Food Addiction: Is Science to Blame?

I saw someone post on Facebook about being a food addict. It made me think about how often we hear that phrase and whether or not the majority of people who struggle with their weight are in fact food addicts.

I did a bit of research and the most common definition of food addict I found was from:

Kay Shephhard, M.A., mental health counselor, in an interview on the American Council of Exercise’s blog who says:

“Food addiction involves the compulsive pursuit of a mood change [through binge eating], says Shepphard.  “This is a disease that is primary, chronic, progressive and potentially fatal.”

The article goes on to talk about the fact that the foods that seem most “addictive” are those that have a high concentration of sugars and fat, and salt. Dr. David Kessler, in his book The End of Overeating, also talks about this triad of tastes.

The interesting thing about foods with this triad of ingredients is that they are almost all man-made in a test tube. You know, food from a tube. Processed foods often contain high concentrated amounts of sodium, are high in refined sugars, and are in many cases, high in fat. And when they are in combination, such as chips or cookies, those foods can be hard to put down.

Over time, these foods can certainly become addictive in nature. I saw in in myself. Why else would I have loaded up my 3-year-old into the car to take a little drive down the road to buy McDonald’s french fries and a chocolate shake in the middle of the afternoon? What compelled me to eat entire boxes of Girl Scout thin mints or bags of peanut M&M’s followed by salty chips?

I was addicted to those taste sensations, if not the foods themselves.

The Science of Food

The science of food is now big business. Large food corporations often hire culinologists to find the perfect taste combinations that will appeal to the masses. These specialized chefs have training that blends the science and technology of food production with cooking. They learn to manipulate flavors, both natural and artificial. They are specially trained to make foods look good and taste just a certain way.

Although they certainly consider nutrition to some degree, the primary goal is to make the food taste a certain way. That taste appeals to us physically and mentally and for some people – can make that person crave those foods.

The Solution to Manipulated Foods

For those of you, who like me, find yourself attracted to that triad of tastes, there is hope.

The solution for me was to move away from processed foods and eat a diet more based in natural foods.

Cheetos were addictive to me, but cheese was not. Peanut M&M’s were hard for me to resist, but if I ate too many nuts, I got a stomachache. Ice cream was not so much an addictive food for me, but rather a true dessert. I found it relatively easy to eat ice cream occasionally and in small quantities.

I, like many of the research participants I read about, did not find healthy, wholesome foods addictive. I never ate pounds of carrots or cucumbers, but could eat pounds of chips in a relatively short period of time. Although I do love bread, I never ate an entire loaf of bread like I did entire sleeves of cookies.

The move to a diet heavily based on unprocessed foods not only helped me lose weight, but has also helped me maintain that weight for a long time. Why?

Because I’ve moved past feeling compelled to eat large quantities of junk food because I don’t give my taste buds those foods any longer. If I eat well most of the time, I can have a dessert if I really want it without that dessert sending me into binge mode. Some of you may react differently, but that has been my experience.

Every one of you has to find what works for you, but for many of you, moving from highly processed foods to a more natural diet is a great first step in your quest to get to a healthier weight. Food addictions are real and while a lot of people benefit from therapy to help with those addictions, eliminating scientifically modified foods from your diet can only help.

What to you think? Is science partly to blame for the prevalence of obesity and food addictions? Diane

28 thoughts on “Food Addiction: Is Science to Blame?

  1. Susan says:

    I do believe science is partly to blame for “food addictions” and obesity in our world today. They the fast food chains and food manufactors play to our fast paced society where a lot of people don’t cook at home any more, or if they do they fix fast things to cook from a box etc that contain the unholy trinity of fat, sugar, salt
    The only way to beat the fast food companies and food manufactors is to cook your own food using as natural a product as you can which can be exspensive and hard on your wallet. I struggle with this one since we have only one income in our family. If we stop buying these products the manufactors will stop making them they follow the $$. Same with fast food if we stop eating at these places or demand they put healthy options on the menu and actually eat these healthy options things will change for the better but not until then again its all about the $$. Food manufactors and fast food chains don’t care about our health only their bottom line!

  2. blackhuff says:

    I think that science do play a part in food addiction. Nowadays, all foods are loaded with sugars and stuff we can’t pronounce and these stuff (especially sugars) are highly addictive. The more you eat of them, the more you want. I’ve seen it in myself as well. When I was obese.

  3. Laura Jane says:

    I do agree with all of that for the most part, and I read the “End of Overeating” book. The only thing I would add is that you can also be addicted to homemade junk food, not just the process “manipulated” stuff. My biggest downfall is the stuff I make at my house from flour, sugar, butter, etc. White sugar, chocolate, and flour can be addictive whether Hostess makes it or whether I make it myself. HFCS is really not any more to blame than plain sugar itself – it’s the way too much sweetener in whatever form in everything. It also doesn’t really change the addiction factor for me if I use a so called healthier sweetener like honey or raw sugar. Sugar is sugar, and that alone is addictive. The problem is the easy, cheap access to sugar and also sorts of sweetened foods that give us such a preference for very sweet things. Oh, and I can totally eat half a loaf of homemade bread! I actually have stopped making bread myself (can’t resist warm out of the oven, fresh bread) and buy store bought because I’m better about eating in moderation.

  4. Gwen says:

    Oh Diane, you know exactly how I feel! I’ve spent the past half year journeying from “Wheat Belly” to Dr. Kessler’s book/work to now Primal, and totally get the Food & Restaurant industries’ unholy trinity intentional food manipulation programs to line their coffers, irregardless of what it does to our health. I’m rapidly going from convert to shouting from the highest roof tops. 🙂

    Thanks for not only putting it all together, but throwing it out to your very large reading audience! The less salt, sugar, and fat combos we eat…the better off we will all be.

  5. vickie says:

    Really great job with this post, you said it all in a very easy to understand way.
    Hard to keep this topic short.

    You are smart to talk about the taste buds, most of us DO find if we get the taste buds used to real food, and not thinking they have to have a party, it helps a lot.

    And you are exactly right, while you can have a small serving of some things, it is really important for each person to see if they can actually DO that, or if it send them into a cycle. One of the most important things we have to know and apply to protect ourselves. Almost all of us have things we have to avoid 100%.

    That cycle of eat salt, want sugar, eat sugar, want fat, in whatever combination, is very strong. It is manufactured to BE STRONG and effective.

    I am not sure you touched up on the fact that many processed ingredients and additives cause conditions within our bodies – acne, GI trouble, migraines, hot flashes, night sweats, etc. not to mention FAT.

    The good news is that we do not have to change the whole world. We do not have to change what is sold in stores. All we have to do, today, is eat whole foods ourselves and feed whole foods to our families. And even if our kids are older, encourage them to eat whole foods by example and by teaching them to cook. (I have two kids who no longer live at home.)

  6. Joe says:

    Not sure if Science is to blame but I know that I crave those processed foods but I can’t really recall ever craving asparagus. Is it because fat and sugar trigger some kind of euphoric feeling? Maybe. I know one thing is for sure Science is working on making food cheaper and more processed with little regard to long term health!

  7. Janis says:

    “The interesting thing about foods with this triad of ingredients is that they are almost all man-made in a test tube. You know, food from a tube.”

    YES! YESYESYES. I do definitely think that there is such a thing as a processed food addict, but absolutely — most of the things that food addicts are addicted to aren’t actually FOOD. Doritos and McDonalds are not FOOD. They have exactly the same relationship to actual food that cocaine has to coca leaves. No one gets addicted to coca leaves, after all. The people that lived in that area pulled a leaf off of the tree, chewed on it, and it was like a cup of coffee. It wakes you up a titch, and you get on with your day.

    But you take that and focus the full force of modern technology on it, and suddenly you have 17 billion cups of coffee worth of buzz on the end of a little spoon, and people will flush their lives down the toilet to get at it.

    Fritos and salt and vinegar potato chips and whatnot are no different. And that’s the stuff that people are addicted to. Fake-food.

    Not only is that stuff addictive, but it packs a HUGE wallop of Calories in a small volume, so you can end up fitting 5,000 Calories in a human stomach. In nature, food was almost never that dense. You simply couldn’t down that much material.

    It’s all quite evil. Processed food is to real food as cocaine is to coca leaves, or as heroin is to poppies. If you can’t tell what it used to be when it was alive from looking at it, don’t put it in your mouth.

  8. Caron says:

    I know I’m in dangerous territory when I have a “little” of my daughter’s stash of snacks and other foods. A little makes me want more and more. I’ve never craved another apple or orange or another helping of green beans. It’s taken me years to learn that it’s not all about will power. A lot of it is eliminating those things that make me go out of control.

  9. Jill @ a Girl in Progress says:

    I thought I’d share my internal dialogue after I finished reading your post – “That was her best post EVER!” I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts and I very firmly believe that man-made food concoctions are the reason food has become addictive. I also have very much enjoyed reading the commenters thoughts. Everyone is spot-on. And you’re right – I’ve never binge ate carrots or spinach. Those boxes of cookies, however, are a different story.

    The entire time I was fighting to lose, then maintain my weight, I was looking for an answer – a quick fix, SOMETHING to make it possible! All I wanted to do was eat and eat. I read every blog and article I could fine. Finally, I realized through my own trial and lots of error that eating “clean” was the magic answer I was looking for. If I ate clean, I would be so much less tempted to eat in an out-of-control way. I would never have guessed the resolution would be so simple, but it is! I still have temptations to binge or eat in an out-of-control way, but the more whole and unprocessed foods I eat, the less those desires present themselves. It makes maintaining a constant weight possible for me.

    I tease my husband when he eats those tacos at Taco Bell where the taco shell is made out of a Dorito that he’s not eating FOOD! I really liked Janis’ comment above and I agree totally – IT’S NOT FOOD!!

  10. Cindy says:

    When you cook in with natural ingredients at least you know what you are eating. I am so tired of trying to make a good choice lets say in the cereal isle at the grocery store. The box tells me one cereal is healthy and has a heart healthy label and tells me it is a great source of fibre and recommended by any number of groups. Often the ingredient list is incomprehensible and the nutrition information is hard to compare from one product to another. I read the bar code on it into a program on my cell phone and it tells me the truth! The cereal is low fibre candy! It is so frustrating!

  11. Kara says:

    We are slaves to our tastebuds and the food industry scientists knows exactly how to make those tastebuds sing. (Let alone the marketing dollars spent to get us to notice then buy their product.)

    This is the reason I eat very little processed food; it’s too easy to overeat, because it has been scientifically developed to make me overeat.

    I listened to the Micheal Moss interview about his new book (Salt, Sugar, Fat) how one of the first food scientists was a guy in the army who was charged with the task to get soldiers to eat more (since eating isn’t top of mind in a war zone). It’s an interesting interview; I’ve bought the book which I’m going to read next.
    http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Canada/Audio/ID/2342048494/

    The fact that we continually blame ourselves for eating too much is a nice little way that they can keep doing what they are doing. We need to demand change; not eating processed food is a start, but why the heck aren’t we asking/demanding change?

  12. I ❤ 2 Eat says:

    This one’s a hard one for me. I know sugar is addictive. And that there are foods that are bad for you, made to taste good enough for you to keep coming back. But I subscribe to the fact that we make food choices. Food “manufacturers” are there to sell their food. Profit is the sole purpose of a corporation. It is up to the consumers, in my mind, to make the right decisions about the food they consume. And yet, should manufacturers knowingly “manipulate” foods? I don’t know. It’s a hard one, like I said. I said so much without saying anything in this comment. Sorry, Diane!

  13. Owen says:

    What a fascinating topic! My wife was reading a popcorn nutrition label to me just last evening. It actually had two labels. One listed the fats, oils, and salt in this very caloric and somewhat addicting popular popcorn brand. But then it listed JUST the un-popped corn itself and boasted that it only had 35 calories per serving. Can you imagine sucking on popcorn until it softens enough to chew and swallow? Manufacturers are in business to convince you their products are healthy. Just read the labels and ask yourself “Is there ever really a free lunch”? The truth is we all must struggle through our food addictions and pray we come out on the other side having conquered our own personal Mr. Everest. — Owen

  14. Babbalou says:

    I try not to eat anything that could be called a “product” and don’t think we can blame anyone else for what we do and don’t eat. However even some basic foods, and I’m thinking primarily of grains, have been altered so they are unrecognizable from the grains eaten by our grandparents. Meat and dairy are affected if they are fed these grains. I’m disturbed by the recommendation to eat more “healthy whole grains” since I believe whole grains today, particularly wheat, are NOT healthy. I don’t know to what extent this affects overall obesity rates today. I do know that when I stopped eating wheat, I lost nearly a pound a day for a week – and I was eating a low carb diet so very little wheat. Like you, Diane, I can eat a serving of ice cream without particularly wanting to eat more. But cookies, cake, etc. flip my craving switch to “on” and I really struggle, sometimes for the better part of a week. I used to think it was the sugar but now I’m not so sure, maybe it’s really the flour, I just don’t know. I did read that people who are sensitive to wheat as I am (it gives me terrible joint pain) ironically crave wheat, although after a while without it I’m not really wanting it anymore. I think the truth is there is so much we don’t know about the effects on our health and our bodies of the altered foods available today. And that’s without even considering the manufactured or highly processed “food.”

  15. Lynn says:

    Is science partly to blame for the prevalence of obesity and food addictions?

    I have to say that science is partly to blame for the lack of health….whether that evidenced by obesity, addictions, high blood pressure, etc. That is, I don’t think that obesity is the only result of the bad food science that has invaded our lifestyles. I know plenty of “skinny” people that just plain aren’t healthy because they live on a diet of chicken nuggets, fries and doritos.

    In my house, we focus on real foods and things that actually can spoil. We are focusing on the source of our foods as well. It is eye opening to read food labels of even the “healthy” foods in the stores.

  16. Beth says:

    There’s something to this theory, but on the other hand, some people will overeat no matter what you put in front of us. My family eats very, very little processed food. But if I don’t write it all down, yes, I will overeat asparagus, or fresh fruit, or whatever is there. Good food adds up too. For people like me, it’s way too easy to say someone else is to blame. I am responsible for what I eat and how much. End of story. I’m also responsible to make wise choices, and that’s where minimally processed food comes in.

  17. Bill says:

    Food addiction is a very misleading term. A good percentage of over eaters are not necessarily addicted to food. Some eat because of depression or maybe a medicine they are on. That said, many foods, such as meat, has all kinds of addictive chemicals in them that have no connection to food. They are there to preserve foods and in many cases actually cause cravings. Science is not to blame, it is the use of science by the food corporations that is the problem.

  18. Jess says:

    I’d never really thought about science of food and the manipulation as you discussed. I’m sure there are companies investing tons of money to find those right combinations to appeal the to masses. Sugar and salt seem to the be crux of the food addictions. One other is caffeine. I know many people who have a hard time removing it from their daily diet without getting headaches when they have absolutely no caffeine for a a couple of days or so.

    You also have to wonder about all the fake sweetners and the impact that has on the cravings. You hit it on the head when you said to move toward natural foods. Not only is it more healthy and will help you lose weight, but it will retrain your body to hopefully not want the processed foods because once they are purged out of your diet and you feel the difference from eating a natural diet.

  19. Max Sebring says:

    I am a food addict once! I can’t resist craving for food especially when I get depressed. When I do heavy workouts, I easily get hungry. Am I losing my motivation to lose weight? I don’t think science is to blame for this.

    • Morey says:

      I don’t necessarily believe science is to blame. It’s more the modern diet. Instead of eating all the processed foods and sugars, we should eat more natural foods. Fruits, veggies, and protein. We need to cut out the cakes, candies, pasta, and most of all sweetened drinks like soda and juices. Our main beverage needs to be water. Science and technology made it possible to create all of these delicious things to eat. It doesn’t mean we have to eat them!! (i know easier said than done.)

  20. KCLAnderson (Karen) says:

    I absolutely believe the food industry is partly to blame…what they have done to food is shameful. We often hear the advice, “eat what your grandmother or great grandmother would recognize as food.” Thing is, my great grandmother ate, among many other homemade, non-processed things, Oreos. And she was barely 5 feet tall and weighed maybe 90 pounds. She lived into her 90s. Back then, Oreos were made a lot differently than they are today. Not to mention, there are many MANY “foods” that are now available that were not available then (she died in 1980). We want to believe and trust those who “feed” us but we can not trust Big Food.

  21. Ryan says:

    I think this the answer is this;EVOLUTION. Taste, cravings, and even consciousness are all arguably adaptions to help us survive. Taste helps(ed) us determine which foods are safe to eat (poison=bitter, FAT = ENERGY DENSE), cravings help tell us when we need a certain vitamin or nutrient, and consciousness helped us know what was a smart decision and which would lead to death. Everything is about spreading DNA, humans aren’t special – so yes, science is to blame!

    The real problem I think is that fake fats trick our senses into thinking they are normal healthy fats. The human body has adapted to use fat for it’s energy. It’s more sustainable and more easily found in nature. Think about it what’s easier to find in nature – a fish or wild potatoes…Great article!

  22. evilcyber says:

    There is a difference between what science discovers and what applications those discoveries are being used for. Einstein’s goal, for example, certainly was not laying the groundwork for the most destructive weapon known to mankind.

    It would be an equally valid question to ask: “Is science to blame when people abuse it?”

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