Fact: Food is Addictive

November 11, 2011

Brain activity reports of obese and compulsive eaters reveal changes in brain reward pathways similar to those experienced by drug abusers.

Have you been hearing the rumors regarding the addictive nature of processed foods and sugary drinks? The talk isn’t just rumors. It’s based on hard science. In fact, in the past year around twenty-eight scientific studies and papers have focused on food addiction, and the results are shocking researchers and leaving the food industry in a state of disbelief.
The bulk of the research conducted at leading universities and government laboratories on the topic suggests that processed foods and sugary drinks aren’t simply unhealthy, but the foods are seriously addictive. Some studies have shown strong similarities with the way in which the brain reacts to drug addictions such as cocaine.
Unfortunately, the U.S. and many developed countries around the world are facing an obesity epidemic - some even going as far as to say the problem is pandemic - which means have little (to no) time to dispute the science that suggests processed and sugary foods (which are principally designed to get people to like them and eat more) are addictive. Currently, a third of U.S. adults and around 17% of teens and children are obese. Even more are overweight.
In a comment to Bloomberg.com, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said, “The data is so overwhelming, the field has to accept it. We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.”
Humans obtain their calories from three primary sources: the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates. They are all necessary in the diet for good health, and we are innately programmed to seek out these macronutrients. Unfortunately (and fortunately), our food environment today consists largely of processed foods of questionable quality, i.e. large amounts of added sugars (the smallest unit of a carbohydrate), unhealthy and over processed fats, refined flours and little if any naturally occurring fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Researchers are beginning to believe that consuming large quantities of processed foods may be changing the “wiring” in our brains. Controlled lab studies have found that sugary drinks and fatty foods produce addictive behaviors in animals. Brain activity reports of obese and compulsive eaters reveal changes in brain reward pathways similar to those experienced by drug abusers.
David Ludwig, professor at both Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, explains that, “Highly processed foods may cause rapid spikes and declines in blood sugar, increasing cravings and alternating feelings of sluggishness and pleasure."  The roller coaster that many feel from meal to meal fuels the desire for processed foods, which temporarily leave us in a pleasurable state. Education, diets and drugs to treat obesity have proven largely ineffective, and this new science may explain why. Unless Americans switch to a fresh whole foods diet, it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to break the cycle and reverse the obesity crisis anytime soon.