What is food addiction?

  • “Food addiction” is characterized by symptoms such as loss of control over how much food is consumed, continued eating despite negative consequences, and an inability to cut down on eating despite the desire to do so.
  • “Addictive like” eating has been associated with emotional eating.

Although we commonly hear people say they cannot stop eating, there are limited studies supporting which types of food or food characteristics are addicting.

Researchers from Michigan and New York looked at 4 categories of food that may be associated with food addiction.

1) Foods high in fat and refined carbohydrates or sugar like chocolate, french fries, and pizza.

2) Foods high in fat like cheese and bacon.

3) Foods with high refined carbohydrates and sugar only like soda and pretzels.

4) Foods that were low both fat and refined carbohydrates or sugar like broccoli.

What did the study reveal about food addiction and the types of food associated with food addiction?

  • Foods that were high in both fat and carbohydrates were the most addictive.

The types of food that were the most addictive were the most processed foods.

  • “Processing appears to be an essential distinguishing factor for whether a food is associated with behavioral indicators of addictive-like eating.”
  • “Highly processed foods are altered to be particularly rewarding through the addition of fats and refined carbohydrates”.

desserts that are high in sugar increase blood sugar


Foods with higher glycemic index tend to be craved more.

  • “it appears that it is not just the quantity of refined carbohydrates (like white flour and sugar) in a food, but the rapid speed in which they are absorbed into the system that is the most significant predictor of whether a particular food is associated with behavioral indicators of addictive-like eating.”



Food addiction and brain activity

  • The brain is responsible for pleasure.
  • Previous research has suggested that foods with the higher glycemic load  (higher blood sugar spikes) may be capable of activating the reward center in the brain ( striatum) similar to what happens with other addictive substances.
  • The activation of the reward center can increase craving and hunger.

Food addiction in rat models

  • Rats can develop a sugar addiction.
  • Rats maintained on a diet of highly processed foods, such as cheesecake, exhibit downregulation in the dopamine system that is similar to the response seen in drug abuse.
  • Rats are motivated to seek out highly processed foods despite negative consequences such as electrical shocks. This is also seen in drug addiction.
  • “Rats that were given intermittent access to sugar in their diet exhibit a number of behavioral indicators of addiction, such as binge consumption, tolerance, and cross-sensitization to other drugs of abuse.”

Sugar addiction

  • Sucrose binges produce a repeated increase of dopamine, which is similar to other addictive substances.
  • This suggests that sugar is likely a highly addictive agent.
  • Surprisingly, animals that binge on sugar don’t actually gain body weight.
  • Fat is necessary for obesity to occur.
  • Foods that are high in fat and processed (simple carbohydrate) play a role in the weight gain and are associated with food addiction.

What foods are high in both processed sugar and fat

  • Pizza, french fries, fried chicken, cheeseburgers, chocolate, ice cream, cookies, chips, cake and buttered popcorn.

What is the problem with food addiction?

  • The prevalence of obesity in the United States continues to increase.
  • It is projected that 85% of American adults will be obese by 2030.
  • Obesity increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes as well as several other diseases.

Food addiction summary

  • Addictive substances are rarely in their natural state, the foods that are the most addictive have been processed.
  • Sugar and fat rarely occur in the same food naturally, but many palatable foods have been processed to have artificially elevated quantities of both which seems to increase addictive behavior.
  • The authors hope that this information can be shared so that the general public is made aware that certain types of foods are more addicting, “The identification of a potentially addictive profile in certain foods is important for furthering our understanding of the “food addiction” construct and for informing public health education and food policy initiatives”

The current food addiction study provides preliminary evidence that not all foods are equally implicated in addictive-like eating behavior and highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs that are abused.


PLoS One. 2015; 10(2): e0117959. Published online 2015 Feb 18. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.011795 PMCID: PMC4334652 Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load Erica M. Schulte,1 Nicole M. Avena,2 and Ashley N. Gearhardt1,*Tiffany L. Weir, Academic Editor
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