Why is food addictive?

Why are some foods "addictive"?

Many people will consume food everyday and never have a problem with doing so. However, for the person that has problematic eating behaviors, food addictive patterns or emotional issues, it can be much more difficult to control and limit foods. This is as much a physical as it is a psychological problem. Overeating or disordered eating patterns are most likely a way for a person to cope with negative emotions when they don't otherwise know how to healthfully. Couple that with the physiological response of triggering reward and pleasure centers in the brain and the release of dopamine, then you have someone that is having an experience with food equivalent to someone who takes a hit from heroin.

What is added to foods that makes us keep on eating/wanting more?

Sugar! And I'm not talking about the natural sugars found in fruits and natural sweeteners, such as honey. Sugar is in almost everything we eat, especially processed foods we may not even realize. Several years ago, back in the 80's and into the 90's, the health and food industry began pushing us to eat a fat-free diet because they thought too much fat in our food was the problem with obesity. However, foods without fat tend to taste like cardboard. So what did they replace it with? You guessed it - SUGAR! 

I have worked with addicted substance abuse clients and also people suffering from "food addictive" behaviors and there are SO MANY similarities. One research study demonstrated how when an individual consumes sugar, the reward centers in their brain light up the SAME WAY they do for someone that uses drugs. And since our diet has a constant supply of sugar in everything from bread to even the meats we eat, we are on a constant sugar high. Everyone knows what a drug addict goes through when they go "cold turkey" and through withdrawal. So, just imagine what it would be like if you suddenly cut out all sugar from your diet?  

Why can't we "just eat one"?

Why can't an alcoholic have just one drink? To be fair, many individuals can manage their diet just fine and can eat in moderation, consuming highly palatable foods and then stopping when they're full or feel as if they're satisfied.  For someone struggling with emotional issues and food addictive tendencies, it may be more difficult for them to ever feel satisfied. Addiction is not the problem, but is usually a SYMPTOM of some deeper issue a person has. Initially, consuming the food felt really good! The food tasted good, smelled good and created a physiological response in the body and mind to release dopamine, endorphins and to alert the reward centers of the brain. This may even be amplified for some types of foods containing sugar because sugar can be as addictive as cocaine. Because this person now knows that food created "feel good" emotions, they may be more likely to turn to food again in the future to cope with negative emotions. Over time, this becomes a conditioned response, that is, a "go-to" response in times of stress or other negative emotions. Many people can't "eat just one" until they figure out ways to cope healthfully, manage their cravings and urges and perhaps distance themselves away from foods which may trigger them.

Which foods are "addictive"?

As an addictions counselor, I will give my professional opinion in explaining that ALL foods can be addictive, just as some individuals are more at risk to become addicted to just about anything in life (internet, texting, exercise, sex, etc.). However, there is research to support there certainly are foods that are more palatable and therefore, are foods we are more likely to become addicted to. A palatable food are those foods which create the most sensations from our taste buds. It could be the flavor, texture, smell or a combination. Foods that are salty, sweet or those deemed as "comfort foods" tend to be the most offensive culprits. For example, chocolate, salty chips, desserts, pizza, etc.