Food Addictions?

Can food be addictive? What does it mean to be a food addict? And what foods are “addictive”? Read some research findings about “food addiction,” a subject that has seen increasing interests in recent years.

What is Food Addiction

“Food addiction” is characterized by symptoms such as loss of control over consumption, continued use despite negative consequences, and an inability to cut down despite the desire to do so.

Addictive-like eating has been associated with increased impulsivity and emotional reactivity, which are similarly implicated in substance-use disorders. Thus, “food addiction” may share common behavioral attributes with other addictive disorders. Studies have also revealed biological similarities in patterns of reward-related dysfunction between “food addicts” and substance-dependent individuals.

Food addiction has been a subject of considerable interest and debate in recent years, driven in large part by the major health concerns associated with dramatically increasing body weights and rates of obesity in the United States, Europe, and other regions with developed economies.

That said, it should be noted that no clear consensus has yet emerged on the validity of the concept of food addiction and whether some individuals who struggle to control their food intake can be considered food addicts.

How to Measure Food Addiction

Food addiction researchers usually use a questionnaire called The Yale Food Addiction Scale to identify those who are most likely to show signs of substance dependence with the consumption of high fat/high sugar foods.

Here are some sample questions in the Yale questionnaire, which includes a total of 25 questions:

  • I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than planned
  • I find myself continuing to consume certain foods even though I am no longer hungry
  • I eat to the point where I feel physically ill
  • Not eating certain types of food or cutting down on certain types of food is something I worry about
  • I spend a lot of time feeling sluggish or fatigued from overeating

What Foods are Addictive

In a survey of 518 people, researchers find that highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (e.g. high dose, rapid rate of absorption), appear to be particularly associated with “food addiction.”

The number next to each food is the average “addiction” score on a scale of 1 (not at all addictive) to 7 (extremely addictive).

  1. pizza (4.01)
  2. chocolate (3.73)
  3. chips (3.73)
  4. cookies (3.71)
  5. ice cream (3.68)
  6. french fries (3.60)
  7. cheeseburgers (3.51)
  8. soda (not diet) (3.29)
  9. cake (3.26)
  10. cheese (3.22)

Interestingly, researchers also surveyed for the “least addictive” foods, as seen in the following top-10 least addictive food list. The least addictive foods are mostly whole, unprocessed foods.

  1. cucumbers (1.53)
  2. carrots (1.60)
  3. beans (no sauce) (1.63)
  4. apples (1.66)
  5. brown rice (1.74)
  6. broccoli (1.74)
  7. bananas (1.77)
  8. salmon (1.84)
  9. corn (no butter or salt) (1.87)
  10. strawberries (1.88)

Sources conculted:

Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN (2015) Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0117959. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0117959.

Paul C. Fletcher and Paul J. Kenny. 2018. Food addiction: a valid concept? Neuropsychopharmacology. 43:2506–2513; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-018-0203-9

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