Do you ever feel ‘addicted to food’?
You may have heard that ‘sugar lights up your brain with dopamine just like cocaine’.
With that logic, it’s no wonder so many people claim they feel addicted to eating!
But sugar isn’t the only thing that gives us a dopamine hit. There are many other things that trigger our dopamine rewards system to make us feel good and want more, like:
- giving or receiving a hug,
- getting a like on Facebook or Instagram,
- catching a smile from someone cute across the room,
- making love,
- holding a baby,
- petting your dog,
- receiving a promotion, and
- helping that old lady cross the road!
If food is addictive because it stimulates your dopamine reward system, should we classify everything that makes us feel good and want more as ‘addictive’?
Our dopamine pathways help to ensure we do the things necessary to survive. If we didn’t get a dopamine hit from food, we wouldn’t seek it out, forget to eat, and starve to death!
So, perhaps it’s more useful to ask:
- What is it about some foods that drive us to eat more than is good for us?
- How can we manage our instincts to gorge on foods we find addictive? and
- How can I change what I eat to lower my risk of addictive behaviour around food?
This article will help you understand why some foods make you feel addicted to them and how you can change how you eat to ensure you give your body what it needs.
- Is Food Addiction Real?
- What is Addiction?
- The Downsides of Thinking in Terms of Food Addiction
- Can You Be Addicted to Eating Food?
- Is the Problem You or Our Modern Food Environment?
- What Causes Addictive Eating?
- Can You Be Addicted to Sugar?
- What Is the Main Cause of Food Addiction?
- What Does Food Addiction Do to the Brain?
- What Is the Most Common Food Addiction?
- Acclimatising to a Changing Bliss Point
- Can Food Addiction Be Cured?
- How Do You Get Rid of Food Addiction?
- Non-Food Factors to Manage
- How Long Does It Take to Break a Food Addiction?
- Do You Need to Quit ‘Cold Turkey’?
Is Food Addiction Real?
Although you might see the term ‘food addiction’ used on social media, it’s not widely used or accepted in the research literature. It’s arguable whether we can be addicted to carbs, addicted to fat, addicted to protein, or addicted to anything else we need to survive.
Our bodies adapted to an environment where scarcity was common. Humans adapted to withstand cycles of feast and famine. But modern advancements like food processing, synthetic fertilisers, artificial colours and flavourings, and have teleported our biology into a world of hyper-palatable foods for which our survival instincts are no match.
It’s no wonder many people feel like they are ‘addicted to food’.
What is Addiction?
Before we go any further, we should 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 be ideal. Nutrient-dense, high-satiety foods would not be optimal. Our starving caveman needs plenty of energy NOW – not broccoli, salmon or chicken breast!
It’s critical to consider the context when determining whether a food is more or less optimal for your current goals.
The fact that both fat and carbs elicit a dopamine response ensures we’re motivated to seek our food. If a starving caveman had no dopamine response to food, he would starve and die.
While these high-calorie, reward-stimulating foods are helpful for someone starving in the wild, plenty of ‘foods’ in our modern food environment can cause physical and psychological harm if consumed consistently and regularly!
Given that so many of us are unable to stop consuming the very foods that are harming our physical and mental health, it’s not unreasonable to feel you are addicted to food.
The Downsides of Thinking in Terms of Food Addiction
However, the problem with thinking of food as ‘addictive’ is that we become disempowered.
Once you define yourself as someone who is addicted to food, you see yourself as a victim with no control over your own destiny.
With this mentality locked in, we start to see all food as ‘bad’ instead of choosing more optimal foods that will empower us.
Instead of feeling grateful for having it, enjoying it and celebrating it for nourishing us, we begin to fear it. All food becomes our enemy.
Food addiction constitutes a medicalisation of common eating behaviours, taking on 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 hedonic overeating, we are less likely to take responsibility for our choices.
Can You Be Addicted to Eating Food?
Whether or not you believe food addiction is real, it’s reasonable to say that some foods cause ‘addictive-like behaviour’. However, it’s open to debate whether or not food causes neurochemical dependence the way drugs like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and cocaine do, as is how we define the line between a healthy relationship with food that is critical to survival and a full-blown dependence.
Before you decide you are ‘addicted to food’ and give up on optimal health and abdicate any nutritional responsibility, it’s helpful to understand why some foods seem to drive an uncontrollable gorge instinct.
Is the Problem You or Our Modern Food Environment?
To understand how you are wired to eat, it can be helpful to think in terms of circannual chrononutrition and how the foods naturally available change in autumn, winter, spring, and summer, and how our bodies respond to them.
It’s interesting to see how the seasons correspond to different popular dietary approaches that many people find success with.
|Winter||Protein and fat, with fewer carbs||Low carb/keto||Moderate weight loss|
|Spring||Protein and fibre, with less carbs and fat||Protein-sparing modified fast||Aggressive weight loss|
|Summer||More carbs, with less protein and fat.||Low fat||Moderate weight loss|
|Autumn||Fat + carbs with less protein and fibre||Modern processed food||Weight gain|
Over the past century, with the increase in industrial agriculture and food processing, our food has become more autumnal, with a similar combination of fat and carbs. Popular diets like low fat, low carb and high protein effectively turn back the clock in our food system to days gone by before we had ultra-processed foods that mix cheap fat and carbs to overdrive our dopamine circuits.
What Causes Addictive Eating?
To quote Robb Wolf, we are Wired to Eat.
A large amount of our biology and the technology we have developed throughout human evolution revolves around getting enough food. Our survival has centred around creative ways to obtain more food that we needed.
During autumn, the stars aligned, and mother nature provided a bounty of ‘comfort foods’ we needed to get fat to survive the coming winter. In this sense, we are just like Beadnose the Bear, pictured in both photos below, just four months apart.
However, in nature, those foods weren’t available for long! If we didn’t gorge on them when we had the opportunity, we might not have survived the winter. Our dopamine response to these unique foods was critical. Humans that forgot to binge on the available foods were less likely to survive through winter and procreate and become our ancestors.
But after winter comes spring, and the foods naturally available to us allowed us to shed our winter fat so we could start the cycle over again.
It makes sense that we have such a significant dopamine response for these rare and unique foods. During evolutionary times, it was what encouraged us to gorge on them when they became available so we could ensure our survival.
For more background on circannual nutrition, check out:
- Don’t Eat for Winter
- Escaping Our Infinite Autumn
- Optimal Macros for Fat Loss, Maintenance, and Bulking
- Secrets of the Nutrient-Dense Protein Sparing Modified Fast
Can You Be Addicted to Sugar?
Whole foods like unprocessed fruits and vegetables containing sugar don’t usually drive overeating, at least to the extent that engineered junk food does.
While people feel they are addicted to sugar, the research doesn’t tend to show sugar alone is 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
Until the introduction of artificial sweeteners in 1999, the added sugar in our food system trended closely with obesity. But now we have chemical sweeteners, we no longer require as much added sugar from high-fructose corn syrup to produce a hyper-palatable sweet taste.
Since 2000, food manufacturers have continued to find more effective ways to create products that drive us to eat more without as much added sugar. Now they can sell us even cheaper vegetable oils with colours and flavourings that we struggle to stop eating.
As an interesting aside, sugar is a mixture of glucose and fructose. Some of the fructose is converted to fat in your liver. This means that sugar can fill our glucose and fat fuel tanks at the same time, which stimulates a supraphysiological dopamine response. Before international shipping, fruit was only seasonably available and let us store fat for winter.
But most people are not getting fat on the sugar in plain fruit. It’s the sugar that is added to ultra-processed foods, along with flour and industrial seed oils (like in the Oreo cookies below), that really gets us into trouble.
What Is the Main Cause of Food Addiction?
Thanks to agricultural advancements, we’ve managed to grow, harvest, and process cheap grains at an industrial scale and use them as raw ingredients to create hyper-palatable, modern, processed foods that are low-cost and high-profit margin.
The chart below shows the staggering increase in industrial seed oils over the past half-century. When mixed with refined flour, flavourings and colourings, these foods create irresistible bargain foods and fill the centre isles of our supermarkets.
But unfortunately, while our ingenuity has solved the food security problem in most developed nations, we’ve managed to create a new and perhaps bigger problem: diabesity.
What Does Food Addiction Do to the Brain?
Modern, processed, hyper-palatable foods that combine carbs and fat year-round effectively send our subconscious instincts a message to binge NOW because winter is coming.
Despite our conscious brain’s best efforts, our strong-willed self-deprivation is no match for our reptilian survival instincts. So, resisting when your Lizard Brain takes over is almost impossible!
It is not a failure of your willpower but rather your innate biology working to ensure you survive.
The tension between our conscious brain trying to restrict and our subconscious mind telling us to EAT IT ALL NOW eventually drives us crazy. We feel addicted and can’t live without modern, hyper-palatable, engineered foods.
What Is the Most Common Food Addiction?
Getting a dopamine hit from food is good; we should enjoy the food that nourishes us! Our analysis has shown that we have cravings for not just carbs and fat, but also protein and other nutrients. Our problem today is that we need to consume a lot more energy to get the nutrients we require to thrive.
Experiments back in 1990 demonstrated that rats experienced hyperphagia (i.e., uncontrollable binge eating) when exposed to energy-dense foods that combined a similar amount of energy from fat and carbs.
Our satiety analysis also shows a similar trend – we tend to eat significantly more when our food matches the autumnal fat+carb combo profile.
A 2018 paper in Cell Metabolism showed that we experience a ‘supra-additive’ dopamine hit from foods that mix fat and carbs. On a calorie-for-calorie basis, we are also willing to part with more money for these foods. From an evolutionary biology perspective, this makes sense because of how valuable these foods have been for survival. They make it easy to consume a lot of energy quickly!
In evolutionary times, energy was hard to come by. Thus, energy-dense foods that quickly fill our fat and carb fuel tanks were rare and highly valued. To reinforce this, these foods elicit their world-renowned double-dopamine hit to ensure a special place in our hearts forever. If they are available, we stay true to our DNA and eat them. And once you start, you probably won’t stop until they’re all gone!
Aside from your survival, getting enough energy ensured you could be fertile enough to make and feed babies. Thus, attraction to these comfort foods is hard-wired into our brains for yet another reason. This instinct has served us well and ensured our species’ survival.
But the modern food industry has taken advantage of your instincts. Subsequently, we’ve seen a staggering increase in the number of calories in the US food system in the last hundred years as our food has become a similar blend of fat and carbohydrates.
The situation is similar in China, where industrial seed oils have been added to their rice-based diet to increase the amount of available—and hyper-palatable—energy. Unfortunately, while this has allowed them to feed their ever-growing population, it’s additionally fuelled their climbing obesity epidemic.
In fact, we see similar trends across the board at an international level. For example, the chart below from Cian Foley’s book, 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) are more prone to obesity (green line).
Acclimatising to a Changing Bliss Point
Another characteristic of addiction is acclimatisation to increasing levels of stimulation.
Before a product is introduced to the market, food scientists spend a lot of time and money testing its formula to optimise its ‘bliss point’, or the recipe that the majority find most pleasurable. Psychophysicist Howie Moskowitz perfected this approach in the 80s to optimise parameters like flavour intensity by mixing fat and sugar.
It’s interesting to note that this bliss point has shifted as we’ve become more and more acclimated to processed foods. Like a dependency, food manufacturers have had to use more intense flavours to keep people hooked on their products.
Can Food Addiction Be Cured?
Rather than feeling like a victim wracked with guilt for your lack of willpower from your ‘food addiction’, you can use this information to reframe your mindset and empower yourself to avoid the foods you are powerless against and prioritise the ones that give your body what it requires.
Rather than telling yourself, ‘I am addicted to food’, it may be more beneficial to say:
- ‘I exhibit addiction-like behaviours to processed foods.’
- ‘I am biologically programmed to binge on hyper-autumnal foods.’
- ‘My conscious willpower is no match for the instincts of my reptilian brain when it is exposed to engineered foods that are rare in nature.’
- ‘I feel drawn to foods because I am likely not getting enough of the macronutrients and micronutrients my body requires to function. So, what am I not getting enough of?’
How Do You Get Rid of Food Addiction?
Similar to how food manufacturers optimise their products to target the bliss point and maximise their dopamine hit, we have used data from our challenges to reverse engineer satiety. This has allowed us to identify foods and meals that will help you get all the nutrients you need to manage your cravings, regain control of your appetite, and thrive.
By understanding the factors that drive addiction-like behaviour, we can quantitatively reverse engineer our food environment and reduce our exposure to these hyper-autumnal ‘foods’.
Rather than feeling like a victim who has no self-control, it’s ideal to start by nourishing yourself and giving your body what it needs. As you provide your body with more nutrient-dense higher satiety foods and meals, you may lose interest in the siren call of the ultra-processed foods that you used to feel addicted to.
For more detail on how to move forward, check out:
- Nutrient-Dense Meals and Recipes,
- High Satiety Index Foods: Which Ones Will Keep You Full With Fewer Calores?
- The Most Nutrient Dense Foods – Tailored to Your Goals and Preferences, and
- Macronutrients [Macros Masterclass FAQ #2].
Non-Food Factors to Manage
So far in this article, we’ve focussed on the qualities of ultra-processed food that make it feel ‘addictive’ because it produces a massive dopamine hit.
We can use these foods to escape and feel good (for a short while) when life gets hard. Food is just one of the many things we can turn to to get a quick and easy dopamine hit when we feel down. Other high dopamine escapes include social media, binge-watching Netflix/YouTube, gambling, alcohol, porn etc.
While beyond the scope of this food focussed article, if you have emotional eating issues that lead you to turn to food as an escape, there may be other things in your life that you need to attend to manage your stress and anxiety.
Possible action steps may include getting more sleep, reducing overwhelm, relaxing exercise, meditation, fixing a toxic relationship etc. It’s easy to say and often not easy to do, but doing the hard thing to address the problem will bring more happiness in the long term than always reaching for the easy dopamine hit.
For more on this, check out Dr Anna Lembke’s excellent book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence or Andrew Huberman’s deep dive into controlling dopamine.
How Long Does It Take to Break a Food Addiction?
The time it can take to truly break free of your ‘food addiction’ might not be so far off!
A lot of feeling full, satiated, and satisfied comes down to how well you hit your body’s nutrient requirements. Once you begin dialling your intake of protein and nutritious foods and dial back on your consumption of carbs and fat, you will start refilling your nutrient stores. This is the process we guide Optimisers through in our four-week Macros Masterclass.
As you begin to give your body what it needs when it needs it, it will keep your body from searching aimlessly for more nutrients in hyper-palatable foods and meals. Thus, you can keep your mammalian instincts and lizard brain at ease and away from falling into infinite autumn. While it can take some people longer than others to begin refilling these nutrient buckets, your food addiction will become easier to manage the sooner you start.
Aside from nutrient deficiency, hyper-palatable processed foods tend to also put you on the blood sugar rollercoaster. Focusing on protein and fibre can move you away from significant blood sugar swings. However, learning how and when to eat using your blood glucose as we do in our Data-Driven Fasting challenges can further accelerate your hunger control and keep you from falling victim to your cravings.
Do You Need to Quit ‘Cold Turkey’?
Most people don’t manage to quit anything cold turkey without relapsing before long. As with something you’ve developed a dependency on, it’s best to taper off it over time.
Rather than adopting a rigid meal plan that you’re unlikely to stick to for very long, we recommend you progressively incorporate new foods and meals that align with your goals into your repertoire while phasing out old ones that aren’t as nutrient-dense.
Although it can be hard to part ways with cookies, cakes, and pizza, cutting ties with the old and prioritising more satiating, nutrient-dense alternatives usually make things easier in the long run.
Once you reduce the noise from ultra-processed foods designed to overdrive your taste buds, you’ll be able to hear the more subtle but more satisfying flavours in nourishing foods. They also drive a dopamine response because they contain the nutrients your body needs to thrive. Then, once you experience real, nutrient-dense food, you will be able to see ultra-processed food as the imitation junk that it truly is.
We’ve found that most people get most of their calories from about 30 foods and 30 meals. In our Macros Masterclass, we walk our Optimisers through finding more optimal, nutrient-dense foods and meals that they can add to their shortlist that fit their unique macro targets, preferences, and personal goals. We call it Your Personalised Optimal 30/30. If you ever find you’ve gone off the rails, you can return to the foods and meals that you know work for you.
- In nature, storing some extra fat to survive the coming winter is beneficial.
- Healthy behaviours like eating elicit a ‘dopamine hit’ to ensure we continue doing them.
- Before modern, processed foods were created, higher-fat foods were typically plentiful in winter, whereas higher-carb foods were more abundant in summer. Lean, high-protein foods were readily available in spring, allowing us to lean out after winter.
- In nature, fat and carbs are only available together in purposeful foods, like acorns and breast milk. To ensure we eat more to grow, fatten up, and (or) survive the coming winter when food may be less plentiful, these foods prompt a greater dopamine hit, so we eat more of them.
- Today, modern processed foods are engineered to drive autumnal ‘hyperphagia’ and maximise our dopamine response 365 days a year. This produces ‘addiction-like behaviours’.
- If you’re looking to control your appetite and lose fat, you can reverse engineer this innate dopamine response and prioritise protein and nutrients with fewer calories from the combination of fat and carbohydrates. This will allow you to feel satiated while eating fewer calories.
4 thoughts on “How to Stop “Food Addiction” by Understanding Your Brain Chemistry”
thank you Marty for another thought provoking article. Reminds me of trying to dig in to Bear’s day. Wake up in spring, fat+protein available. Berry season provides the carbs for insulin for storage ; include feasting and well come winter (night). Fasting insulin is not low while hibernating, the only use is protein synthesis. Bear wakes up with 50% less mass(fat) but with intact muscles! way to do intermittent fasting.
Ps. I am not an expert on bears…
Such a good analysis! When we give up thinking that there is a formula allowing us to binge on “adictive” food and maintain a healthy weight …we have a solution longterm!
A while back I saw a table in one of your articles listing all the hyperpalatable fat & starch combos we all love so much – donuts, mac & cheese, French fries, etc. I have searched all over your site for it and can’t find it anymore – is it still up?
Thanks for your amazing work – I share it with all my clients.
I’ve been trimming some of the older blogs. I think that might have been one that got the chop. Sorry. 🙁
Thanks for your kind words and spreading the word.
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