4200 Northside Pkwy, Bldg 8, Ste 200
Atlanta, GA 30327
By Kris Gunnars
There are many ridiculous myths in nutrition.
The idea that losing weight is all about calories and willpower is one of the worst.
The truth is… sugar and highly processed junk foods can be addictive, just like drugs.
Not only are the behavioral symptoms the same, but the biology also happens to agree.
Here are 10 disturbing similarities between sugar, junk food and abusive drugs.
Our brains are hardwired to want to perform certain behaviors.
Mostly, these are behaviors that are important for our survival… such as eating.
When we eat, a brain hormone called dopamine is released in an area of the brain called the reward system (1, 2).
We interpret this dopamine signal as “pleasure” and the programming in our brain changes to make us want to perform that behavior again.
This is one of the ways the brain evolved to help us navigate through our natural environment, motivating us to do things that helped our species survive.
This is actually a good thing… without dopamine, life would be miserable.
But the problem is that some modern things can function as “superstimuli” – they flood our brains with dopamine, way more than we were ever exposed to throughout evolution.
This can lead to these brain pathways being “hijacked” by the intense dopamine signal.
A great example of this is the drug cocaine… when people take it, it floods the brain with dopamine, and the brain changes its programming to want to take cocaine again, and again, and again (3).
The dopamine pathways that are supposed to guide people towards survival have now been taken over by the new stimulus, which releases more dopamine and is a much stronger behavioral reinforcer than anything in the natural environment (4).
But here’s where it gets really interesting… sugar and highly processed junk foods can have the same effect as drugs of abuse (5).
They also function as “superstimuli” – they flood the brain with much more dopamine than we would get by eating real food, like an apple or an egg (6).
Numerous studies have shown this to be true. Junk foods and sugar flood the reward system with dopamine, particularly a brain area called the Nucleus accumbens, which is strongly implicated in addiction (7).
Sugar also has some effects on opioid pathways within the brain, the same system manipulated by drugs like heroin and morphine (8, 9, 10).
This is why highly processed, sugar-laden foods can make (some) people lose control over their consumption. They hijack the same brain pathways as drugs of abuse.
Bottom Line: Studies have shown that sugar and junk foods flood the reward system in the brain with dopamine, stimulating the same areas as drugs of abuse like cocaine.
Cravings are a powerful feeling.
People often confuse them with hunger… but the two are not the same thing.
Hunger is caused by various complex physiological signals that involve the body’s need for energy and nutrients (11).
However, people often get cravings despite having just finished a fulfilling, nutritious meal.
This is because cravings are not about satisfying your body’s need for energy, instead it is your brain calling for “reward.”
In other words, your brain drives you towards that dopamine/opioid signal (12, 13).
Getting this sort of need for a highly rewarding food, even when the body is nourished (and perhaps even too well nourished), is absolutely not natural and has nothing to do with real hunger.
Cravings for junk foods are actually very similar to cravings for drugs, cigarettes and other addictive substances. The obsessive nature and thought processes are identical.
Bottom Line: Cravings are a common symptom when it comes to both junk foods and addictive drugs, and have very little to do with actual hunger.
Tracking activity in the brain is difficult, but not impossible.
Researchers often use devices called functional MRI scanners to sense changes in blood flow in specific areas in the brain.
Because the blood flow is directly tied to the activation of neurons, they can use these devices to measure which areas in the brain are being activated.
Using such devices, studies have shown that both food and drug cues activate the same brain regions, and that the same areas are activated when people crave either junk food or drugs (14, 15).
Bottom Line: Scientists have used functional MRI (fMRI) scanners to show that the same brain regions are activated in response to cues and cravings for both junk foods and drugs.
When the brain gets flooded with dopamine, a protective mechanism ensues.
The brain starts reducing its number of dopamine receptors in order to keep things balanced.
This is called “downregulation” and is the reason we develop a tolerance.
This is a well known feature of drugs of abuse. People need progressively larger and larger doses because the brain reduces its number of receptors (16, 17).
There is some evidence that the same applies to junk food. This is the reason why food addicts sometimes end up eating huge amounts in a sitting (18, 19, 20).
This also implies that people who are addicted to junk food don’t necessarily get any more pleasure from eating… because their brain cuts back on dopamine receptors in response to the repeated overstimulation.
Tolerance is one of the hallmarks of addiction. It is common to all drugs of abuse… and applies to sugar and junk food as well.
Bottom Line: When the brain’s reward system is repeatedly overstimulated, it responds by reducing its number of receptors. This leads to tolerance, one of the hallmarks of addiction.
When addicts become tolerant to the effects of a drug, they start increasing the dosage.
Instead of 1 pill, they take 2… or 10.
Because there are now fewer receptors in the brain, a larger dose is needed to reach the same effect
This is the reason why some people binge on junk food.
Binge eating is a well known feature of food addiction, as well as other eating disorders that share common symptoms with drug abuse (21).
There are also numerous studies in rats showing that they will binge on highly palatable junk food, just like they would binge on addictive drugs (22, 23).
Bottom Line: Binge eating is a common symptom of food addiction. It is caused by tolerance, making the brain need a larger dose than before to reach the same effect.
Cross-sensitization is one feature of addictive substances.
It involves being able to “switch” easily from one addiction to another.
Studies have shown that lab animals that have become dependant on sugar can easily switch to amphetamine or cocaine (24, 25).
This fact is another strong argument for the case that sugar, and junk foods in general, are in fact addictive.
Bottom Line: Studies have shown that addicted rats can switch between sugar, amphetamine and cocaine. This is called “cross-sensitization” and is one feature of addictive substances.
Another argument for the addictive nature of junk food, is that the same drugs that fight addiction also tend to help people lose weight.
A good example is the drug Contrave, which recently gained FDA approval as a weight loss drug.
This drug is actually a combination of two other drugs:
Bupropion: Also known as wellbutrin, this is an anti-depressant that has been shown to be effective against nicotine addiction (26).
Naltrexone: This is a drug often used to treat alcoholism and addiction to opiates, including morphine and heroin (27).
The fact that the same types of drugs can help people eat fewer calories and lose weight implies that food shares some of the same biological pathways as narcotics.
Bottom Line: Drugs that are used to fight addictions such as smoking, alcoholism and heroin addiction, are also effective for weight loss. This indicates that food affects the brain in similar ways as these drugs of abuse.
This is when addicted individuals experience adverse symptoms when they stop ingesting the substance they are addicted to.
A prominent example is caffeine withdrawal. A lot of people who are addicted to caffeine get headaches, feel tired and become irritable if they abstain from coffee for long periods of time.
There is some evidence that this applies to junk food as well.
Rats that are made dependant on sugar experience clear withdrawal symptoms when the sugar is removed, or when they are given a drug that blocks the effects of sugar in the brain.
These symptoms include teeth chattering, head shakes and forepaw tremor, similar to the withdrawal symptoms experienced from opiate addiction (28, 29).
Bottom Line: There is plenty of evidence in rats that abstaining from sugar and junk food can lead to clear withdrawal symptoms.
Junk foods are unhealthy… there is no doubt about it.
They are high in harmful ingredients like sugar, refined wheat and refined oils.
At the same time, they contain very low amounts of healthy ingredients like fiber, protein and micronutrients.
Junk food makes people eat more than they’re supposed to and the ingredients in them (like the sugar and refined carbs) are strongly linked to heart disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes (30, 31, 32, 33, 34).
This is not controversial and is basically common knowledge. Everyone knows that junk food is unhealthy.
But even if people are armed with this knowledge, they still eat junk food, in excessive quantities, despite knowing better.
This is common with drugs of abuse. Addicts know that the drugs are causing them physical harm, but they take them anyway.
Bottom Line: It is common knowledge that junk foods are harmful, but many people are still unable to control their consumption.
There is no easy way of measuring addiction.
There is no blood test, breathalyzer or urine test that can determine if someone is addicted.
Instead, the diagnosis is based on a set of behavioral symptoms.
The official criteria used by medical professionals is called DSM-V.
If you look at their criteria for “Substance Use Disorder,” you can see resemblance to many food-related behaviors.
For example… being unable to cut back despite wanting to (ever tried to set rules about cheat meals/days?), cravings and urges to use the substance, continuing to use despite physical problems (weight gain is a physical problem).
Any of this sound familiar? These are classic symptoms of addiction.
I can also vouch for this with some personal examples…
I am a recovering alcoholic, drug addict and former smoker who has been in 6 rehabs. I’ve been sober for almost 8 years now.
I struggled with addiction for a long time… and a few years after I became sober I started developing an addiction to unhealthy foods.
After a while, I realized that the thought processes and symptoms were the same as when I was addicted to drugs… exactly the same.
The truth is, there is no fundamental difference between junk food addiction and drug addiction. It’s just a different substance of abuse and the social consequences aren’t as severe.
I have since spoken to many former addicts who also had problems with sugar and junk food.
They agree that the symptoms are not just similar, but downright identical.