The Addictive Nature of Some Foods

Chocolate. Diet drinks. Sugar. Caffeine.Cheese. Meat. Do these foods and others really hold us in their power, or is it all a figment of our imagination?

I’ve been very interested in this topic for a long time, as I jokingly call myself a chocoholic. Once upon a time it was the unusual day when I didn’t consume at least a pound of chocolate every 24 hours, if not more. If I wasn’t reaching my hand into the back of the pantry to snag some hidden Oreos, you might see me driving my minivan down my winding neighborhood road to make a quick stop at the convenience store for some candy. I convinced myself that my love of chocolate was an “addiction,” and as such couldn’t be conquered. But was I right?

To tell you the truth, that day many years ago, when I had my “aha moment,” I realized that conquering my obsession with chocolate was one of the first things I needed to take care of. Even if I made good food choices all day long, eating candy bar after candy bar wouldn’t help me lose weight, or improve my health. So I banned chocolate from my presence for a while. I gave myself a “time out” from chocolate until I felt I could better control myself around it. Looking back, I realize what I did was very similarto what people who are struggling with a nicotine, drug, or alcohol addiction do. They remove the offending substance from their homes, their offices, and their lives.

It sounds easy enough, but it was really difficult. I threw away the candy I had hidden in my dresser drawers, the car, my purse, and the pantry. I even went as far as to get rid of cocoa powder because I knew I could easily combine cocoa powder with other ingredients to make brownies. I actually felt a pang in my heart as I watched the food go in the trash. I was sorely tempted to pull it out of the trash and save it. But I resisted.

Realizing how hard it was for me to get rid of the chocolate made me wonder if it was in fact addictive? And what of other foods? Can a food have an addictive quality? According to research, the answer is a resounding yes. Just read Dr. David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating. He explains much more thoroughly than I can, how food additives can trigger a “bliss point” that makes it hard for us to resist eating certain foods.

I lost my weight long before this book came out, so actually learned the hard, unscientific way, that there were certain foods that I found very difficult to resist. For me, the main food was chocolate, but I also had a hard time learning to eat proper portions of foods that contained a lot of sodium, like crackers and chips. To break the addiction cycle, there were some definite steps I took.

  1. Got rid of the food from my house and car
  2. Stopped buying those foods
  3. Gave myself a specific period of time before I allowed myself to eat those foods
  4. Tried to reintroduce them in small quantities – as a test run
  5. Took time to really savor the flavor of the foods I loved
  6. Found alternative foods

I didn’t eat chocolate for about two months when I first started losing weight that last time. The first couple of days were hard. Really hard. Not only was I trying to make healthier choices, but I also gave up a love of mine. I can’t say that I went through withdrawal from chocolate, but I certainly missed it a LOT! After the first week, it started to get better, and I didn’t think about it all the time. After a month it was pretty easy, and the second month was a cinch.

When I reintroduced chocolate into my food variety, I did it by buying a little candy bar, and sharing it with the family. We all had a tiny piece and I loved it like I always had. But this time I felt proud of myself for just having a bit rather than frustrated with myself for eating 10 of them.

As the months went by I realized that I had finally broken my affair with chocolate. I could enjoy it – yes, but I didn’t have to eat pound after pound of it. Where are you on this subject?

Do you think that certain foods hold addictive qualities for you? How do you handle them?  Diane

50 thoughts on “The Addictive Nature of Some Foods

  1. Miz says:

    for me sugars (any from fruits to candy) make me crave more sugars.
    I neeeeeeeeeeeeeeed me some fats and protein along side them in order to not become a SugarTrollingMaching.

    fruit and nut butters.
    heck even CANDY with a chaser of turkey 🙂
    whatever works.

    • Babbalou says:

      Oh, I am absolutely the same. Dried fruit is the worst, I can’t have any in the house or I will eat it until it is gone despite knowing I will have terrible cramping later! A taste of sugar in most forms is all it takes to turn that craving on. I can have an occasional dessert after a meal, since the protein in the meal keeps the cravings in check. And ice cream doesn’t do it either. But any fruit, dried fruit, cereal, rice or baked goods cause obsessive cravings for me unless I have a significant amount of protein as well. I also am the first woman in my mother’s family in three generations not to develop diabetes by mid-life (knock on wood, I’m 59 and so far so good). And my mother developed diabetes despite being very slim – 5ft 5 and 118 pounds. I’m convinced that limiting my carbs, which keeps my sugar craving switch turned off, is essential for my health. Plus I dropped 20 pounds without dieting in a traditional sense which was welcome.

  2. Diandra says:

    Some foods can indeed lead to physical addiction – such as caffeine (4 days without coffee, and finally the headache is gone!), or even cheese. I wouldn’t know which kind of addiction is harder to break, all I know is that I do not like depending on a certain substance. Except for oxygen, maybe, haven’t found a way around that one. ^^

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      There really is no way to avoid foods although I personally find that avoiding a lot of refined sugar and greasy foods does seem to help me control my food cravings. I also found that once I cut back on salt, restaurant meals and tons of processed foods are unbelievably salty.

  3. Jane at Keeping the Pounds off says:

    The difference is that someone who gives up alcohol, drugs or nicotine does not get to go back and have them (successfully) two months later without finding themselves back in the throes of addiction pretty quick. I am one of those people. As usual, Diane, you have given me a topic to blog about on a day when I wasn’t planning to blog. Thank you for what I am going to write over there today.

  4. Susan says:

    I do struggle if I allow myself to have food such as french fries, potato chips,candy, brownies etc. so I find it best not to buy them and bring them home. I might eat them if I go out but that is very rare looking back at last year I had fast food with french fries twice, chips once, I made brownies several times by request but certainely not daily or monthly any more, I read the book you mentioned and I do think that salt,fat,sugar together are the unholy trinity and very addictive! especially to me.

  5. Sharon says:

    Yes, I am 100% convinced that some foods have truly addictive properties with the most notoriously underestimated being sugar in any form. For me, wheat products are more difficult than sweets, but since they both break down to sugar it’s pretty much the same. Like you found, the only way to truly break the addiction is total withdrawal for a time, if not permanently. It’s not easy, but then no one ever said this would be!!

    Love the new blog look and can’t wait for the book. I want an autographed copy!!

  6. Jill says:

    Salty foods cause me the desire to keep eating. I never really thought about it in terms of “addiction” Very interesting…. something I would like to learn more about. It could be a big help in what changes need to happen in order to help with the obesity epidemic!!

  7. Lori Lynn says:

    For me, the more sugar I eat, the more I crave it. I went months without having any pop, but when I started having it again, then I started adding other things with it. I’m working on cutting out cake and doughnuts (my weaknesses) this week, and it’s been REALLY hard, b/c I’ve been craving them immensely!

  8. Jody - Fit at 54 says:

    LOVE the new blog look – forgot to tell you! 😉 AND a book coming out – exciting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    OK, yes, for me, I LOVE SWEETS so those can addictive for me. I always want more BUT have learned to have my treat & move on. When I was younger & had the salty too, that did it as well but now sweets are my thing. I have learned to make my food plan work for me Diane, like you & I know I can’t eat everything I want so I just acceptthat. I have my treat but even though I want more, I don’t….

  9. Amy says:

    I read that book last year and it was incredibly fascinating – and a big eye-opener to how truly addictive many processed foods really are. I guess for me the main message I took away from it was to try to stick to unprocessed whole foods as much as possible to avoid being sucked into the vicious cycle of craving and overeating that stuff. Because it’s hard to do!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      That is the most important message of the book to me too. I also found it interesting how few ingredients the food manufacturers use to make foods. Severely limits our palate.

  10. E. Jane says:

    Love the new look of your blog! Chocolate has always been a problem for me, but I have now gotten to the point where I can have a “little bit” and not crave more. I don’t know if it’s addiction or habit. I guess chocolate could be an addiction because it creates a physical response in the body that other foods do not. It contains a chemical stimulant. In fact, it has two stimulants–caffeine and theobromine. Supposedly it also contains some seratonin. I get heart palpitations from chocolate, so I have a good reason to limit it, but I do love it! Very good post, Diane.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I think chocolate hits me hard too because of the caffeine/sugar duo. I know it can be good for us – but I have to be careful that I don’t use that as a “free-for-all” eating fest.

  11. Marie@feedingfive says:

    I of course love chocolate and there was a period when I considered it so bad and didn’t eat any of it. I have a much better attitude now and will have a small piece of good quality dark chocolate after lunch every day. If we have See’s I also have one piece without feeling guilty. I would never sit down and eat a whole candy bar, but I work out and eat right so a little chocolate every day is fine with me.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It is about moderation for lifelong weight maintenance. I have met very few people who can forego chocolate or sweets forever. I could if I absolutely had to, but I’m glad I’m not in that position now.

  12. jeanette says:

    Hi Diane…. I hope you had a wonderful holiday!
    So funny, I can bake chocolate all day long for my honey and it not bother me a bit. But the minute there is vanilla cake/cupcakes/ice cream there, I get weak in the knees. I did eactly like you and banned it for months and now I have it on very rare occasions. Tis so much sweeter and yummier that way. I do allow myself low fat frozen yogurt when I go to town once a week or so but never bring any home. Another thing I do is if I eat something non healthy, then I follow by eating something healthy….like a bite of cookie followed by an apple. Works for me…and I guess that is what it all about is finding what works to keep you on the track to health and wellbeing!
    In two weeks I will start my third year of healthy lifestyle. So excited I have come so far. Did you read this article in the New York Times though? Very discouraging…
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/magazine/tara-parker-pope-fat-trap.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
    Blessings to you this week,
    Jeanette

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Thanks Jeanette – I did have a great holiday. I read that article and am going to blog about it on Friday or Monday. Very interesting and a little on the depressing side.

  13. Janis says:

    I think certain foods can be addictive the way we manufacture foods now. I’ve compared it in the past to cocaine. Coca leaves as they are aren’t a problem — you pull one off a tree, chew on it, and it’s like a cup of coffee. That’s how the people who live in that area treated it, just a little something to wake up.

    Then, we process them industrially to the point where we concentrate seven billion cups of coffee on the tip of a sugar spoon, and people will flush their lives down the toilet for it.

    We’ve done the same thing with most foods, with the sugar, salt, fat, and starch. In normal quantities in actual FOOD, these things are nice but we’re not going to ruin ourselves for them. We enjoy them where we find them, and we move on. But, process them industrially (doritos, anyone?) as we’ve done to the scary faux-food we eat nowdays, and suddenly people are destroying their health because they GOTTA HAVE THAT VELVEETA. So it makes sense to me. I think this is why people who manage to maintain are often people who don’t eat processed crap. The hell with the super-complicated hormonal scientific explanations, who cares about that. They’ve been eating the equivalent of cocaine. And people can already get addicted to ANYTHING already — if people can get addicted to gambling, which has no metabolic existence at all, they can get addicted to food.

    I don’t think I’m addicted to any particular food, though. Although I have been known to eat my way through whatever quantity of kumquats and asian pears I’ve bought. If I buy two, they’re gone in an hour. If I buy four, they’re gone in an hour. Two little boxes of kumquats? Gone in two days. Five little boxes of kumquats? Gone in two days. I can’t stop eating kumquats if they are around. It’s the texture, the sunny flavor, the whole experience. They’re much better for you than the garbage though, and they are highly seasonal.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Yes you are right – just like that book explained. The foods that are highly processed are in many cases so far from the original ingredients that we Americans lose our appreciation for natural, whole foods. I like kumquats too!

  14. Janis says:

    Oh you know what I could get addicted to easily though: butterscotch anything. For this past holiday, I made chocolate chip cookies and after I had about four of them, I brought them into work. The damage is lessened when it’s spread out over the entire office. 🙂

    I made butterscotch chip cookies last night, though — and I ain’t bringing them in. Butterscotch anything is MINE. 🙂 Which is why I only make one batch a year at Christmas. I’d be spherical if I made them all the time.

    • Janis says:

      You know, it’s weird. I had three butterscotch chip cookies in a ziploc bag and ate them with my morning tea … and I don’t think I COULD get addicted to them. I do think food addiction is something I can understand intellectually, but can’t relate to personally. I should have had only two, but I ate the third one, and as much as I LOVELOVELOVE the flavor, I got the feeling I always get when I’ve had too much sugar, like my body says, “YOU ARE STOPPING NOW OR I WILL MAKE YOU SICK.” Even if I wanted to eat more of them, it’s like a brick wall after a certain point. Two cookies and it’s out of my hands — I’m done. And I haven’t a clue why. How strange the human body is, and how variable.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I don’t think I would have a problem with butterscotch, but chocolate will get me. I had a friend of had a recipe for a butterscotch pie that my family loved but I could leave it alone. It is strange how we react to certain foods, while other people have no attachment to them.

  15. julie says:

    There are lots of things that trigger what we think of as an addictive response, meaning endorphin or dopamine producing, but I wouldn’t consider on par with a cigarette or alcohol or heroin addiction. That being said, I would like to give a break to the sugar, there was so much around over the holidays that I’m sick to death of the stuff.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You are right about just getting sick of it. I think even my kids were a bit tired of Christmas candy they got in their stockings – even though they only had one piece a day.

  16. Karen@WaistingTime says:

    OMG YES!!! Peanut butter was one. I got rid of my last jar about a year and a half ago and don’t even miss it any more. I think I could easily eat some, if it was portion controlled, like outside my house. Not sure I want to try having a jar here again. Now, bread. Sigh. And cereal. I think I need to follow your example and my own with PB and get rid of them totally for a while.

    I read that book too. I do really think some foods have a grip on us for different reasons. Partially the science as he explains, but I also think there is our own psychological response to certain foods.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      There is definitely a psychological response to some foods – I see it in myself and in my family. I found that if the box/bag isn’t opened, I can leave it alone – but once someone breaks the seal on a food I like, I have to be very disciplined.

  17. La. says:

    For a while it just felt like food consumed me. Like I couldn’t say no. It was TERRIBLE. To break myself of the addicting habit was to NOT go shopping without my husband. I felt incapable of going by myself because I would ALWAYS end up with Reeces in my cart or something. It is terrible to feel powerless. I’ve also read that dairy is VERY addicting, as in cows produce morphine in some organ or other and it ends up in the product which is why they are saying now that it really IS addicting. So crazy.

  18. Maren says:

    Sometimes it’s really hard to stop the cravings, but I’ve found that when I exercise regularly, I don’t get them as much. Maybe because I know how much effort it takes to burn them off? Don’t know, but it works!

    And thank you for your kind words about yesterday’s post .. it was really, really hard for me. 🙂

    • Janis says:

      Just came back from your blog — hon, you have to be like a mountain climber. Don’t look down, and don’t look up. Focus on where you are NOW and what’s coming up NOW — and where you are is TWENTY STINKING POUNDS SENT TO HELL WHERE THEY BELONG and what’s coming up is your next wisely made food choice. Don’t clutter your mind with anything else. 🙂

  19. Roz@weightingfor50 says:

    I don’t buy parmesan cheese (the fresh chunks, not the pre grated stuff) because I seem to be unable to not just have a tiny bit. Maybe one day I’ll be able to have it around again and just have a taste, but for now, just don’t trust myself. Have a wonderful Wednesday Diane!!

  20. Lisa says:

    I love the look of your site. 🙂

    I can so relate to this post. For me it was ice cream and pizza. I had to stop eating those things entirely for 2 years. I knew I couldn’t resist them.

  21. Kaitie says:

    The worst culprets for me were chocolate, peanut butter, and cereals. It was easier to avoid chocolate and candies while at school. I gave that up for a few months and now those urges are easier to control. PB was a toughie- I’ve been known to take a spoon to the jar and go to town. I miss having it around to mix in a little to my oatmeal, so I may reintroduce that when I go back to school for the spring. As for cereal- it is way too easy to go overboard and overestimate the correct serving size when I’m in a rush at school. I’ll stick with oatmeal and granola bars when I get a craving for that!

  22. Jenna says:

    I read the book you’re refering to last year and it was a real eye opener! Especially the information about how corporations are heavily invested in finding the perfect mix of sugar, fat and salt to keep junk food addictive.

  23. Melisa says:

    Hi Diane – I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now but never commented before now. I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy all your posts!

    For me it really isn’t about any one food but rather the general state of mind I’m in. When I’m “on plan” I really don’t get sidetracked by temptations. I am able to make conscious decisions and have any food (even chocolate or chips) in moderation. However, there are days that I am not in the zone and those days I have a very hard time controlling cravings. Luckily I find that it’s just the first few days getting back on track and a couple days a month (around a certain time!) that I feel out of control. For the most part I am able to maintain my weight loss successfully but I am trying to find strategies to become more consistent with my eating rather than continually gaining and losing the same 5 lbs.

  24. Taryl says:

    Yes, some foods are definitely addictive, at least in terms of what they do to our brain and blood chemistry – Kessler was 100% right about that! It’s funny you put up the Oreos image, as that is one of those foods I rarely had in my house, even when really obese, because I couldn’t control myself well with them. Bready carbohydrates are a downfall for me, as is chocolate that isn’t very dark. If it is 70% cocoa or above I can have a square and be satisfied. But milk chocolate? That’s a problem!

    Having broken from almost all food cravings at this point, I can say it is so wonderfully freeing and like you, I noticed it does indeed get easier. But for me, I know some things just cannot be introduced again in a home setting, I simply don’t have the control. I can go out and get a Coldstone once a year, you know? But keeping certain flavors of icecream in my fridge is asking for trouble!

  25. cookie says:

    I am having trouble with chocolate and other sweets to. It has definitely gotten better in the last time, but I don’t believe it is not an issue or won’t be one in the future. I am totally with you on the – If you don’t buy it you can’t eat it. But that doesn’t not help if I feel the hard-to-control urge to go to the store and buy a whole packet of candy bars which equals more than a 1.000 calories. I have no trouble eating that in one session. Gladly I could restrain myself in the last few weeks. I have tried to buy sweets and don’t eat them all at once, but that just doesn’t work for me. Probably never will. So I am going to stick to the plan of only buying small quantaties if I feel it is abolutely necessary as much as possible. I truly feel that I am on my way to getting used to not having to eat large amounts of sweets, which is probably mostly the reason for me being overweight.

  26. Leah says:

    I completely agree that there are addictive qualities in foods. I find that I can not stay out of brownies and certain pasta dishes, like spaghetti, when they are in the house. So, I make them very rarely.

    Now that my kids are old enough to enjoy the brownies they don’t last as long, which is good for me. However, we usually make them for a function where I can be sure they’ll be gone in a night. Otherwise, it’s indulge-city for me.

    Thankfully, my family isn’t huge on pasta, so I can stay away from that pretty easily. Recently when I do make a pasta dish I try and make only enough for one meal and for my husband to take to lunch the next day. If there’s no leftovers I won’t be tempted to overindulge. Or, again, I make it for company…where I know it will be consumed in one evening – and not all by me.

    Great post, Diane!

  27. Nicole says:

    As I really tweaked my heating habits, the less I craved “bad” foods. I kid you not–
    I know crave roasted broccoli when PMS strikes!!
    I can over-do it a bit on nut butter and trail mixes and remind myself to slow down &
    keep everything in check!

    When I went cold turkey dairy-free in September,
    I did have a couple of cravings for a cheesy omelette!

  28. Elizabeth Philip says:

    I am 100% convinced that some foods have truly addictive properties with the most notoriously underestimated being sugar in any form. For me, wheat products are more difficult than sweets, but since they both break down to sugar it’s pretty much the same

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