Hooked on Food: A Battle in the Brain? The Reality of Food Addiction
Our brains maintain a healthy body weight by signaling when to eat and when to stop. Hormones regulate feeding circuits that control appetite and satiety, but fatty sugary foods can motivate some people to overeat. The more they have the more they want, a sensation common in drug addiction.
Sugar in the form of glucose provides the body with quick energy. But lately, we’ve gone way beyond the Call of Duty. 200 years ago, the average American ate about 2 pounds of sugar per year. Today we each eat about 152 pounds a year according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. This sharp increase in the consumption of sugar is no mystery. Sugar is cheap, plentiful, and it tastes great.
Some doctors and researchers classify sugar as an addictive drug because this refined white crystal triggers the pleasure and reward centers in our brain much like a drug does. It was already well established that sugar consumption will light up the nucleus accumbens and other areas of the brain that are collectively known as the reward centers, generating intense feelings of pleasure when we engage in acts like eating. Doctors are trying to curb our out-of-control sweets habit. The American Heart Association recommends that adult men consume no more than 38 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar daily, women only 6 teaspoons, and children even less. The latest 2025 dietary guidelines recommends even smaller amounts for daily consumption: no more than 30 grams of added sugar a day for an adult male. However, these numbers fall far below what a typical American actually consumes. An average soda is 39 grams and a bowl of cereal is 20 grams and that’s without dumping more spoonfuls of sugar on top of it.
Is Sugar Addictive?
A recent study showed that rats can be addicted to foods, too. Actually, these foods sound very similar to those found in the Standard American Diet. The researchers gave rats unlimited access to standard chow as well as to a mini cafeteria full of appetizing high calorie foods: sausage, cheesecake, chocolate. The rats decreased their intake of the healthy but bland items and switched to eating the cafeteria food almost exclusively. They gained weight. They became obese.
The research then warned the rats as they were eating by flashing a light that they would receive a nasty foot shock. Rats eating the bland chow would quickly stop and scramble away, but time and again the obese rats continued to devour the rich food, ignoring the warning that they had been trained to fear. Their hedonic desire overruled their basic sense of self preservation.
“We now have the evidence for just how easy this is. People eating ultra processed, palatable foods are likely to eat more calories and no surprise, gain weight. We know this from a clinical trial run by Kevin Hall and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. They managed to convince 20 adults to live in a controlled metabolic ward for a month period. They gave the volunteers one of two diets unprocessed or ultra processed that were matched for calories, fats , carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. For two weeks the volunteers could eat as much as they wanted of the assigned diet; they then could eat as much as they wanted of the other diet for two weeks. The results were stunningly clear. On the ultra processed diet, the volunteers consumed many more calories – 500 — more a day than when eating the unprocessed diet. They also gained a pound week.
This experiment tells us that there is something about sweet, salty, and fatty foods that makes us want to eat more of them and to be unaware of how much more we’re eating. Salads and fruits do not trigger this kind of response.” Source: Marion Nestle. Let’s Ask Marion: What you need to know about the politics of food, nutrition, and health. California Study in Food and Culture. 2020.
Did they become “hooked on food”? An inability to suppress a behavior, despite the negative consequences, is common in addiction. Scientists are finding similar compulsiveness in certain people. Almost all obese individuals say they want to consume less, yet they consume or continue to overeat even though they know that doing so can have shockingly negative health or social consequences. Studies show that overeating juices up the reward systems in our brain so much so in some people that it overpowers the brain’s ability to tell them to stop eating when they have had enough. As with alcoholics and drug addicts, the more they eat the more they want. Whether or not overeating is technically an addiction if it stimulates the same brain circles as drug use in the same way, people also can possibly be “addicted to food.”
What to Do? Protein to the Rescue
Many peoples’ relationship with sugar typically starts when they wake up in the morning. Many start the day with a sweet bowl of cereal or a muffin (at 600 calories) for breakfast. But this pattern can set you up to fail, so many nutritionists recommend to focus more on protein.
Protein helps stabilize blood sugar which helps keep you out of fight or flight reactions and protein also provides the building blocks for your brain neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine. Many nutritionists advise their patients to eat protein such as eggs, cheese, nuts, peas, beans, and or even a protein shake at least an hour after they get up, and with every meal. If you snack before bed, make sure that it has protein too. Even if we strive to avoid sugar, it is often ubiquitous in our food culture appearing in many processed foods. If you have trouble saying no to sweets, it is recommended to eat protein proactively to keep temptations in check. This way you can help to avoid another binge on your favorite indulgence promoted by the American food industry and your brain, which is actually in on the hijacking, by the way.