Is food addiction actually a thing? (Spoiler alert: nope)

18 Jul 2019

I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts the other day (GrownUpLand, co-created by the excellent Deborah Frances-White - check it out, it’s hilarious); they talk SO much sense on this show so I was devastated to hear these intelligent people talking about being addicted to sugar and junk food…

But it’s inspired me to write on the subject as I come across it ALL the time! It’s slowly becoming ingrained in everyday language as something that actually exists rather than a throwaway term to describe loving a particular food and being driven to eat it. So let’s take a deep dive and see what’s going on.

Can we be addicted to food?


Back in our hunter-gatherer days we would get greater reward from seeking out food high in calories (fatty and sweet foods) as these would give us greater energy to cope with frequent food shortages and to further seek out more food. In the current day of plenty and food abundance (well, in developed nations) we now see this as somewhat of a curse and I think has led people to rationalise that we must on some level have an addiction or compulsion to these foods. 

It’s an understandable assumption but what does the research say?

You often hear studies being thrown around that have ‘proven’ that food addiction exists. For example studies have shown that when mice are given sugar the same area of their brain responds as when they’re given cocaine. Now, there are a few things wrong with this…

1. You can’t directly relate findings from animal studies to humans. We’re entirely different beings. Well duh! Do you have a tail?

2. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense as our body is biologically driven to get pleasure from food! We need food for our basic survival and if we didn’t get pleasure from food what would be driving us to seek it out? Nothing! We would slowly wither away and die. Sorry to be dramatic but I hope you can see that when put like this it makes perfect sense that we would get a reward from eating food.

Apart from caffeine we don’t know of any specific component in food that has addictive properties. Most of the food we eat is a complex mixture of different compounds and nutrients which we call the food matrix. This is vastly different to the simpler chemical composition of alcohol, nicotine, drugs etc which are linked with substance misuse. Animal studies into food addiction mostly use single foods like sugar and in fairly high doses. Ever sat down and had a bowl of sugar for lunch? Didn’t think so…

So if we can’t be addicted to food, then what’s going on?

Restrict-binge cycle

Some people feel compelled to eat, even when they’re not hungry. I mean I’ve definitely been there, feeling like if I open a family sized bar of chocolate I’ll eat the whole thing even though I know it’ll make me feel gross. And I’ve done that, many times; feeling like shit and a failure for days after. But why was this if I’m not addicted to chocolate? Well, let’s talk about the restrict-binge cycle.

Restriction by itself can lead people to feel crazy around certain foods, to overeat and even binge. Think of it like a pendulum; the harder and more frequently you restrict food the harder and more frequently you’ll overeat or binge. This is probably one of the leading reasons people might feel like they’re addicted to food and can’t trust themselves around certain foods.

Intuitive eaters overeat a whole lot less BECAUSE they don’t restrict any foods they love. Once you’ve made peace with all foods (i.e. internally recognise that no food is inherently better than others) and know that you can still eat that food tomorrow and the next day and the next it’s a whole lot easier to just eat the amount that’s right for you at that time. It kind of takes the shine off particular foods so they become just as enticing as any other food.

When I came to truly know that I can eat as much chocolate as I like, day after day I felt so free! And now a family sized bar of chocolate lasts weeks in my house, rather than a few guilt-ridden minutes.

Eating addiction

In a small subset of people (we don’t yet know how many people this might actually affect) addiction to the behaviour of eating might be what’s going on. Foods with both high fat and sugar content (which aren’t really seen in the natural food environment) might be particularly linked with a compulsion to overeat. This might lead to weight gain in some people, but not all.

There’s been very little research in this area, particularly in humans so we need more evidence to really know what’s going on and to be able to help people with a behavioural addiction to eating.

It’s unfair to group the life-devastating addictions to gambling, sex, alcohol and drugs which are recognised as being actual diseases with ‘addictions’ to chocolate or burgers say. While it’s okay to recognise weird feelings around certain foods it’s oversimplified to call it an addiction to specific foods. Intuitive eating helps to reduce the crazy around certain foods and bring more normality to eating patterns by leveling the playing field of foods and taking commonly restricted foods down from their pedestals.


“Addiction is not really applicable to the concept of food… which we all have to eat to survive!” – Professor Julian Mercer, The Rowett Institute