On a scientific level, can food be addictive?1 The short answer, is yes.2 Food addiction is widespread,3 from the increasing obesity pandemic,4 to junk food marketing slogans like “I bet you can’t eat just one,”5 to the global popularity of coffee chains. But what makes food addictive?
There are many factors involved,6 as humans are not only highly individualistic (what may be addictive for me, may not be addictive for you),7 but our environment has become hyper-stimulatory and obesogenic.8
Couple this with the fact processed foods have long-since been manufactured to promote overconsumption,9, 10 and you have a recipe for disaster. As if you needed more reasons to adopt a Paleo Diet, I hope to provide a brief insight into the questions behind food addiction, both scientifically and environmentally.
However, for those more curious, I am currently lecturing nationwide on this topic, with a video of my lecture and my entire slideshow, embedded below.
Nearly all of us can empathize with the fact that sugar, junk food and fast food are all undeniably addictive.11, 12, 13 In a neuroscience study from 2010, researchers showed not only a disruption of sensitivity to brain-stimulation reward (BSR) from eating high fat and/or high carbohydrate food, but also an insensitivity to adverse consequences from consuming the food.14
This means we become both accustomed to the rewarding neurochemical effects of food and also seek out these foods, even when we know there will be harmful consequences.15 These are two behavioral aspects, which are also exhibited in drug addiction,16 reinforce studies showing the neurophysiology of food addiction overlaps with drug addiction,17 specifically via the nucleus accumbens, and the downregulation of D2 (dopamine) receptors.18
Taken together, the data supports the notion that obesity and drug addiction may arise from similar neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuitries.19
In another study, researchers posit that intense sweetness from food surpasses cocaine reward.
Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals. We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants.
In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction. 20
In another interesting study, Oreo cookies were found to be as addictive as cocaine.21
In a different study, obese subjects showed greater activation in the bilateral hippocampus/parahippocampal gyrus, but lean subjects showed more activation in the posterior insula portion of the brain.22
Some scientists have speculated that exorphins from food may have lead humans to initially adopt agriculture,23 which was a more laborious and challenging way of life.
Cereals and dairy foods are not natural human foods, but rather are preferred because they contain exorphins.
This chemical reward was the incentive for the adoption of cereal agriculture in the Neolithic. Regular self-administration of these substances facilitated the behavioral changes that led to the subsequent appearance of civilization.
Other studies have delved into the rewarding properties of both high caloric, and neurologically rewarding foods, such as chocolate.24 Take note of the following image, illustrating how chocolate ‘cravers’ elicit completely different responses, neurologically than ‘non-cravers.’
In addition to ‘craving,’ there is a host of activity seen within the human brain, in response to rewarding foods or food-based cues.25 Activity is seen in the orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, nucleus accumbens, dorsal striatum, and many other regions.
It’s fascinating that genetic vulnerabilities can increase predisposition to both obesity and drug addiction. This should come as no surprise to those who are well-versed in science.
Oftentimes genetics and environment converge to cause dysfunction, both neurologically and physically.26 As stated by researchers:27
Neuroimaging studies in obese subjects provide evidence of altered reward and tolerance. Once obese, many individuals meet criteria for psychological dependence.
Stress and dieting may sensitize an individual to reward. Finally, fast food advertisements, restaurants, and menus all provide environmental cues that may trigger addictive overeating.
So how does one avoid addiction to food? The simplest method is to adopt a Paleo Diet.
Then you will be avoiding processed foods, which are (by nature) addictive,28 since food chemists utilize a technique termed ‘the bliss point’ to keep consumers coming back for more.
You will also be avoiding the opioid peptides found in dairy,29 as well as the opioid peptides found in grains.30 Enjoy real foods, and watch your health soar, as your addictions to sugar and other rewarding chemicals,31 vanish.
Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS is an NASM® certified personal trainer and NASM® certified fitness nutrition specialist. He writes for Paleo Magazine® and for PaleoHacks. He also runs his own nutrition and fitness consulting company, Eat Clean, Train Clean®. He is pursuing his Ph.D in Nutritional Biochemistry, hopefully from Harvard University.
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