Overweight and obesity affect two-thirds of the American population, and the abundance and accessibility of calorie-dense, low-micronutrient foods is a major contributor to this problem. Many people have difficulty stopping when consuming these foods, eating well past the point of being satiated or even physically full. However, the idea that food can be addictive is still controversial.
Can Food Really Be Addictive?
Many scientists think so. Addiction is characterized by activation of the brain’s reward system, use of the substance or behavior despite negative consequences, loss of control, tolerance, and withdrawal. Although food addiction is not yet recognized as a psychiatric disorder, compulsive consumption of calorie-dense foods fits these characteristics.1
Research suggests the excessively sweet, salty, and/or fatty (“highly palatable”) foods common in the standard American diet can produce dysfunction in the brain’s reward system, driving the loss of self-control, overeating, and weight gain.2,3 There is evidence that the neurobiological underpinnings of compulsively eating highly palatable foods are similar to those of addiction to heroin or cocaine.4-8
In the Brain: Dopamine, Reward, and Tolerance
Hunger is not the only reason we eat. When we eat calorie-rich foods or engage in other pleasurable behaviors, the brain’s reward system reinforces that behavior with a neurochemical called dopamine.1 The drive to consume large amounts of calorie-rich foods when they were available was advantageous for early humans, allowing them to store enough energy to survive through periods of food scarcity. But in modern times, that same drive for calorie-rich foods promotes obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases.