Jim's Apple Pie

The Food We Depend Upon for Life and Pleasure

We depend upon food for both life and pleasure. But that dependence can go awry in many different ways. One way is captured by the popular concept of food addiction. Though it is controversial, some consensus holds that addictive eating behaviors are very real.

People who are living with this problem will tell you just how real it is.

Are Ultra-Processed Foods Addictive Substances?

Because of this, the impulse to label ultra-processed foods as addictive substances is strong. In some ways, it makes sense. Research from NIH tells us that people will eat surprisingly greater quantities of these foods than similar foods with minimal processing. Marketing for these foods suggests we will crave them and never want to stop eating them. No wonder Michael Moss can make a career of selling his conspiracy theories about food companies selling us addictive foods.

But we have to ask: is it the substance of the food that is the problem? Or does the problem go well beyond the food itself?

Behavioral Addictions

To wrap our head around the concept of food addiction, it helps to dig into the concept of behavioral addictions. Jon Grant and colleagues describe it well:

The essential feature of behavioral addictions is the failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or to others. Each behavioral addiction is characterized by a recurrent pattern of behavior that has this essential feature within a specific domain.

Examples of behavioral addictions include gambling, sex, and even social media use. Disorders of impulse control provide an alternate way of looking at these problems. Lively debates continue about the best way to sort them and provide care for people who need it.

Food: Necessity, Substance, and Pleasure

We depend upon the substance of food for both life and pleasure. But that does not make food an addictive substance. In his zeal to sell books, Michael Moss would have us believe that food with the right combination of sugar, salt, and fat is addictive. Perhaps a well-made apple pie qualifies, too.

No doubt behavioral addiction problems with food are real. But the problem lies well beyond the substance of the food. It extends to the marketing of food in its broadest sense. It goes to the way that we position food in our lives. Do we have healthy patterns for enjoying the pleasure of food that sustains us? Or have we patterned our lives to maximize its consumption (with industry’s help) – mindlessly eating in meetings, in our cars, and everywhere we go?

Demonizing the substance of foods we enjoy will not solve the problem we have in our relationship with food. In fact, it may well make it worse.

Click here and here for more on behavioral addictions. For perspective on substance use and behavioral addictions in the pandemic, click here.

Jim’s Apple Pie, photograph © Ted Kyle / flickr

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July 11, 2021

3 Responses to “The Food We Depend Upon for Life and Pleasure”

  1. July 11, 2021 at 8:26 am, Michael Jones said:

    This is a great point you raise Ted. It has been my experience that often patients are using food (or drugs, or alcohol, or shopping…) to fill a void, to create satisfaction and contentment. Seems to all run back to the hedonic drive and the dopamine-nucleus accumbens connection.

  2. July 11, 2021 at 4:04 pm, Mary-Jo said:

    Calling it food addiction is very misleading. We live in a food-dominated society. It’s not only the marketing of calorific, ultra-processed foods and drinks, subliminal cues, and the dynamics considered ‘bad’, but even the explosion of foodie blogs, ‘wonderful’ recipe sites, and all that is considered ‘good’ to encourage people to eat ‘healthier’. Putting food in perspective, consuming it for necessary nourishment and the gift of pleasure and fellowship it provides has become a daunting challenge these days. It IS liberating to feel empowered over food’s place in our lives, whether through bariatric surgery, medical treatment, good education WITH proper counselling and accountability, great multidisplinary support, or other evidence-based care. The access to this care, however, is still so inadequate. Thus, keep throwing the fault back to the people, make them even feel more guilty by naming them as ‘addicts’. 😖🙄It’s exhausting.

    • July 12, 2021 at 4:15 am, Ted said:

      I agree with you completely, Mary-Jo.