Food Addiction – Obesity Is a Disease

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There is clear evidence from a growing number of studies that ultra-processed food is creating an unhealthy, food-addicted population.

There is no getting around the fact that we must eat to survive. That said, society has come a long way from the days of hunter-gatherers that foraged for fruits, nuts seeds, vegetables, and, every once in a while, a meal with meat. Now, most of our food comes to our tables via giant food manufacturers. Even worse, the most affordable foods are generally the least healthy and addictive.

  • Many of us might be surprised to learn that the food industry is well aware of the addictive properties of ultra-processed foods.

Just under half of adults in the U.S. are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is not to say every person struggling with obesity has an eating disorder or a food addiction. There are some diseases, as well as medications, that can lead to weight gain.
Using addictive ingredients in consumables is not new. Coca-Cola was named for and originally contained cocaine, as well as caffeine.

  • The hallmark of addiction is the compulsion to take, or in this case eat, a substance even when the outcome of that action continues to cause negative consequences.


In a move to try and encourage doctors and insurance companies to address this crushing epidemic, the American Medical Association classified obesity as a disease way back in 2013.

This Penn State article clearly states “one possible explanation for overeating is that processed foods with high concentrations of sugar and other refined sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, fat, salt, and caffeine are addictive substances.” It goes on to state “we assert that overeating can be described as an addiction to refined foods that conforms to the DSM-IV criteria for substance use disorders.”

  • The processed food industry generates $1 trillion in revenue.

New science shows overeating is not a behavioral disorder, such as a lack of self-control, not a hormonal imbalance. Instead, foods rich in fat and sugar can supercharge the brain’s reward system, which can overpower the brain’s ability to tell an individual to stop eating. In these cases, the more someone eats, the more he or she wants.

“The 300 largest processed food manufactures ‘dominate the American diet’ with 60,000 products in the supermarkets, relying on salt, sugar, and fat, which ‘override our dietary self-control’ with foods ‘so perfectly engineered to compel overconsumption,” writes Dr. John M. Pogue, in his review of Salt Sugar & Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss.

Even products we may consider relatively healthy like lunchmeat, pasta sauce, salad dressing, or yogurt have a lot of added sugar. The average consumer has little idea of how much extra sugar they take in daily.

  • Addictive ultra-processed food is generally cheaper and more readily available.

It may seem odd to pair substance abuse with food addiction, but it’s not a stretch. Both conditions involve the release of dopamine in the brain. People are known to sometimes trade one addiction for another. A person who quits smoking after 20 years, may take to junk food as a way to medicate the uncomfortable symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that in treating both substance abuse and processed food addiction, one of the approaches is to adopt a healthy, well-balanced diet. Over time, the brain’s chemistry will balance back out, becoming accustomed to normal, healthy dopamine levels. This will occur alongside blood sugar levels that no longer spike, easing cravings for a diet of ultra-processed food.
It’s important to add that there should be no shame or guilt associated with addiction, to either processed foods or drugs and alcohol. The key is to acknowledge the struggle, and understand that it’s a treatable condition and seek professional help.

According to the book “Salt, Sugar and Fat” every year the average American;

  • Eats 33 pounds of cheese
  • Ingests 70 pounds of sugar
  • Consume 8,500 milligrams of salt per day (twice the recommended figure)

These frightening figures are often due to people who eat highly refines and ultra-processed foods.

However, a 2014 study that used the Yale Food Addiction Scale found that as many as 20 percent of people might have a food addiction, with these percentages increasing in obese populations.

The list of health issues caused by poor eating habits is almost too long to list. Aside from obesity, the health risks can include:

  • High blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Increased risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Osteoporosis and some cancers
  • Depression and eating disorders

With so much at stake for public health, many health care professionals and nutritional experts are pointing the finger at big food manufacturers  who are, seemingly, well aware of what they are doing.

  • Ultra-processed foods are highly engineered. These added ingredients actually light up areas of the brain associated with pleasure in the same way as an addictive drug, like cocaine, does.
  • One study defines ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations,” meaning they contain ingredients not used in any normal culinary preparations.
  • These include foods like packaged snacks or baked goods, cereals, modified meat products like chicken nuggets, soft drinks, instant noodles and soups, among many others.
  • Even products we may consider relatively healthy like lunchmeat, pasta sauce, salad dressing or yogurt has a lot of added sugar. The average consumer has little idea of how much extra sugar they take in on a daily basis.
  • There is clear evidence from a growing number studies that ultra-processed food are creating an unhealthy, food-addicted population.

Ultra-processed foods impact the brain in the same way as some illegal drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or MDMA. Products with added sugar, fat, salt and refined carbohydrates release a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, in the brain.

  • Healthy foods, like salmon, brown rice or fruits, don’t create the same rush of dopamine. This is why no one is tempted to eat a whole bag of broccoli in the same way they can devour a big bag of potato chips.

This might sound strange as it relates to food, but ask yourself how often you eat more of an unhealthy food even when you’re no longer hungry and you know it will cause feelings of shame and guilt.

  • That type of behavior, the persistent craving of a particular substance, is a result of a dopamine surge and a sign that whatever the substance – drugs, alcohol or ultra-processed food – is addictive.

Unfortunately food addiction, according to research, is likely to have a greater impact on poorer communities that eat more fast-food because it’s cheaper. Other communities are not immune though. The time-saving ease with which processed food is made and available can affect anyone.

Likewise, with alcohol or drug addiction, someone may crave sweet or salty foods if they’re unable to drink or do drugs.

It’s important to add that there should be no shame or guilt associated with addiction, to either processed foods or drugs and alcohol. They key is to acknowledge the struggle, understand that it’s a treatable condition and seek professional help.