Can’t Eat ‘Just One’

Food designed to be most palatable to humans may play a role in brain chemistry addiction.

A man with the area surrounding his mouth covered in powdered sugar from the pastry he is eating.
While food addiction might not yet be a diagnosis, scientists believe that certain food chemicals may work on the brain the same way addictive drugs can.

Food addiction may not yet be a clinical diagnosis. Ask Cynthia Dsauza about the likelihood that one day soon it will be, and she’ll agree odds are good. After all, At the end of the day, it’s all chemistry.

Discussing food addiction makes many people nervous, said the Texas Tech assistant professor in the Department of Community, Family and Addiction Services.

Allison Childress, Texas Tech University Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and instructor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences.

Allison Childress, director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and an instructor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences echoed Dsauza’s belief that food addiction is a real thing that scientists are just now starting to understand.

I believe that food addiction affects thousands, if not millions, of people in the U.S. Childress said. Although there is not an ‘official’ diagnosis yet I believe that we are close to one. Diagnosis is the first step toward treatment. Once we have a definition of food addiction, we can effectively diagnose and treat individuals who are suffering from this stigmatized and widely misunderstood disease.

Busy lives and convenient drive-throughs make fast food an easy option. It may not be the best option, but as many of her clients say, We all have to eat. Big food industry leaders have spent millions developing delicious carb-, fat- and salt-laden food almost too appetizing to turn down. It sits there in easily grabbed bags or quickly prepared boxes waiting cheaply for consumers to, well, consume them.

While it’s true everyone has to eat, it’s what we eat and how that counts, she said. For some, the highly processed, researched-and-developed junk food works on some human brains in the same way cocaine works on an addict’s neurons.

A plate with two small pancakes and a small amount of sauce beneath them forming a "smiley" face.
Big Food industry has spent millions in research and development to make the foods they sell most palatable to people. But just like addicts, some people with food addiction display the same types of behaviors as those addicted to drugs. Some constantly seek that “first high” and others go through withdrawal when they don’t eat the junkfood they crave.

These highly palatable foods are high in salt, fat and sugar, or generally speaking, some kind of delicious combination of these three that isn’t found in nature, she said. They are designed by big food companies to be delicious. For some, there are several systems at play. Some research has found that in people who are obese and have food addiction, looking at a picture of this highly palatable food makes the ‘wanting’ part of the brain light up like a Christmas tree. That doesn’t occur in other people who don’t have food addiction.

Texas Tech University Assistant Professor in the Department of Community, Family and Addiction Services.

Dsauza said scientists began probing into food addiction about 10 years ago after one researcher did a study with rats and sugar water. Rats addicted to cocaine abandoned cocaine for the sweet water once they were exposed. This isn’t an uncommon phenomenon with human addicts, she said. Many times, addicts will start smoking or eating instead of using.

But the manner in which the rats abandoned cocaine created lots of questions. While sugars do exist in the natural world, highly refined white sugar does not. Perhaps, thought researchers, refined sugar along with other highly processed designer foods can create the same types of dependencies as well as withdrawals that drugs do.

The research suggests that people without food addiction can eat a Twinkie and then say, ‘This is great. I can be done now.’ People with food addiction never reach that level of satiation. Their brains are dulled to the experience. Given the same dose, they’re not going to experience the same high. They will feel something that is very close to withdrawal if they don’t get the same dose. And we know this anecdotally. Several years back, people were trying to cut carbohydrates out of their diet, and carbs are in everything we eat. People would say, ‘Quitting carbs was the worst thing I ever did.’

A plate with two small pancakes and a small amount of sauce beneath them forming a "smiley" face.
Sometimes choosing the right foods can be difficult for those with food addiction, and not everyone with food addiction is obese, just as everyone who is obese does not have food addiction.

Not everyone with obesity has food addiction just like everyone with food addiction doesn’t have obesity, said both researchers. People with anorexia and bulimia also can suffer from food addiction. Researchers estimate only about 40 percent of people identified with having a food addiction suffer from obesity.

This year, Dsauza and Childress plan to delve deeper into food addiction research with other experts in Texas Tech’s Department of Health Exercise and Sports Sciences. While much of the research that’s already been done by others looks more at only the biological side of effects on the body’s systems, their work will include the psychological aspects as well

We are looking at appetite regulating hormones, perceived hunger and fullness and gastric motility in people with food addiction, Childress said. To our knowledge this is the first study to measure these variables. We are looking to find out if there is a physiological difference in people with food addiction versus those without. We know there is a psychological difference, via the addiction component, and now we want to see if there is a physiological difference.

Both said they hope the results will not only be helpful to science’s understanding of food addiction but also contain information that health-care providers can immediately use to help their clients.

In addition to conducting research and teaching, Cynthia and I are also clinicians, Childress said. It is our goal to contribute to the body of literature in order to synthesize an official definition which will lead to a diagnosis. Our ultimate goal is to design treatment for those with food addiction. We want to be able to take the things we learn, then go to our clients, share what we learned and suggest they try this or that.

  1. Follow Us
  2. Facebook
  3. Instagram
  4. iTunesU
  5. Twitter
  6. YouTube