Healthy Living Blog

Addicted to Eating But Not to Foods

What was Mother Nature thinking? Somehow our brains were created in a way that makes it possible to become addicted to substances such as heroin, cocaine, tobacco and alcohol. I assure you, this was not Mother Nature’s intention. Long before humans began to use these addictive substances, our brains were designed to foster the survival of our species. The feel-good chemical, dopamine, released by the reward centers of our brains, motivated our ancestors to pursue the arduous task of obtaining the food necessary to stay alive and pass along their genes.  Just think about it. We are here today because food and sex activated the reward centers of our ancestors’ brains.

You may have heard the saying, “Addiction hijacks our brains.” That’s because drugs, tobacco, and alcohol have the potential to take over neural circuitry originally intended for our survival. We call this chemical addiction.

The reward center of our brains responds differently to addictive substances, like cocaine or heroin, than it does to more natural pleasures like eating and sex. True addictive substances change both the structure and function of the brain. There is no evidence at this time to show that any food or substance in food does the same in humans. According to one expert, “The term, food addiction, confuses drug-like, chemical addiction with rewarding properties”(1).

There are many differences between known addictive substances and food. First of all, we must eat food in order to survive. This is not the case with addictive drugs, tobacco and alcohol. A second difference is that drugs, tobacco, and alcohol are made up of just one identifiable molecule. Food, on the other hand, is made up of hundreds or thousands of chemical molecules.

Some media sources tell us that sugar might be addictive. However, most of us do not sit down and eat a bowl of sugar.  What we really prefer are foods that contain sugar, particularly fat/sweet combination foods. Most of us do not go wild over sweetened, skim milk mixtures. We would rather have rich, creamy milkshakes. Many of the foods that “carbohydrate addicts” crave often have more calories from fat than they do from carbohydrate.

The concept of food addiction also ignores the fact that we eat in response to both internal and external factors. “A genetic or acquired susceptibility to addictive-like eating might be activated if one experiences prolonged stress, anxiety, depression mood or boredom” (5).  Here at Structure House we help participants deal with these underlying issues.

Research on the possibility of food as an addictive substance is in its infancy.  We do not have adequate evidence at this time to show that any food or substance in food is addictive in humans. Some experts propose that evidence better supports the notion that eating might be an addictive behavior in some individuals (2). Much more research will be necessary to sort this out.

In the meantime, believing food is addictive could be very discouraging and feel somewhat disempowering. Take heart in the fact that changing eating behaviors is certainly possible. Our participants here at Structure House are living proof.

Relevant Blog Posts: Do you Eat on Autopilot?Five Stages for Lifelong Recovery


  1. Menzies, J., University of Edinburg researcher who studies neuroscience of hyper-palatable foods.
  2. Hegebrand J., Albayrak O., Adan R., Antel J., Dieguez C., de Jong J., Leng G., Menzies J., Mercer J.G., Murphy M., van der Plasse G., Dickson S.L. “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addiction-like eating behavior, Neurosci Biobehav Rev., 2014, 47: 295-306.
  3. Rolls, B. Volumetrics: Feel Full on Fewer Calories, , 284-4, HarperCollins, 2000.
  4. Raynor, H.A., Jeffery, R.W., Phelan, S., Hill, J.O., Wing, R.R. Amount of food group variety consumed in the diet and long-term weight loss maintenance, Obes Res., 2005, 13(5): 883-90.
  5. NeuroFAST consensus opinion on food addiction. European Commission, Seventh Framework Programe.

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