How Food Addiction Works (and What to do About it)

Young Woman Looking at Unhealthy FoodsIf you’ve ever tried to cut back on junk food, you may have realized that it is easier said than done.

We tend to get cravings… the brain starts calling for these foods.

Even though our rational, conscious mind “knows” that they are bad for us, some other part of our brain seems to disagree.

Some people don’t have this problem and can easily control the types of foods they eat.

Other people don’t seem to have any control whatsoever.

Despite their best intentions, they repeatedly find themselves eating unhealthy foods, even when they have previously decided not to eat them.

While some people think this is caused by a lack of willpower, the situation can be much more complicated than that.

The fact is… junk foods stimulate the reward system in the brain in the same way as drugs of abuse like cocaine.

For susceptible people, eating junk foods can lead to full-blown addiction, which shares the same biological basis as addiction to drugs of abuse (1).

How Does Food Addiction Work?

There is a system in our brain called the reward system.

This system was designed to “reward” us when we do things that encourage our survival. This includes primal behaviors like eating.

The brain knows that when we eat, we’re doing something “right,” and releases a bunch of feel-good chemicals in the reward system, such as the neurotransmitter dopamine – interpreted by our brains as pleasure.

The brain is hardwired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine in the reward system.

The problem with modern junk foods is that they can cause a reward that is way more powerful than anything we were ever exposed to in nature.

Whereas eating an apple or a piece of steak might cause a moderate release of dopamine, eating a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is so incredibly rewarding that it releases a massive amount.

This Can Lead to Tolerance and Withdrawal – The Hallmarks of Physical Addiction

When people repeatedly do something that releases dopamine in the reward system (such as smoking a cigarette or eating a Snickers bar), the dopamine receptors can start to down-regulate.

When the brain sees that the amount of dopamine is too high, it starts removing the dopamine receptors in order to keep things “balanced.”

When you have fewer receptors, you need more dopamine to reach the same effect, which causes people to start eating more junk food to reach the same level of reward as before.

This is called tolerance.

If you have fewer dopamine receptors, then you will have very little dopamine activity and you will start to feel unhappy if you don’t get your junk food “fix.”

This is called withdrawal.

Tolerance and withdrawal are the hallmarks of physical addiction.

Multiple studies in rats show that they can become physically addicted to junk food in the same way as they become addicted to drugs of abuse (2).

Of course, all of this is a drastic oversimplification, but this is basically how food addiction (and any addiction) works.

This can lead to various characteristic effects on behavior and thought patterns.

Cravings Are a Key Feature of Addiction

A craving is an emotional state, a desire to consume a certain food. It should not be confused with simple hunger, which is different.

Cravings sometimes seem to appear out of thin air.

We might be doing mundane things… watching our favorite TV show, walking the dog, reading… then suddenly a craving for something like ice cream appears.

Even though the cravings sometime seem to come out of nowhere, they can also be turned on by certain triggers, which are known as cues.

Walking past an ice cream parlor, the smell of pizza… these can turn on a craving.

But they can also be turned on by certain emotional states, such as feeling depressed or lonely. Emotional eating, anyone?

A true craving is about satisfying the brain’s need for dopamine. It has nothing to with the body’s need for energy or nourishment.

When a craving occurs, it can start to dominate your attention.

It can be very hard to think of something else and it can be hard to remember why on earth you had decided that you weren’t going to eat junk food.

It isn’t unusual to get cravings, most people do get them in some form.

But if you find yourself repeatedly giving in to cravings and eating junk foods, despite having previously made a decision not to, then that’s definitely NOT normal.

For food addicts, these cravings can be so powerful that they cause people to break rules they had set for themselves (such as only eating unhealthy on Saturdays) and constantly overeat despite them knowing that it is causing them physical harm.

Rewards, Which Can Sometimes Turn into Binges

When you finally give in to the craving… then it’s time for the reward, which is what all of this is about.

Now you eat that particular food until your brain has received all that dopamine that it was missing.

The more often you repeat this cycle of craving and rewarding yourself, the stronger it becomes and the more food you need each time.

Whereas 4 scoops of ice cream sufficed three years ago, today you may need 8 scoops to experience the same level of reward.

It can be almost impossible to eat “in moderation” when you are satisfying an addiction-driven craving.

That’s why it is hopeless for people to just have a small slice of cake or a few M&M’s. It’s like telling a smoker to only smoke 1/4th of a cigarette to cut back, it simply does NOT work.

This Can Lead to Complicated, Addict-Like Behaviors

Over time, food addiction can cause severe physical and psychological problems.

Many people who have been struggling with food addiction for a long time can start hiding their consumption from others, can suffer from depression and have a severely broken self esteem.

This is compounded by the fact that most people don’t even realize that they’re addicted to food and simply think that they’re weak and undisciplined.

What to do About it?

Unfortunately… there is no easy solution to addiction. There is no supplement, mental trick or magical solution out there.

Whereas some people may need to learn how to control their consumption, it may be best for others to avoid these foods completely. If you have struggled with food addiction, then it may be best to seek professional help.

Psychiatrists and psychologists can help. There are also organizations like OA (Overeaters Anonymous), which anyone can join for free.

Binge eating disorder (which I think is pretty much identical to food addiction) is currently classified as an eating disorder in the DSM-V, the official manual that mental health professionals use to define mental disorders.

You can find some more info about food addiction on this page.

14 Comments

  1. “A true craving is about satisfying the brain’s need for dopamine. It has nothing to with the body’s need for energy or nourishment.” – This helps me put the cravings into better perspective.

    This is why it is that nagging, relentless feeling to eat the sugary food. It’s not coming from hunger. It’s hard to realize this when I am in the moment of a craving… but good to keep in mind.

  2. Also: This all occurs in the subconscious part of the brain and or physiological body.

    There are other chemicals beyond dopamine, e.g. serotonin, opioids, endorphins that cause similar issues in the brain. Shortage of leptin, inositol, many minerals and vitamins or excess ghrelin and insulin cause similar issue but body based.

    The excesses can be consumed or produced by us, the body. Or we can have a receptor problem, we just cannot see the dopamine (or other chemical).

    The solution is conscious control of our food intake.

  3. Conscious control of food intake is all very well and good but does not always suffice when you get cravings :-(

    What does work for me is a high intake of saturated fat with my meals (combined with low-carb, of course). LCHF (low carb, high fat) keeps my cravings under control most of the time and when I do get cravings something like Brie cheese or a bit of Almond butter often make them subside.

    I have just begun to master 16:8 intermittent fasting and that seems also to help keep my cravings at bay and will hopefully keep me from falling into the black void of sugar cravings for a long time yet.

  4. I wish everyone knew this info. Really puts it into perspective. Good read :)

  5. After reading your other articles on food addiction, I realized without a doubt that I’m a food addict. Three weeks ago I started the LCRF lifestyle by eliminating all wheat, sugar and refined foods and following your suggestions regarding oils. If it’s not real food, I don’t eat it.

    I haven’t felt better in years. There is already less inflammation in my joints, I have more energy, no sugar highs/lows and very few cravings (which shocked me).

    I can’t thank you enough, Kris, for sharing your insight on this site and I’m so happy an acquaintance led me to research a LCRF lifestyle.

    I now am coaching my daughters about better dietary choices and they’re pleased with the change in their life as well. Vegetables sautéed in coconut oil then scrambled with farm fresh eggs is our new favorite breakfast!

    • That is awesome, Kim. Congrats!

      • I couldn’t agree with Kim more. I started low carb a week ago and lost 7 lbs so far. I have gained 40 lbs in a year and a half after I quit smoking. Had cravings for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream every night. Now I make a omellette at night if I get hungry. Thanks sooooo much Kris!

  6. Intriguing. That’s how much power the human brain wields. And true, bacon specifically has been found to trigger the same emotional response as heroin. Great piece.

  7. Just wanted to thank you for your research. While my weight has not changed dramatically, my percentage of fat has. I work out with a trainer and we have tracked my body composition. This morning, the machine says I have traded 16 lbs of fat for muscle in the 6 months that I have been doing this. I have a ton of energy now! I just haven’t figured out why it’s still hard to get up and go to the gym in the morning…

  8. Phil Deans says:

    I started a program just under 6 months ago which works very much on the premise of what this excellent website has stated about food addiction. I have abstained from flour and sugar and have lost 55 lbs using the skinny coach solution.

    Rewiring your brain to not feed the pleasure areas leads inevitably to them atrophying and the addiction eventually coming under control.

  9. Sue Berry says:

    This article is one of the best I have read in plain English. I am a addicted to sweets, normally can go several days without ice cream then it hits me.

    I started Paleo about four months ago lost 34 lbs. It’s not fast, however very effective. I do fine, the more I stay away from refined sugars, flour, wheat products, the less I have cravings. My big save is have a pitcher of water ready to drink with slices of lemon, lime, orange, mint ready to all day.

    If I don’t get it, I crave it. Thanks for your info.

  10. William Sousae says:

    I recommend interested persons check out Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA). People in the program are very successful at making life long sustained changes in their eating habits and there is no cost to join. Its structure is very different from O.A. See http://www.foodaddictsanonymous.org.

  11. I have to agree with what Suzanne said. I lived through binge eating for years. I had cravings that I just could not control. Nine months ago I changed my diet to high fat and low carb. The cravings STOPPED. I have not had a single binge in that time.

    I lost 53 pounds, my joints no longer ache, my asthma improved and I just plain feel great. Just this past weekend I found myself eating a good bit of chocolate for the first time. Wow, did the cravings come back!

    Also like Suzanne, I find that some cheese or just about anything fatty quells that craving and puts me back on track. I’ve had no more cravings since. As far as I’m concerned, there is no other way to eat.

  12. I am curious about whether or not the type of food “cravings” that are being discussed here could also be linked to nutrient deficiencies?

    Also, some commenters have mentioned using other foods (such as healthy fats or eggs) to sort of quench or quell their cravings, could this be an alternative or perhaps be in addition to simply cutting out the craved foods?

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