Do you sometimes feel like you are addicted to food?
You may have heard that foods like sugar light up your brain with dopamine just like cocaine!
But getting a hug, getting a like on Facebook/Instagram, getting a smile from the cute boy/girl across the room, making love, holding a baby, patting your dog, getting a promotion and helping that old lady cross the road also give us a dopamine hit!
If food is addictive, should we define everything good for us and that we enjoy as addictive?
In many ways, your drive to seek food is beneficial. If we didn’t get a dopamine hit from food, if we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t seek it out. We would forget to eat, and we’d starve!
Drugs like naltrexone can be used to downregulate our endogenous opioid response to dopamine. However, people using naltrexone don’t just lose interest in the substance they are addicted to but they also may develop depression and suicidal thoughts.
I think it’s more relevant to ask:
- what is it about some foods that drive us to eat more than is good for us, and
- what can we do to manage our gorge instinct for foods that we find addictive?
While food addiction is a commonly used term, it is still not widely accepted in the research literature. Whether we can be addicted to something that we need to survive is arguable.
The bottom line though is that our biology is optimised for an environment of scarcity. But it’s as if we have been airlifted into a world of energy toxicity that has only been made possible by modern hacks (e.g. synthetic fertilisers, artificial colours and flavourings and food processing).
What is addiction?
Before we go any further, let’s define addiction.
“Addiction is a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm.”
The key here is harm. To a starving caveman, a doughnut would pretty much be optimal while high satiety foods would be a bad choice. A starving caveman will die if they don’t get food, so the dopamine response is critical to survival. However, in our modern food environment, there are plenty of “foods” that cause physical and psychological harm!
The downsides of thinking in terms of food addiction
The problem with thinking of food as addictive is that we can become disempowered.
Food becomes “bad” and something to be avoided, something to feel guilty about rather than celebrated and enjoyed to nourish us and enable us to live our best life.
Food addiction constitutes a medicalisation of common eating behaviours, taking on the properties of disease. The use of this medical language has implications for the way in which society views overeating and obesity. (Findlayson, Food addiction and obesity: unnecessary medicalisation of hedonic overeating, Nature Reviews Endocrinology, May 2017)
If we medicalise our behaviour, we are more likely to adopt a victim mentality and take less responsibility for our choices. While people feel they are addicted to sugar, the research doesn’t tend to support sugar as being addictive.
We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviours likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar. (Sugar addiction: the state of the science, Ziauddeen et al., European Journal of Nutrition, 2016).
Whole foods that naturally contain sugar (e.g. unprocessed vegetables and fruit) don’t necessarily drive overeating. The sugar content in our food system trended closely with obesity until 1999 when artificial sweeteners were introduced. We no longer require as much added sugar (e.g. high fructose corn syrup) to produce a hyperpalatable sweet taste. Since then, food manufacturers have continued to find more effective ways to create products that drive us to eat more, even without sugar.
It’s fair to say that some foods cause “addiction-like behaviour”. But whether or not food causes full-on neurochemical dependence the way that drugs like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and cocaine do, and how we define the line between a healthy relationship with food that is critical to surviving and a full-blown addiction is open to further discussion.
Why do we feel like we are addicted to food?
Before you give up on optimal health and abdicate responsibility due to your food addiction, it’s useful to think about why some foods seem to drive an uncontrollable gorge instinct.
Is the problem with you or the food?
I find it useful to think in terms of circannual chrononutrition (i.e. the foods available in nature change through autumn, winter, spring and summer). Once we understand how particular foods provided by nature in autumn would have driven us to eat more to survive, we can reverse engineer the problem and create an effective solution.
To borrow from Robb Wolf, we are very much Wired to Eat. A large amount of our biology and the technology that we have developed revolves around getting enough food.
There were special times of the year when the stars aligned and nature provided us with a bounty of “comfort foods” that, like Beadnose the bear (pictured in both photos below), we needed to get fat to survive the coming winter. But those foods weren’t available for long. If we didn’t gorge when we had the opportunity, we might not have been able to survive the winter.
In the past, the ability to get fat for winter was a massive survival advantage! But after winter comes spring and a food environment that enabled us to shed our winter fat and start the cycle over again.
Check out the following articles for more background on circannual nutrition:
- Don’t Eat for Winter
- Escaping our infinite autumn
- Optimal macros for fat loss, maintenance and bulking
- The Secrets To Sustainable Protein Sparing Modified Fast
It makes sense that we’d developed a gorge instinct and a larger dopamine response for these rare and unique foods. This “food addiction” and gorge instinct was critical to our survival and outsized dopamine hit was the way that we ensured that we got enough food in this critical period to survive.
But today we’ve perfected the manufacture of engineered foods that follow this unique autumnal formula all year round. We can import a banana from somewhere in the world whenever we want. We have also managed to solve the food security problem in developed countries with infinite energy from fat+carbs sourced from large scale agriculture fuelled by synthetic fertiliser to create hyperpalatable foods that were rare in nature a few decades ago!
Our modern processed hyperpalatable foods effectively send a message to our subconscious instincts to binge NOW because winter is coming. Our conscious brain and ambitions for abs are no match for our reptilian survival instincts.
It’s this tension between our conscious brain trying to restrict, and our subconscious mind telling us to EAT IT ALL NOW that drives us crazy and makes us feel like we are addicted to modern hyper-palatable engineered foods.
Particular foods that drive a greater dopamine reward
Getting a dopamine hit from food is a good thing. We should enjoy the food that nourishes us. Although these hyper-autumnal foods can play a role in our lives (e.g. at celebrations and parties), we should be able to trust our cravings for food that help us seek out what we need at a particular time.
Experiments back in 1990 demonstrated that rats experience hyperphagia (i.e. uncontrollable binge eating) when they are exposed to foods that are a combination of energy-dense foods that contain a similar amount of energy from fat+carbs.
Our analysis of MyFitnessPal data shows a similar trend. We tend to eat significantly more when our food matches the autumnal carb+fat profile.
This 2018 paper in Cell Metabolism showed that we get a “supra-additive” dopamine hit from foods that are a mixture of fat+carbs. We are willing to part with more money for these foods on a calorie for calorie basis. From an evolutionary biology perspective, you can see how these foods would have been highly valued because they enable us to consume a lot of energy quickly.
Energy was hard to come by, and energy-dense foods that quickly filled our fat and carb fuel pathways were rare and highly valued. This double dopamine hit ensures that these fat+carb ‘comfort foods’ have a special place in our hearts. We go out of our way to get them if they are available. And when you start, you probably won’t stop until they’re all gone.
Being able to get enough energy quickly ensured you were able to be fertile and make and feed babies. This attraction to these comfort foods is hard-wired into our brain. This instinct has served us well and has ensured the survival of our species. However, over the last century in America, food processing technology has enabled us to consume foods that are closer to this autumnal combination of carbs and fat.
The situation is similar in China, where vegetable oils have been added to their rice-based diet to increase the amount of available (and hyperpalatable) energy and now fuels a growing obesity epidemic.
On an international level, we see a similar trend. The chart below (by Cian Foley of Don’t Eat for Winter) shows that the countries that get more of their energy from a combination of fat (yellow line) and carbs (blue line) have a higher chance of being more obese (green line).
Rather than feeling like a victim and wracked with guilt for your lack of willpower due to your “food addiction”, you can reframe your thinking to empower you to avoid the foods that you are powerless to resist due to your healthy biology.
Rather than telling yourself “I am addicted to food” it may be more useful to say to yourself:
- “I exhibit addiction-like behaviours to processed foods.”
- “I am biologically programmed to binge on hyper autumnal foods.”
- “My conscious will power is no match for the instincts of my reptilian brain when it is exposed to engineered foods that are rare in nature.”
By understanding the factors that drive addiction-like behaviour, we can quantitatively reverse engineer our food environment to reduce our exposure to these hyper autumnal “foods”.
The percentage of protein in your diet is a significant determinant of your likelihood to eat more. As shown in the frequency distribution chart below, not many people consistently consume more than 50% of their energy from protein due to the strong satiety effect. Optimisers tend 22% of their energy from protein on average, with the general population consuming around 13 – 15%.
Our analysis of data from Optimisers shows that people who consume a diet that consists of 35% protein will consume 20% fewer calories than someone consuming 20% of their calories from protein.
As well as helping you to build and repair your muscles, the amino acids in protein play a critical role as precursors to your neurotransmitters. Your reptilian instincts work to make sure you are getting enough of these amino acids to allow your brain to function.
- Your body uses the amino acid tryptophan from your food to create serotonin (which is critical for improving your mood) and melatonin (which is crucial for healthy sleep cycles).
- Phenylalanine slows the action of enzymes that degrade the endorphins ( your body’s feel-good hormones), which help to reduce the effect of psychological and physical pain.
- Your body uses glutamate in your diet to make GABA which helps to relax you, increase calmness and improve your stress tolerance. Increasing the GABA in your system will also help you to sleep better, improve your appetite and reduce your cravings for alcohol, marijuana, smoking and comfort foods.
- Adequate tyrosine and phenylalanine in your diet will boost your catecholamines (e.g. dopamine) which will help to boost your alertness, energy levels, focus, drive and enthusiasm for life and reduce your dependence on substances like caffeine, Adderall, chocolate and sweets.
Is it any wonder so many of us are using Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) for depression and sleeping aids like Ambien when we’re consuming more and more hyper autumnal hyperpalatable foods? Prioritising adequate protein is critical to managing your mental health, insomnia and your binge instincts.
See Why does protein suppress your appetite? for more details.
Energy from fat+carbs
Once you’ve obtained adequate protein, it’s more about managing your intake of accessible energy from fat and carbs rather than eating MORE protein. Avoiding foods that are a combination of fat and carbs with low protein is the secret formula for managing your binge instincts.
Greater than 30% fat and greater than 30% net carbs is the formula for modern hyperpalatable processed foods. The chart below shows how the amount of fat and carbs has increased since the 1960s (data from the USDA Economic Research Service and the CDC).
The energy in the food system went from around 3,200 calories to 4,300 calories per person per day!
While sugar lights up your dopamine receptors, omega 6 fats lead to hyperactivity of the endocannabinoid system (similar to marijuana). It’s no wonder we feel addicted to foods that are a combination of sugar, starch and refined vegetable oils.
We have learned to seek out easy energy. We eat more calories when we have access to foods that contain more energy from fat and carbs. We are also able to metabolise more of those calories in our body.
The table below shows the foods in the USDA food database that have greater than 30% fat and greater than 30% net carbs, sorted by nutrient density. If anything is going to be “addictive”, it’s these foods!
|names||% protein||% fat||% net carbs||% fibre||ND score|
|mashed potatoes (with butter)||7%||42%||43%||7%||33%|
|human breast milk||6%||55%||39%||0%||13%|
|ice cream cone||6%||55%||38%||1%||7%|
|choc chip cookies||4%||42%||52%||2%||4%|
|Girl Scout Cookies||3%||46%||48%||4%||3%|
The only naturally occurring foods on this list are acorns and human breast milk. The rest are “comfort foods” or modern processed junk foods that have been engineered to enable us to eat more of them while providing very little in the way of protein or nutrients.
These foods may be great if you have just run a marathon, but not so good if you’re a couch potato with some extra fat to lose. Our ancestors would have loved these foods because they provide a lot of energy quickly with minimal effort and would have enabled them to survive through winter.
How to identify addictive foods
Unfortunately, it’s hard to be unbiased when it comes to choosing foods that are good for us. Our preferences are influenced by our culture (e.g. that lasagne mum used to make to cheer you up or the ice-cream grandma gave you as a special treat) and the dopamine hit that they give us.
To eliminate our biases, it can be helpful to look at the data to identify the foods that are less likely to make us binge. Recently, some smart friends of mine have developed some very useful tools.
The first cool tool is the Protein:Energy Ratio Calculator created by Dr Ted Naiman. Food contains protein and energy from fat and carbs. If your goal is to consume more energy to grow or be active, you want to eat foods with a lower P:E ratio.
Conversely, if your goal is to eat less and avoid binge eating, you want to focus on foods with a higher P:E ratio than you currently eat. You can access Ted’s handy calculator here to check how your favourite foods stack up.
The other cool tool is Cian Foley’s Squirrel Formula Calculator. You can enter your favourite foods to see how closely they match the autumnal formula for acorns (which squirrels use to build fat for winter) and human breast milk (which helps babies grow quickly).
While high protein, low carb or low fat will all reduce your chances of binging.
Some people seem to be ‘moderators’ and can eat half a doughnut without wanting to consume the whole box. But these people are rare.
The propensity to binge until it’s all gone seems to be somewhat related to your baseline diet. If you’re able to eat enough food that provides adequate nutrients most of the time, you send a signal to your body that there is plenty of good food available.
However, if you’re eating nutrient-poor food most of the time, your body is more likely to go into panic/binge mode and you won’t be able to find the off switch when you have access to these foods. Our analysis shows that we eat significantly less when our food contains more nutrients per calorie.
See The effect of minerals on hunger and satiety, Which vitamins (and how much) do you need for weight loss and satiety? and Which fats will make you skinny? for more details on the effect of micronutrients on satiety.
Acclimatising to a changing bliss point
Another characteristic of addiction is acclimatisation to increasing levels of stimulation.
Food scientists spend a lot of time and money testing, before they bring a product to market, to optimise the formula for the “bliss point” that more people will find more pleasurable.
This technique was perfected by psychophysicist Howie Moskowitz in the 80s to optimise parameters such as flavour intensity, fat and sugar.
It’s interesting to note that this bliss point has been shifting as we have become more and more acclimated to processed foods. Food manufacturers have had to use more intense flavours to keep people hooked on their products.
What’s the solution to overcome food addiction?
Similar to the way that food manufacturers optimise the products to target the bliss point and maximise the dopamine hit, we have used the data from Optimisers to reverse engineer satiety to identify food and meals that will help you take back control of your appetite while getting all the nutrients that you need to thrive and manage your cravings.
Do you need to quit “cold turkey”?
Most people don’t manage to quit anything cold turkey without relapsing. Rather than adopting a meal plan for a short time that you’re unlikely to stick with, we recommend you progressively incorporate new foods and meals that align with your goals and phase out the old foods and meals as you lose your cravings for them.
We think most people need about 30 foods and 30 meals that they enjoy eating regularly align with their goals. We call this YOUR OPTIMAL 30/30. This concept is the foundation of our Nutritional Optimisation Masterclass that helps you find YOUR OPTIMAL 30/30.
Don’t worry. Nutritional Optimisation does not involve the elimination of all pleasurable and tasty dopamine-producing foods. These tools will help you to incrementally and progressively refine your diet just enough to keep you moving and get the results you need.
- We get a ‘dopamine hit’ to reinforce healthy behaviours (such as eating) to ensure we continue to do them.
- In nature, it is beneficial for us to store some extra fat to survive the coming winter.
- Before the creation of modern processed foods, higher fat foods were typically plentiful in winter while higher carb foods were more plentiful in summer. Lean protein foods tended to be available in spring to enable us to lean out after winter.
- Fat and carbs are only available together in and drive a higher dopamine hit to ensure we eat more to survive the coming winter when food may be less plentiful.
- Today, modern processed food has been engineered to maximise our dopamine response, which tends to drive autumnal ‘hyperphagia’ 365 days a year and produce “addiction-like behaviours”.
- If you are looking to control your appetite and lose fat you can reverse engineer this animal dopamine response by prioritising high satiety foods and meals that provide adequate protein and nutrients with less calories from the combination of fat and carbohydrates.