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Could you be addicted to junk food?

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
4/1/2010 6:00 PM   :  96 comments   :  18,356 Views

See More: weight loss, obesity, diet,
Do you often find it hard to stop eating certain foods once you’ve started—especially foods high in sugar, salt and/or fat?

I know I've often found myself on the losing end of one of those “bet you can’t eat just one” wagers when it involves sweets, chips, sausages or something similar. If you're in the same boat, your brain just might be addicted to junk food.

This is especially likely if you happen to be a rat, according to recent research reported in this article from HealthDay. If you’re a human, using the word “addicted” may (or may not) be a little strong, but this research definitely does add another piece to the puzzle of understanding why it can be so hard for many people to “just say no” to overeating certain foods.

Although this research (published in the March 28 online edition of Nature Neuroscience) only studied rats, and the findings can’t be directly applied to humans, the description of the rats’ behavior sounds painfully familiar, at least to me. When rats raised on a normal, healthy diet were given unlimited access to a diet of bacon, pound cake, candy bars and other junk food, they rapidly gained weight. And the more they gained the more compulsive they became about eating—even to the point that they kept on eating even though they knew they would get a painful electric shock if they continued. Sort of the way I kept on eating even though I knew I was causing myself lots of short and long term health problems.

On the other hand, rats fed the equivalent of a healthy human diet with limited access to the junk food didn’t gain much weight, and stopped eating when they got the cue that they’d be shocked if they continued. When the junk food was taken away from the newly obese rats and replaced with their regular food, the rats went into “voluntary starvation,” hardly eating anything for two weeks.

I don’t know if this behavior sounds familiar to you, but it sure sounds like my eating patterns during my days of yo-yo dieting, when I lost large amounts of weight many times, only to regain more. I can’t say whether the chemical reactions to junk food in my brain were the same as those of the rats in this study (which are very similar to the changes observed in humans addicted to cocaine or heroin).

And I suppose it could just be coincidence that one of the main keys to my success at losing 170 pounds and keeping most of it off for the last 6 years, was drastically reducing the amount of sugar, saturated fat, and processed food in my diet on a permanent basis. But I don’t think so. It’s definitely much easier to maintain a normal level of calorie intake when I’m minimizing added sugar, saturated fat, and junky carbs like chips and fries—I just don’t feel the same compulsion to eat when those foods aren’t a big part of my diet.

Whether any of this means it’s reasonable to use the word “addiction” in connection with foods high in sugar and fat I don’t know. I imagine scientists will eventually be able to tell us whether some human brains react to some foods in the same way that drug addicts react to drugs. They may even find ways of identifying in advance who might be susceptible to this problem and who isn’t, and how to manage it effectively. But, as you can see from this this report from a recent scientific convention on food addiction,there are still a lot of questions to be answered before anyone can say that food can be addictive for humans.

I do know it’s not easy for everyone to make a big change in diet, especially if you’re significantly overweight and have become conditioned to those junk foods. It can be just as hard as a smoking or alcohol quit.

But it can be done, and it gets a little easier with each day and each pound lost. One of the differences between humans and rats is that we can consciously recognize our difficulties and figure out ways to cope with them, one day and one decision at a time—and how to get help when we need it.

Maybe the real test of whether “junk food addiction” is a meaningful concept is whether it helps you recognize a problem and take steps to cope with it, or just leaves you feeling powerless and helpless.

What do you think?


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Comments

  • WHEILIG1
    96
    I agree! For me, I have tried to cut out or moderate certain types of foods - instead of stopping every bad thing all at once. So maybe today I work on the "white stuff" (bread, rice, potatoes, etc), but if I want a handful of M&M's I have them. Now tomorrow I might focus on sweets or sweetened things - so no M&M's, but if I want some chips I have them. And then something different the next day - fried food, salt, etc. I have also added a gluten-free probiotic - which has had a huge impact! Moderation is sometimes very difficult - but keep plugging away! The more consistent we are, the easier it will become. Even if we have a bad day...shake it off! Tomorrow is another opportunity! - 6/18/2010   1:11:14 PM
  • 95
    This is why I don't diet. I just find healthier versions of the food I love. And it's so possible to do with so many great websites. I love pizza... healthy versions include pesto pizza (when done right) or a homemade pizza bagel for lunch every now and then. My pizza bagel lunch fills me up and is only 300 calories when I'm feeling naughty and add extra cheese. Even when I eat the 'bad' pizza with friends I can just eat cheese now and stop when full.

    But when you're just eating crap there doesn't seem to be a reason to stop or you'll just crave it. I've made myself puke from overeating cuz I just had to have another. So many reasons to get healthy and you always feel better from it. - 4/9/2010   3:25:06 PM
  • 94
    Every time I "diet", I have found this to be true. Cutting back on sugar and unhealthy foods is hard. But once you do it, the bad stuff doesn't look as appetizing any more. If I have one candy bar a month, then my attitude is that the candy bar isn't really that interesting. But when I'm eating one a day, I feel like I need or deserve it. Even though I know what I'm doing isn't good for me. It really is frustrating that we're wired this way! - 4/6/2010   1:20:36 PM
  • 93
    I think I am addicted to tortilla chips so I will try to eat them less often. :- / - 4/6/2010   10:48:05 AM
  • 92
    There is a wonderful book called The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler. In it, he postulates that while we're genetically "hard wired" to crave fat, sugar and salt to stay alive, he feels the food industry has taken advantage of that need.

    Yes, in order to live, we must eat some fat, sugar and salt. There's no question about that. The problem is that the food industry now LOADS its foods with sugar, fat and salt as a way to entice us to eat more. The more we eat, the more we'll buy. Which is what they are hoping for.

    My personal opinion is that we should be eating healthier sources of fat, sugar and salt. There are plenty of healthy sources of those items. We should avoid junk food to the best of our ability specifically because the food industry has designed the foods so that we'll eat more.

    - 4/5/2010   3:21:18 PM
  • 91
    I know I want to snack on salty foods and sometimes sweet too..if I don't bring them in the house, I am ok but still crave them. - 4/5/2010   9:30:49 AM
  • 90
    Adding bananas to my diet makes a huge difference for me, if there are no bananas in the house I eat all the wrong things and I find myself going out to buy chocolate and starting another binge. I need to go out and buy bananas, my son has easter eggs and we have no bananas in the house. - 4/5/2010   5:25:54 AM
  • MEMERJ
    89
    Read a book call "End to Overeating". It was on the addictive state that our food is being delivered to us. Layered flavours that actually increase the brains chemicals so that we, the consumers, eat more and are unable to stop. How some food establishments serve you food that basically dissolves in your mouth so that you don't have to chew it, that way you eat more!

    Salads laced with sugar and salt... the book was a good way to get motivated to make my own lunches instead of going out to eat! - 4/5/2010   1:28:14 AM
  • 88
    Many in my family have trouble with Overeating, binging, & emotional eating. Sometimes I feel like I've no control with certain sugary foods, & especially chocolate. In fact today I ate so much chocolate I ended up getting sick. I gave up chocolate for lent, & I just recently got laid of from my job, so those things contributed to my struggle today. I do think some people have a particularly hard time with sugar, and really need to stay away from it if at all possible . I think addiction is possible with certain foods. - 4/4/2010   11:51:03 PM
  • 87
    My junk food addiction seems to come along around 4-5p each day- no matter how many healthy snacks are facing me I look and long for the junk... Am I a rat? - 4/4/2010   10:28:16 PM
  • 86
    I have definitely been a rat. But no more!!! - 4/4/2010   4:52:43 PM
  • 85
    I think that there items that ccasuse you to go back to get some more. I find in my case these are the salty items. So I am working to 'eat just one' and find I am getting better at controlling portions. - 4/4/2010   4:39:48 PM
  • 84
    I don't think "addiction" is too strong a word. You'll find a lot of support for that concept in David Kessler's book: "The End of Overeating." It also describes the food industry's manipulative efforts to develop more addictive foods, those containing a particular combination of salt, fat and sugar not found in nature. It made me really mad, and I stopped eating M&Ms that same day (July 20, 2009). My boss keeps them around all the time, which is why M&Ms were such a big issue for me. He's one of those people who can eat just one, and I'm not, but now they don't even distract me anymore. - 4/4/2010   9:41:42 AM
  • 83
    Absolutely believe in food addictions! For me, sugar and simple carbs are my downfall. The more I eat, the more I want and the cycle goes around and around.
    Moderation is not even a word in my vocabulary when my blood sugar is up! - 4/3/2010   9:05:12 PM
  • K_RENEE
    82
    I do have my favorite junk food choices, but I'd hardly say enjoying instead of demonizing a Reese's cup every now and then means I'm addicted.

    I do have a coworker that's addicted to Pepsi (or rather the caffeine in it). Caffeine addiction is REAL! LOL - 4/3/2010   8:25:19 PM
  • 81
    I've also read in the popular press that humans supposedly have receptors in our brains that detect sugar and salt and that trigger positive feedback loops (the more sugar/salt in foods we eat, the more we want). Due to this, food manufacturers apparently add just enough sugar and salt to foods that normally would not contain sugar/salt in order to stimulate these receptors but not enough sugar/salt to be satisfying, and therefore make individuals eat more of these foods.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    ~~~~~~~~~~

    I believe this because I would read the food label of different foods in the grocery store and think to myself now why is there even any sugar in this??? This doesn't need any sugar! Sugar is in everything just like salt! - 4/3/2010   6:53:24 PM
  • 80
    Not an addict to junk food and thankful to my parents for the healthy and strict upbringng as we didn't know anything about a McDonald's, Burger King nor KFC. Fruits and vegatables round off my meals
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Yeah I wish I had stuck with the eating habits I was raised with, but once I was grown and could make my own meal choices, I under estimated the destructive power of junk food and processed food and fell into the junk food trap. By the time it started to affect my weight, I was already hooked and in the habit of eating bad. Now I have turned that around to more healthy eating, I've gone back to the basics. Like I was raised. :) - 4/3/2010   6:41:21 PM
  • 79
    I don't know if this was an "addiction" response or not, but certainly something in the combination of sugar, salt and fat of a cookie my family bought earlier this week created gluttons of us unlike any other sweet or snack we've had in the house in the past year. 3 of us went through a 2-lb bag of cookies in less than two days. I told my husband they were like crack, since they over-rode my sense of reason and kept me reaching for more. Addict? Do I want more now that they are gone? No.
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    LOL! I can understand that! I know it is like crack! Junk food is addictive! I'm surprised more people don't realize that. How many obese people do you see who don't eat junk food and only ate healthy food and became obese from that? None! All overweight obese people got that way from eating junk food and processed food! That stuff is addictive. You may see obese people who have changed their diet AFTER becoming obese, but you will never see an obese person who got that way without eating junk food or processed food. Not unless they are overweight because of a medical problem. It's the junk food and processed food that the combination of being addictive and having more calories and empty calories at that, that causes people to overeat and become obese. - 4/3/2010   6:36:03 PM
  • 78
    Yes people can and definately do get addicted to junk food! I used to be addicted to it before changing my eating habits. Junk food is very addictive like alchohol or drugs. That's what keeps people coming back for more junk food and why some just cannot give it up. I just had to go cold turkey, go through the withdrawal and now junk food does nothing for me, I don't crave it anymore, now I crave real food. - 4/3/2010   6:27:56 PM
  • SUNSET09
    77
    Not an addict to junk food and thankful to my parents for the healthy and strict upbringng as we didn't know anything about a McDonald's, Burger King nor KFC. Fruits and vegatables round off my meals! - 4/3/2010   4:37:32 PM
  • 76
    I recently had to spend a couple of weeks at my parent's house and they always keep cookies, cakes, or candy around. I stuffed myself with the stuff then felt miserable. When I'm at home I eat very little junk food. If I get a craving for something I allow myself to eat a small potion of it then I'm done. The healthier I eat the less I crave junk food. - 4/3/2010   3:16:06 PM
  • 75
    What kind of environment were the rats kept in? Martha Beck talks about "rat traps" in her book The Four-Day Win. Rats given unlimited access to sugar and junk foods ate forever if they were CAGED. But if they were free-range rats, with an environment that meets every rat's desire, they didn't. - 4/3/2010   2:28:59 PM
  • 74
    i say YES! As soon as i start eating something with sugar, fat or salt i cant stop. For example this morning i ate 'easterbread'( its bread with raisins, nuts, fruit and some sugary substance in the middle) within 2 hours i was hungry like i havent eaten all day. And it wouldnt be satisfied untill i had some cookies and chocolate...so weird!

    I definatly stop eating junk food... - 4/3/2010   9:57:29 AM
  • 73
    Replacing processed and sugary food with fresh fruits and clean foods makes the biggest difference in controlling junk food eating for me. - 4/3/2010   8:42:55 AM
  • 72
    Physical addiction or psychological addiction - I'm not sure which but I know there are foods that I lose all control over. Once I lose control with one food then I sometimes seem out of control with food in general for days. And my brain will obsess about food. I'll eat more and more even as I am telling myself that I will get sick, gain weight, feel guilty, etc - the food keeps going in the mouth. Donuts are on e of many things that I just need to leave alone. So yes I think there is an addiction issue. - 4/3/2010   5:30:05 AM
  • 71
    I saw an interview with actor Jeff Garlin on his book Losing Weight Memoir. (may be available on youtube) He talks about treating his issues with sugar & fat as an addiction and I could so identify with what he was saying. I have found that if I mention having an addiction regarding what I choose to eat the reaction is usually negative. Now if questioned about why I'm not partaking of certain foods at a party or outing I say I have food allergies. I get no further pressure. People react totally different to the word allergies vs addiction. Isn't it the same? If having a piece of cake causes me to binge isn't that and allergic reaction? - 4/3/2010   4:54:17 AM
  • JONISPARK
    70
    I recently bought a bag of pistachio nuts, served myself a serving only to discover I could not stop. I had never had this happen with what I would have called a healthy treat but I no longer have them in my house. I also did not replenish my chocolate supply and managed not to miss it as in a craving. So I guess it tells me I have to keep it out of my house as well. - 4/3/2010   2:17:45 AM
  • 69
    I have never had an addictive personality, thank goodness. I do have one downfall and that is homemade chocolate chips cookies of any kind. Also my secret Christmas candy that I make called "Reindeer Droppings". I am glad I only make them once a year. - 4/2/2010   10:53:53 PM
  • MOONSHINE71
    68
    I definitely belive in food addicton. I was watching a program once where an alcoholic was explaining their addiction to alcohol and I almost fell off the couch because their thoughts and feelings about alcohol were almost my exact feelings about food. - 4/2/2010   10:13:39 PM
  • 67
    .........the more they gained the more compulsive they became about eating—even to the point that they kept on eating even though they knew they would get a painful electric shock if they continued. This sounds like me last weekend when I ate two boxes of Little Debbie Swiss rolls in two days. I felt awful afterwards, knew I was wrecking my weight loss, and knew I would beat myself up about it emotionally, but I did it anyway. Addiction? I don't know, but it is a very strong drive or desire. The only thing that works for me is to not buy it in the first place. If sweets are here, I will probably eat them. - 4/2/2010   10:04:57 PM
  • 66
    I would say it's fair to say certain foods like those high in sugar and bad fats are addictive. I'm sure eventually we will know if it is scientifically defined as addictive but just given the fact that so many people want to stop and they can't should be enough proof. It's terrible what people go through.

    Anyway thank you for another wonderful blog post. I always enjoy your writing immensely. - 4/2/2010   9:44:47 PM
  • 65
    I feel I could be addicted to junk food. I crave it. I havne't met goal after 2 years b/c I allow for cravings to be met in my calorie count, but I don't think I am able to stop altogether. It sounds so easy when I read it here on SP, but it isn't. I feel deprived when I cut it all out and then I binge! What to do.... - 4/2/2010   7:46:05 PM
  • 64
    I recently decided to seriously curtail my sugar intake and it was really hard at first. I found myself looking at everything sugar in the grocery stores--but I persisted and it has gotten easier. I haven't cut out everything but I try to keep things healthy and limited. I've learned not to cut out because that only leads me to binge. I feel lots better and my arthritis is better too. - 4/2/2010   7:25:46 PM
  • BIKERMAMA09
    63
    I always thought I was addicted to food but lately since I have been eating healthy I am starting to crave healthy foods!! - 4/2/2010   5:10:56 PM
  • MRS_AQUARIUS
    62
    I am soooo addicted to junk food especially anything with sugar I am not overweight or anything but I can easily gain weight if I go overboard. That is my weakness...sweet stuff. So when I am trying to eat healthier it can't be around me. If feel like a drug addict when eat sweets like this lol::::mmmm omg this is soooo goooood ahh yes mmm oh I love this, this is sooo bad for me but I don't wanna stop eating it and it does't stop at just one, I can't eat a whole package of anything feel sick after and still want more...its so horrible even though I feel I will never stop I have never let it control me or take me over so thats good at least. - 4/2/2010   2:51:44 PM
  • 61
    When something is considered "addictive" it is much easier to regulate. Yes, the more sugar we eat CAN lead to wanting even more. However, to label certain foods as "addictive", in my opinion is just further attempts at regulating our lives.
    I truly don't believe that these foods are addictive. We may crave them, but, in a majority of the instances, we are not addicted to them.
    You can crave something that is not necessarily addictive.
    Please, enough with regulating our lives. - 4/2/2010   2:45:12 PM
  • 60
    The more "junk" food I eat, the more I want to eat. Foods like cake, cookies, ice cream, chips, etc., don't normally interest me, but if I eat some at a party or other gathering, I want to keep eating such foods. One "hit" of cake or other sweets makes me want more, and it will take 3 days of healthy eating before I stop wanting foods like this.

    Interestingly, if I eat healthy foods, the less food in general I want to eat. If I eat unhealthy foods, the more food I want to eat, both healthy and unhealthy.

    Addiction? Don't know. Perhaps it's some inner sensor that notices how much nutrition I take in, and pushes for more food if I eat unhealthy food lacking in nutrition.

    I've also read in the popular press that humans supposedly have receptors in our brains that detect sugar and salt and that trigger positive feedback loops (the more sugar/salt in foods we eat, the more we want). Due to this, food manufacturers apparently add just enough sugar and salt to foods that normally would not contain sugar/salt in order to stimulate these receptors but not enough sugar/salt to be satisfying, and therefore make individuals eat more of these foods. - 4/2/2010   2:35:22 PM
  • AJE_SPARK
    59
    I am definitely addicted to sugar and fast food. Amazing cravings. - 4/2/2010   2:30:36 PM
  • 58
    The more sugar I eat the more I want. Slowly making changes and feeling better. - 4/2/2010   2:25:05 PM
  • 57
    I think its an addiction, at least for the sugar. I totally crave sweets, especially after a meal. - 4/2/2010   2:02:33 PM
  • 56
    I think it is more than unreasonable to label an action as an addiction or a disease so that we can throw off the responsibility for our controlling our own behavior. I believe that there is more to it than an inability to stop. One needs the desire to WANT to stop the bad habit. Like me and my smoking habit. I can sit through eight hours of meeting and never think about smoking. I work several hours on a hobby without smoking because I don't want to stop what I am enjoying to smoke. However, if I am bored or don't like what I am doing, I smoke. Cigarettes have addictive agents; however, the choice to surrender is still mine. It is my belief that naming a bad habit as an addiction causes one to believe the habit is beyond their control. Let's not go their with junk food. - 4/2/2010   1:28:49 PM
  • 55
    I thi k addiction as good of word as any. I'm visiting friends right now and we had sourdough pretzels, which is a snack I allow in my own home now( healthier choice), and while I knew the serving size and planned on sticking to it I eventually had 3 servings even though I kept saying I needed to stop. I believe this also came from being in a different enviroment and the thinking it is ok to eat what evercwhile on vacation. I'm making a great effort to stay on track though. - 4/2/2010   1:26:01 PM
  • JUDIEB1946
    54
    Yea - just had lunch and chips came with it and tossed 3/4 of them! I'm getting better at portions. I eat enough until what I was eating has satisfy me for flavor or texture and quit. Didn't used to be so but am learning. With ice cream, the kids (36 and 38 who live at home yet) have it in the freezer all the time. I see it and go "Yuck!". Once in a while I may see it and decide ok, a little taste. Take a small spoon, don't take the container out of the freezer, open, take that small spoonful, cover and close freezer, have my "fix" and go about my business. - 4/2/2010   1:21:07 PM
  • 53
    It probably says something about my brain that I read this and my first thought was "man, I'm glad I feed my pet rats healthy food and treats". Yeah. Not the thrust of the article, huh?

    Also, I'm sad that rats are being used in this sort of research. Is finding out what we already know (junk food is bad) worth the lives/comfort of other living beings? Not in my book. - 4/2/2010   1:19:13 PM
  • 52
    I KNOW I was addicted. I used to eat at least 1 candy bar every day, usually more. The way I kicked the habit was accidental. My Dr. gave me Wellbutrin for my depression. Wellbutrin is the same thing as Zyban, what they give smokers to stop the nicotine addiction. That was the first time I didn't feel like I HAD to have the candy. I lost 60lbs, just from taking the medicine and eating like I should have been in the first place. I'm off the medicine, and on days I still struggle, but I don't feel the compulsion like I used to. - 4/2/2010   1:17:07 PM
  • 51
    I believe there is something to this. I do crave more and more junk when I eat it, and find my portion size is often the whole container - whether a 1 oz bag of chips or a 10 oz bag! - 4/2/2010   12:40:49 PM
  • 50
    Yes guess must be addicted cause can not just eat one chip so do not bring them into our home only when company coming and then what is left goes for treast on the long ride home with them , Desserts have no problem with can just take one bite and then leave it alone of course DH is finishing it. Really take one day at a time. - 4/2/2010   11:39:33 AM
  • 49
    I started eating bread made with sprouted grains (no flour), and fruit compote instead of jelly. I no longer crave the carbohydrates like I used to. Since I've cut out most of the processed food I used to eat, I get fewer cravings. - 4/2/2010   10:58:34 AM
  • 48
    I don't think it's a coincidence that most of these processed junk foods contain MSG. (By the way, they don't have to say that in the ingredients, although many do. By law, "natural flavors" can mean MSG.) MSG has been repeatedly proven to increase appetite, which is one big reason why "you can't eat just one."

    When I eat unprocessed foods and carefully read labels to avoid suspected MSG, my appetite is very controlled. When I eat processed foods with MSG, it's out of control. For me, it's a no-brainer which is the better choice. - 4/2/2010   10:41:45 AM
  • 47
    I do think food is an addiction. I cannot find a better word to describe my relation to food for years in my life. I'd eat even when I didn't want to, I'd eat food that was not even that tasty, I'd eat until I couldn't phisically fit any more food in my stomach. I knew it was bad, I knew it would make me feel terrible, but I couldn't stop.
    For me, food was an addiction, and as I said to my mom time and time again, it was harder to overcome than smoking or alcohol. Because for those, you can simply stop smoking or drinking, but in my case, I'd still have to eat. The problem was eating in small quantities, since once I started, it was hard to stop.
    I'm really glad I am over all this now. And a big part of it is due to the support I find in SparkPeople! - 4/2/2010   10:36:31 AM

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