Is It Willpower Or Food Addiction?

Food addiction. It sounds like it shouldn’t even be an issue. Of course we’re addicted to food, right? Seems like the kind of “addiction” that might be helpful, even necessary. After all, food is where our energy comes from and what keeps us alive. But the truth about food addiction is far more complex and dangerous.

Addiction is defined by Webster’s dictionary this way:

1 : a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence : the state of being addicted.

2 : a strong inclination to do, use, or indulge in something repeatedly

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) doesn’t recognize food addiction per se, it does describe substance addictions at length. We know that food not only impacts the digestive system directly, but every body system, including deep interactions with the hormonal system and brain chemistry. It impacts energy levels, body composition, hormonal output and distribution and even mood and mental state.

The word food, in short, represents the most powerful class of substances with impact on the biological, neurological and electrochemical systems of the body. In other words, food is a powerful drug.

Like the drugs big pharma sells, different foods have different affects on your brain and other systems. It’s not even a slight stretch, then, to accept the widely drawn definition of food addiction offered in Wikipedia:

“A food addiction or eating addiction is a behavioral addiction that is characterized by the compulsive consumption of palatable foods which markedly activate the reward system in humans and other animals despite adverse consequences.”

Addiction to anything is nothing to take lightly. While the psychiatric and psychological communities may not see food addiction as an “official” addiction yet, others do. And they have for quite a while. A symposium published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2009 said this:

“Taken together, the articles from this symposium provide evidence that neurological similarities exist in the response of humans and rats to foods and to drugs.” (1) The researchers involved believed that food addiction was real and had “increased risk for comorbid complications as well as relapse.” The risk of other negative health outcomes associated with a food addiction (obesity, diabetes, metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, etc.) was of considerable concern to the authors of the symposium report.

We take addiction to other substances seriously as a society. Is it time we take food addiction seriously, too? Up to 20 percent of Americans are addicted to food or exhibit addictive-like eating behavior. (2) For those who are obese, the news is worse, since the percentage of obese people with this issue may be as much as twice that.


People with food addictions often say they feel out of control with regard to food. They report having no will power to resist those foods. In this way, food addiction is very much like substance addiction, since the response of a food addict to food resembles that of someone addicted to smoking, alcohol or other substance. (3, 4)

When it comes to addiction, however, not all foods are equal. Some foods are far more addictive than others, just like some people have a far greater likelihood of becoming addicted than others. While it might be relatively easy to guess which foods are addictive and which aren’t, science once again has done the heavy lifting here.

In 2015, a University of Michigan research team did a study and compiled a list of the most and least addictive foods. They got 518 people to assess how likely they were to have trouble with 35 different foods. They used the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) as a reference.

Each participant was asked to rank each of the foods on a scale of 1 (not addictive at all) to 7 (extremely addictive. As a result of their work, about 10% of the participants were diagnosed with previously unknown but fully developed food addictions.

On top of that, 92 percent of the participants were found to have addictive-like behavior with regard to one or more of the foods on the list. They repeatedly expressed a desire to stop eating them, but said they couldn’t. (5)

Beloved cartoon characters or food addicts?

It should come as no surprise that processed foods were most often rated as addictive. High in fats and sugars, these foods tend to have strong interactions in the body. According to the results of the study “processing was a large, positive predictor for whether a food was associated with problematic, addictive-like eating behaviors.”

Which food came in at #1 most addictive? The honor of being “public enemy #1” when it comes to food addiction (and the battle against body fat, many would say) is PIZZA! In 20 years of working with weight loss and fat loss clients, I would say without hesitation that pizza is the one food most dieters don’t want to give up or miss the most when they do.

What other foods are on the list? Here are the top 18, with their average scores from the study, with the YFAS as reference.

  1. pizza (4.01)
  2. chocolate (3.73)
  3. chips (3.73)
  4. cookies (3.71)
  5. ice cream (3.68)
  6. french fries (3.60)
  7. cheeseburgers (3.51)
  8. soda (not diet) (3.29)
  9. cake (3.26)
  10. cheese (3.22)
  11. bacon (3.03)
  12. fried chicken (2.97)
  13. rolls (plain) (2.73)
  14. popcorn (buttered) (2.64)
  15. breakfast cereal (2.59)
  16. gummy candy (2.57)
  17. steak (2.54)
  18. muffins (2.50)

What is it that makes these foods (and others like them that weren’t on the study list) so darned addictive in the first place? Is there something in there that makes you crave it or do you just lack willpower around tasty foods?

As it turns out, it’s not (just) you. Well, it’s sort of you. It’s your biochemistry and how processed food is manufactured. Processed foods and foods high in fat and sugar tend to overwhelm logic and willpower with a chemical appeal to the senses and the hormones. Addictive behaviors around these foods have been documented by science.It’s really not fair. (6, 7, 8)

Granted, a few of the foods on the addictive list are (mostly) natural. Steak, popcorn and chocolate are available in natural and even organic forms. The commercial or non-organic versions, however, are likely processed and have added ingredients. Most people are more likely to purchase the commercial version. But we digress.

Processed foods are generally high in calories, as well as sugar and/or fats. They cause profound blood sugar imbalances. This results in food cravings…and you know what you end up craving. More of the same!

In fact, processed foods aren’t just not natural, they’re the product of considerable engineering and experimentation. All of it is done with the purpose of making the processed food hyper-palatable – they taste really good.

But when we get right down to it, the biggest culprit (other than the food) in this addiction is really your brain. Specifically your brain and dopamine, along with some other neurochemicals.

Here’s how it works. You eat the processed food. It tastes really good. After all, it was engineered that way! The release of “feel-good” chemicals in your brain’s reward center is huge when compared to the one you get from natural, unprocessed foods. The reward response is way more intense. (9, 10, 11)

Your reward center is supposed to help you enjoy food. Without it, you may not eat enough to get the energy and nutrients you need. However, the balance this brain area has with other brain areas that are responsible for overcoming the urge to overeat is thrown off by these processed and junk foods.

This imbalance makes the brain want more reward. It responds by initiating cravings for the hyper-rewarding foods (engineered that way, remember?) This is bad news for your brain, your diet and your waistline. The cycle of craving and reward almost certainly leads to addictive-like eating behavior or, put simply, food addiction. (12, 13)

Can we actually avoid food addictions? It seems like just about everything that tastes good is processed, high in fat, high in sugar or all of the above.

Your best defense against food addiction is to eat a diet composed of natural foods or those closest to their natural form. Whole and single ingredient foods are a great start. These foods have a normal impact on the reward system in your brain and are far less likely to trigger overeating.

Here’s something that may help. The same University of Michigan team that identified the highly addictive foods also came up with a list of “non-offenders,” foods considered least addictive.

Here’s that list:

  1. cucumbers (1.53)
  2. carrots (1.60)
  3. beans (no sauce) (1.63)
  4. apples (1.66)
  5. brown rice (1.74)
  6. broccoli (1.74)
  7. bananas (1.77)
  8. salmon (1.84)
  9. corn (no butter or salt) (1.87)
  10. strawberries (1.88)
  11. granola bar (1.93)
  12. water (1.94)
  13. crackers (plain) (2.07)
  14. pretzels (2.13)
  15. chicken breast (2.16)
  16. eggs (2.18)
  17. nuts (2.47)

Notice anything? With the exception of crackers, pretzels and granola bars, they are all whole, single ingredient foods. Kind of proves the point, don’t you think?

Here’s some nutrition advice that everyone can use. Eat real food. Eat natural food. Take the time to enjoy your food. Avoid the garbage.

Not only will you avoid food addictions, you’ll find weight loss and management a lot easier. You’ll sleep better, feel better and probably live longer and be happier. That’s a reward you can live with, addiction free!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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