Comfort Foods

Is Convenient, Pleasing Food Addictive?

Food addiction is a concept that sticks to the popular psyche. Yet it remains scientifically controversial. True believers will tell you that eating addictive food “lights up” parts of the brain involved in addiction. But then, just about anything that brings a person pleasure does that. So this is not an especially persuasive argument to us. Nonetheless, the notion persists, and it attaches itself especially to highly processed convenience foods.

Bad, Addictive Food

In a systematic review, Eliza Gordon and colleagues write that:

“Certain foods, particularly processed foods with added sweeteners and fats, demonstrate the greatest addictive potential.”

Others are not so subtle about it. Michael Moss has a book devoted to persuading us that big food has hooked us on food that hits our bliss point. So we can’t resist it. Joan Ifland tells us that we need a focused fight against processed food addiction.

It fits in neatly with the impulse to label and demonize bad foods.

Pleasing, Convenient Food

The problem is that these supposedly bad and addictive foods are the natural products of food systems that aim to feed the world and please consumers. Taste and convenience are at the top of the list for attributes that will make a new product successful. Thus, the array of products that food stores offer us evolve to favor products that we will eagerly consume and repurchase.

Products that are not tasty and convenient perform poorly and disappear from the market.

Food and Drugs Are Different

Trying to depict food as a potentially addictive substance is problematic. Dietitian Marci Evans explains:

“Food is meant to be rewarding. Just like sex, it’s evolutionarily advantageous to find food rewarding. It’s part of what keeps the human race alive.

“Food is far more complex than a single substance like cocaine or alcohol. We eat a mixture of foods and scientists have yet to identify a single ingredient, like sucrose, to demonstrate physically addictive properties in humans. There is still far more that we do not know than what we do know when it comes to the theory of food addiction.”

We have many reasons for eating. Complex biology regulates our appetite for food and our metabolic health. Clearly, many dimensions of our environment have evolved in a way that prompts us to eat more and makes obesity more common. The food supply is an important factor, but other factors play a role, too.

So ascribing our eating behaviors to food addiction might provide some insights, but it tells an incomplete and misleading story.

Click here, here, and here for more perspectives on the construct of food addiction. For a dietitian’s perspective, click here.

Comfort Foods, photograph © Jing / flickr

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January 3, 2021

One Response to “Is Convenient, Pleasing Food Addictive?”

  1. January 03, 2021 at 10:15 am, John DiTraglia said:

    yeah. ridiculous.