. And like people who are addicted to drugs or gambling, people who are addicted to food will have trouble stopping their behavior, even if they want to or have tried many times to cut back.

Expert Tips for Overcoming Food Addiction

Here’s how to take that first small step.

Food addiction is real. And if you’re struggling with food addiction, know that you’re not alone — I’ve been there, too. In fact, the younger you are, the more likely it’s your struggle.

From my past experience as a compulsive overeater, I suspect that many food addictions act as pacifiers for pain, fears, and anxieties, and even as ways to celebrate emotional spikes that are positive. Food seems to act as a life enhancer, while offering the illusion of short-term emotional balance.

As a food addict, you’ve established neural pathways and automatic responses for coping with life’s situations. Think of these food-related responses as deep, behavioral ruts that have become roads to regrets.

Since there is no one best way to deal with long-standing, destructive habits, each individual must find their own natural rhythm and variety of viable action.

Psychologists and neuroscientists can find many valid reasons in an individual’s past and physiognomy for addictions and other issues involving food, such as binge eating, anorexia and bulimia.

Though valuable for understanding and making long-term progress, I’ve found that focusing on your own awareness, sensitivity, and behavioral choices can lead to more immediate, accessible actions.

10 Signs That Your “Food Issues” Are Out of Control

Although I’ve been overweight or obese at various times of my life, my self-confidence seems to have minimal connection to how much I actually weighed. Perhaps that was an example of denial, a typical response in addiction.

For example, when I look at early photos of myself, I see I was probably no more than 20 pounds overweight. This may seem like a lot to you, but it’s minor in comparison to my eventual weight gain, when I peaked at 205 pounds with a 5’4” frame.

At one time, I felt like I tried everything to break my food addiction. I tried psychoanalysis, Overeaters Anonymous, various diets, calorie counting, food logs, portion awareness, and weekly weight check ins.

I eventually came to realize that it was not the number of pounds, but rather the see-sawing focus on being fat and the sensual, very short-term pleasure of food that were my distractions from healthy choices and actions.

This showed in combined habits of thinking, feeling, and eating that contributed to staying fat … and becoming fatter. Ingrained habits affected my aesthetic and social choices, from choosing clothes to the types of relationships I chose.

Over a long time, I’ve created a better, healthier life for myself — and I’ve reached a more manageable and healthy weight. Now, looking back to learn, I am in a unique position to recognize why there was no direct relationship between how much I weighed and my level of confidence in the past.

While, sure, I felt and looked better at lower weights, I eventually realized that my acceptance and level of comfort with myself was more consistently tied to a variety of other factors — none of them weight-related.

These other factors that affected my sense of self-worth, included:

  • Accomplishing personal and professional goals for myself and contributing to others’ progress.
  • Improving relationships, including being with people who are stimulating and good-hearted.
  • Being creative, adventurous, and curious.
  • Enjoying daily life, including putting myself together well.
  • Making authentic choices in behavior, work, and other activities.

So, with time, I escaped the “When I’m thin, then …” thinking and made some progress with other important aspects of living a satisfying life.

While not an overnight shift in thinking, it ws actually a health trigger that finally motivated me to let go of using food as an escape: My cholesterol was increasing and I was beginning to be at risk of diabetes. A variety of medicines did not work, and I wanted to avoid their lifelong use as much as possible.

Then, in what seemed like a flash (but was really fear of increasing ill health), I decided to go vegan about four years ago.

As I started working with the vegan approach, I immediately saw two results: Tempting food was no longer available, and I had to become more conscious of food and purchasing choices.

Within about a month of making this change, my eating compulsion weakened.

As my palate changed, sweets became too cloying. My stomach shrunk to a size that could take in only normal amounts of food comfortably.

A few years ago, I decided I needed more protein and added fish, becoming a pescatarian. Slowly, and after consulting with my internist and nutritionist about my dietary cohices, I continued to lose weight. My body proportions improved even more.

This movement forward does not mean that I never over-indulge; I just do it infrequently, move on quickly, and avoid berating myself when it happens.

You Need to Kick Your Junk Food Habit

Now, with about 15 more pounds to lose eventually, my cholesterol and blood sugar numbers are out of the danger zone, and I enjoy wearing smaller sizes that have been waiting in the closet.

Based on my experience, observation, and study, I’ve become convinced that patience and persistence, as well as good, conscious choices, are key to moving beyond food addiction.

Since they are both within yourself, you have the power to improve your situation, but only over time. Though not a quick fix, hope lies in the choices you can — and will — make. The challenge is how to become ready to take the first small steps.

To make progress toward overcoming your food addiction, start where you know you have the most influence in your life — with yourself:

1. Be Honest with Yourself About What’s Holding You Back from Progress.

  • How do you see your body, and to what or to whom do you compare yourself? (By the way, the average U.S. women’s size is 14.)
  • What thoughts and emotions do you associate with food and eating?
  • What gets in the way of improving your eating and exercise habits?
  • What emotions are catalysts in unhealthy eating and drinking at the time you indulge, and what can you do to minimize their influence or work through them?

2. Identify Social or Environmental Pressures That Lead to Over-Eating.

  • What are the social pressures that influence your eating habits? This may include get-togethers and meetings involving food, where there is little choice about what to eat and drink.
  • What can you do to minimize the negative effects of these social pressures and norms? Consider eating something healthy beforehand, letting people know you want to eat in healthy ways and asking them to help you, or suggesting alternative activities, such as taking a walk, seeing an exhibit, or sitting and talking in a park.
  • What environments stimulate unhealthy eating and exercise tendencies? Examples include passive or sedentary situations, reading magazines that tout perfect bodies, food ads, and overly rigorous exercise models.

3. Make a Plan for Action.

  • Now that you’ve done some internal investigation, what’s one, manageable goal for improvement will you set for yourself? For example, walking briskly for 30 minutes a day twice a week, keeping a food diary, adding two helpings each of vegetables and fruits to daily meals, consulting with a nutritionist, or joining a support group.
  • Write down one action step that you will do within the next 24 hours. It doesn’t have to be a big or powerful change — any small step is a step in the right direction.
  • Next, write down one action step and schedule what you will do within the next week, and schedule time for it on your calendar.
  • Keep this pattern of daily and weekly actions going, adjusting it to your needs, preferences, and experiences. If you wish, review all of your responses to the above questions regularly to help you stay motivated and to identify what to continue and what to modify.
  • On your own, or with a partner or expert, develop a more long-term, practical plan with incentives and rewards that work well for you. Just make sure there’s enough wiggle room to allow for daily realities! A plan, no matter how well thought out, is only valuable, if it’s attainable, productive, and suited to your nature.

4. Keep Your Expectations Realistic.

  • Be kind to yourself during this challenge process, and avoid focusing on slips and self-criticism. Instead, pick yourself up and start again by setting modest, manageable goals.
  • Be alert to unhelpful patterns and people, and try to stop their influence in a timely way.
  • Acknowledge any progress you make with incentives and rewards you enjoy. Perhaps you’ll treat yourself to a massage or other sensual pleasure after a week of regular exercise, or take a weekend road trip with good company after a month of healthier eating.
  • Don’t be afraid to rely on others — be it friends, family or professionals — for help. Making change is hard, and it’s not always attainable without support and cheerleading.
  • Lastly, relish the present, and expand other aspects of your life that have meaning. Remember, you’re so much more than your food addiction.

This guest article originally appeared on How To Start Overcoming Your Food Addiction (As Told By A Fellow Struggler).

Expert Tips for Overcoming Food Addiction

Last updated: 10/25/2018
Author: Medical Review

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Within the past 40 years, fast food has become a welcomed part of the American culture as hectic lifestyles and growing responsibilities leave little time for home-cooked meals. While convenient and easily accessible, fast foods contain well-known, unhealthy ingredients that deliver minimal nutritional benefits. These ingredients just so happen to taste good making fast food all the more appealing to busy people.

After so many drive-through breakfasts, lunches and dinners, convenience and accessibility can soon turn into fast food cravings and eventual fast food addiction. Fast food addictions develop like any other type of addiction with positive reinforcements paving the way. Unfortunately, a regular diet of unhealthy foods poses definite dangers to a person’s health and overall quality of life.

Lifestyle Effects

Eating fast food on a regular basis can cause diabetes.

Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, delivering large tasty food entrees within a fraction of the time it takes to cook at home, fast food restaurants have easily become a multi-billion dollar industry. Gone are the days when food was a source of sustenance and good health. Today, a fast food addiction can easily accommodate the average person’s hectic schedule while delivering little to no nutritional benefits.

Addictions are known for their effects on a person’s overall lifestyle with fast food addictions fitting the bill to a tee. Granted, the cart may have come before the horse in terms fast food meeting a need within today’s fast-paced society, the effects of fatty, sugary, salty foods create actual physical cravings not unlike those produced by drugs, nicotine and alcohol.

Children brought up inside a fast food culture are especially vulnerable to fast food addiction cravings. With addictive foods making up the bulk of a growing child’s diet, the likelihood of developing a fast food addiction by adulthood increases considerably. In effect, fast food lifestyles not only compromise a person’s present-day health but also the future health of developing children and teens.

Health Dangers

While fast food hasn’t officially entered the ranks of “junk food,” its effects on a person’s body and health are no less damaging than cupcakes, potato chips and candy. The chemical effects of salt, fat and sugar on the brain as well as the body become the driving force behind fast food addiction.

When eaten on a regular basis, fast food addictions can cause the following health problems:

  • Fatigue
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver problems
  • Kidney problems
  • Heart disease risks
  • Impaired cognitive functioning


According to Stony Brook University, rising obesity rates have become the number one public health concern of our time. Fast food addictions have played a central role in increasing the obesity rates in the United States. Obesity has been linked with a number of health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, many of which can be avoided with proper eating habits.

The combination of fast food addictions and the overall sedentary lifestyle that many people live create the perfect storm for an obesity epidemic to spread. As today’s children turn into tomorrow’s adults, obesity may easily become the norm as fast food addictions flourish.

Addicted to fast food

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