Food Addiction: Can We Really Be Addicted to Food?


Is food addiction real, how could we possibly be addicted to a basic survival necessity like food?

I see clients on a daily basis who tell me they’re hooked. Hooked? On what—cocaine, methamphetamines, alcohol . . . heroin?  No, these clients profess that their lives are being taken over by their readily available, legal drug of choice: bagels, donuts, cheese, chips, ice cream, pizza, soda, and the list goes on. In other words: refined sugar, fat, salt, and processed foods. They’re hooked; they can’t stop thinking about food until they get their “fix,” and this addiction is wreaking havoc on their lives.

I recently heard my husband fondly reflect back on his love affair with Crispy Cream Doughnuts, referring to them as crack. I know exactly what he means, not for Doughnuts – that wasn’t my crack, but for other highly addictive foods, like cookies and pizza. I find this concept of food addiction to be so interesting, and personal – I consider myself to be a recovered food addict after I saw my life hit rock bottom as I watched myself become totally hooked on these foods and struggled to unhook myself and “get clean.”  The more I learned about the research emerging on food addiction, the more I understood what I went through – and what millions of other people endure each and every day. I even wrote a book about it called “Unhooked: A Holistic Approach to Ending Your Struggle with Food” (In bookstores this fall).

Is Food Addiction Real?

This is the question that many researchers are asking themselves: can we really be addicted to a basic survival necessity like food? Think about it, but before you answer, I have to warn you: its a tricky question. One thing we need to consider is why this a fairly new phenomenon affecting millions of people? We need to ask ourselves what’s changed here? Have we changed? No – we haven’t changed. But our food supply has changed – in a big way. Our food has changed so drastically, to the point where we’re now seeing an obesity epidemic and deaths from preventable disease unlike ever before. 

Naturally this has led researchers to try to figure out why many people are struggling with compulsive overeating and are discovering that food addiction and drug addiction are actually very similar.

The Advent of Fake Foods

Most of the food stocking the shelves in the grocery stores are highly processed and now resemble closer to a drug than to actual food. Getting back to our initial question: can we really be addicted to food? Well, that depends. What are you defining as food? Let me explain.

Most people believe what they are eating is real food, but rather, what they are eating are “food-like substances:” highly refined, processed and chemical laden foods that are essentially not found in nature and are unrecognizable by the body.

Do I think we can be addicted to real food? No, I don’t think nature would have played such a cruel joke on us, to hook us on mangoes, as heavenly as they are. But when it comes to food addiction, we aren’t talking about real food we’re talking about foods-like products that are created by the food industry with one goal in mind: to hook you and make you a repeat customer – kind of sounds like a dealer doesn’t it?

These foods are what the food industry refer to as “hyper palatable”, which essentially means that these foods are extremely high in three main ingredients:

  1. Sugar
  2. Fat
  3. Salt

When these foods are consumed, for some people who have a disposition towards addiction (does this sound like you?), they trigger the same pathways in the brain (the reward and pleasure centers) that are similarly triggered by drugs such as cocaine and heroin. These foods release the same feel-good chemicals in the brain like dopamine and serotonin and people learn to associate pleasure (extreme pleasure) to eating these foods, and dependence is subsequently developed, even in the absence of hunger.

It makes sense that eating these ‘fake foods’ would bare such a strong resemblance to drug addiction. In both cases, we start with a whole plant: poppy in the case of heroin, coca leaves in the case of cocaine and either sugar cane or corn in the case of sugar and we process it down until it is a highly refined substance. Are we surprised that our bodies and brains are processing it similarly creating a long-term addictive dependence? But when it comes to food addiction, it’s definitely not so clear cut. This is because we need food to survive, it’s a basic necessity.  Most people simply aren’t aware that what they’re eating is so artificial and people have become accustomed to living in this “fake food” environment.

Food Addiction Is a Reality

For many years, the medical community discredited the idea, and many still do. But recently there’s been a major shift in awareness surrounding this important topic and an increasingly amount of research pointing in that direction. Despite the fact that an actual diagnosis for food addiction has not yet been defined in the medical community, the reality is millions of people are struggling with food addiction and it’s taking over their lives. It had taken over mine. But the good news is: there is a solution. Transitioning to a real, whole foods lifestyle can help unhook you from the food struggle and prevent food addiction. I no longer struggle with all the symptoms of food addiction and I’m healthier and happier than ever before.

Do you struggle with food addiction?  Ashley Gearhardt at Yale University developed the Yale Food Addiction Scale. You can take a quiz here to find out if you struggle with food addiction. If you do, you’re not alone and there are many organizations offering help and support including: Food Addicts Anonymous.

Are you struggling with food addiction and looking for some private help? Contact me for personal health coaching. Also stay tuned for my upcoming book “Unhooked: A Holistic Approach to Ending Your Struggle with Food” and the complimentary online course.

We also run health retreats with a focus on helping people heal their relationship with food from the ground up – literally! Check out our Raw Food Hawaii Retreats.

Aloha from the Big Island of Hawaii,

Laura Dawn, Registered Holistic Nutritionist & Author of “Unhooked: A Holistic Approach to Ending Your Struggle with Food” and “Mindful Eating for Dummies“.

Photo Credit: (altered photo) original from Shutterstock.


3 responses to “Food Addiction: Can We Really Be Addicted to Food?”

  1. Hi Laura, having overcome my own food addictions and lost 30kgs 21yrs ago, I remember seeing the evidence of the reality of food addiction in an overweight friend I’d invited over for a cuppa.
    I made us a healthy lunch and afterwards she produced a fat and sugar laden tea bun for dessert ( I was already full so I said no thanks, + I could smell the fat and sugar and it made me feel a bit ill)
    She became really agitated and it seemed she just wanted to get this treat into her as fast as possible…
    when she took the first bite her eyes rolled back in ecstasy and she looked ‘out of it’ like she’d just taken a drug…
    That image has stayed with me for 10yrs, and I’ve seen similar ‘spaced out’ expressions on the faces of other overweight friends as they tuck into greasy, sugary junk food.
    Thanks for getting the word out there about this very real addiction that’s robbing people of healthy bodies and minds. Kat – Healing Life Massage Sydney Australia

  2. Laura Dawn says:

    Aloha Heather. I totally empathize with where you’re at. Making peace with your body and with food is a lifelong journey and it’s so important to healing disordered eating. If you would like to contact me directly, I would love to tell you more about my private services and small-group consulting that could really provide support to you.

  3. heather says:

    The last year has been hell with depression and food addiction I have put on 3 stone on in a year! And I can’t stop eating…I’m so fat now I can’t fit in any of my clothes and dread leaving the house I’ve never been this heavy and to me it makes me hate my self and I’m making my boyfriends life hell how do I quit eating ?

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