November 2nd, 2009

Is Junk Food as Addictive as Heroin?

The theory of food addiction is getting tons of press lately. It’s partly because of popular books like Fat, Sugar Salt, The End of Overeating, and a whole slew of earlier books about sugar addiction. There has also been a lot of hyped-up media reporting on the latest research, with headlines such as, “Junk food is as addictive as heroin” or “Hormones turn hungry people into junkies.”  

junk_food_addictionDrug addiction and food intake involve some of the same neural systems in the brain, so there are some parallels that could be drawn and some lessons could be learned about certain types of obesity by studying drug addiction research. However, the idea that “junk food is as addictive as heroin” is not only unsubstantiated by the evidence, it’s media sensationalism at its worse.

The Problem

The foods most often associated with addiction are sugary, fatty and salty foods. Coincidentally, that combination is what makes food highly palatable and energy dense. It tastes good (so we like it!), which makes it easy to eat a lot of it, which can contribute to obesity.

Some experts have been claiming for years that sugar can be addictive. It’s only fairly recently that researchers have studied the brain neurochemistry in a lab controlled situation and come to some somewhat strong conclusions.

In 2008, researchers from Princeton University published their findings from a series of rat studies in the Neuroscience Biobehavior Review. They concluded:

“Food is not ordinarily like a substance of abuse, but intermittent bingeing and deprivation changes that. Based on the observed behavioral and neurochemical similarities between the effects of intermittent sugar access and drugs of abuse, we suggest that sugar, as common as it is, nonetheless meets the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be “addictive” for some individuals when consumed in a ‘binge-like’ manner. This conclusion is reinforced by the changes in limbic system neurochemistry that are similar for the drugs and for sugar. The effects we observe are smaller in magnitude than those produced by a drug of abuse such as cocaine or morphine… Nonetheless, the extensive series of experiments revealing similarities between sugar-induced and drug-induced behavior and neurochemistry lends credence to the concept of ‘sugar addiction.'”

Most people don’t need a new study to tell them that they crave specific foods at times. Cravings and occasional lapses of overeating are a real and persistent challenge to dieters and it’s clear that food can be used or even abused for reasons outside of physical hunger and nutrition, for pleasure or to “medicate emotions.”

Most people would also agree that eating a lot of sugary food can sharpen your sweet tooth so sugar consumption begets more sugar consumption. But is the desire for sugar or comfort foods the same as being addicted to alcohol or even heroin or is that comparison taking it too far?

Even if the way some people consume sugar or junk food meets some of the diagnostic criteria for addiction, it’s my belief that it’s not beneficial to perpetuate the idea that food is addictive in the same way and magnitude as drugs. I think we should leave it at admitting that we sometimes struggle with overeating – for a wide variety of reasons, only one of which is neurochemical. An important first step in solving any problem is admitting that you have one. But there’s a big difference between saying, “I sometimes overeat” and “I am a food addict”

The research is showing that there’s definitely something going on chemically and neurologically with dopamine, opiods and the reward and pleasure systems of the brain when sugary or sugary and fatty foods are eaten. Even genetics play a role, leaving some people more susceptible, as some obesity genes appear to act on reward circuitry.

However, there’s also research that says you can control food cravings and curb calorie consumption with behavioral and psychological restraint strategies. Obesity is the result of a combination of biology, behavior and environment, not just genetics or a stew of brain chemicals gone awry.

The solutions

It’s important to learn and develop a set of strategies for what to do when you feel cravings. Part of the solution is having some rules about how flexible you’ll be in your approach. Somewhat paradoxically, allowing yourself to give in to your cravings is generally more effective than total abstinence, with few exceptions (such as binge eating disorder, etc). That means for the average person, permitting a certain number of free meals each week or setting a compliance rule, and learning how to enjoy your favorite foods – infrequently and in moderation.

It also pays to avoid overly restrictive diets in favor of the slow, steady, moderate approach to weight loss. Crash diets have downsides for anyone but they are an especially bad idea for people susceptible to cravings or addictive-like eating behavior. Periods of deprivation are often followed by the “boomerang” of overeating or bingeing. Eating on a regular schedule, such as three meals a day with healthy pre-planned snacks between meals, is ideal for helping to control cravings and decrease hunger.

Stress management strategies are critical. Stress is a major cause of relapse in former drug users and stress can be a prime cause of diet failure and weight regain. The brain centers that regulate appetite are all stress-sensitive and one long standing theory of hunger says that eating comfort foods can become a conditioned response to stress.

Setting up a social support system and controlling your environment by removing as many triggers and eating cues as possible can help as well. Visual cues alone can trigger a food craving, so when someone says, “I can’t help myself, I eat everything in sight,” part of the solution is contained right within that complaint – get the junk out of your sight.

Granted, that’s almost impossible to do completely in our modern society. Being surrounded by temptations and triggers is a major contributor to the obesity problem today. But you do have a remarkable amount of control over your own home and personal environment, so don’t make it any worse than it is by keeping junk around. I originally wrote this on November 1st. I wonder how many people have leftover candy from Halloween who haven’t thrown it away yet.

I also recommend techniques from fields such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming and cognitive psychology (Check out my own book, The Body Fat Solution, Dr. Judith Beck’s The Beck Diet Solution and Brian Wanskink’s mindless eating as a good starting point.

It’s possible to change your mental conditioning and literally talk yourself out of inappropriate eating. Incidentally, this is one of the many differences between humans and rats, so we should be careful not to read too much into the rodent research.

It’s true that there are biological origins of food cravings, so you shouldn’t feel weak or guilty about wanting certain foods – it means you’re human. What really matters is how you respond to those urges and knowing that ultimately, you are in control.

Tom Venuto, author of:
Burn The Fat Feed The MuscleThe Body Fat Solution

Founder & CEO,
Burn The Fat Inner Circle

Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 32(1):20-39. 2008

Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable Differences in Addictive-like Behavior. Avena, NM, Radal P, Hoebel BG. Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 139, No. 3, 623-628, 2009

The neurobiology of appetite: hunger as an addiction, Dagher A, International Journal of Obesity, 22: S30-S33, 2009. McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Psychobiological traits in the risk profile for overeating and weight gain, Davis C, International Journal of Obesity, 33, S49-S53, 2009, York University, Toronto, Ontario Canada

Food cravings and energy regulation: the characteristics of craved foods and their relationship with eating behaviors and eight change during 6 months of dietary energy restriction. Gilhooly et al, International Journal of Obesity, 31: 1849-1858, 2007, USDA Human Nutrition Research Center, Tufts University.

Sugar, opioids and binge eating. Fullerton DT, Getto CJ, Swift WJ, Carlson IH. Brain Research Bulletin (6):673-680 1985




Copyright Burn The Fat Publishing. No reproduction of this article is permitted

  • Facebook Share


Big Fat Lies! A Shocking Expose of the 12 Biggest Scams, Cover-ups, Lies, Myths and Deceptions in the Diet, Supplement and Weight Loss Industries!

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

If you’d like a picture to show up by your name, get a Gravatar.

44 Responses to “Is Junk Food as Addictive as Heroin?”

  • Mike

    Tom,I don’t know anything about Heroin, but I can tell you that I was addicted to junk food for many years. It’s easy, because as children we naturally want to eat the sweet and salty foods because of how good they taste. With my parents around, my junk food intake was controlled, but once I was old enough to get a job, I was able to make my own food purchases and ended up eating tons of the food I wanted: donuts, chips, candy, soda, pizza, fast food.As I got older, my habits didn’t change (I was addicted) and obesity crept up on me. It wasn’t until recently that I made a life change. I bought “Burn the fat…”, got a personal trainer and have lost 75 pounds so far in six months (from 290 to 215). The biggest help was changing my diet.Was it easy? Hell no! It’s hard to pass up my favorite foods as I walk through the store. The key for me has been to moderate my intake on these types of food, and completely cut out the worst offenders (fast food, potato chips). Now, I feel much better about myself and am getting used to eating better!

  • Jill

    Thanks, Tom.Very beneficial. I couldn’t agree with you more. It still comes down to a personal decision.Thanks.Jill

  • Charlie

    Basically, no-one wants to give up what makes them feel good, so everyone claims their special addiction is “as bad as heroin” – aka, the biggest baddest worst one out there.I’ve thought that way myself, but the fact is, if people addicted to heroin can quit and stay quit, despite the fact the financial drain of that drug has probably wrecked their lives in ways few over-eaters can imagine, then so can we all.It’s wayyy past time to suck it up, GROW up, and stop acting like life owes us all a red carpet of ease and pleasure.

  • Anonymous

    As someone who considers themself a food addict, I have to disagree with some of what you’ve said. When I consume sugar in large amounts it affects my cognitive functioning. I have been “off the wagon” for a bit and what finally got me serious again about getting refined wheat and sugar out of my system was a binge on white flour. I went to a local pasta place and had ravioli and a piece of lemon cake for dessert. For the next 24 hours my cognitive abilities were decreased. I couldn’t concentrate and at one point someone was talking to me and I couldn’t comprehend anything she was saying (and it wasn’t rocket science). The next day I said “I have to stop this!” and have since then not had any refined wheat or sugar. It is harder to turn it down than you allude in your article. I tell myself “That’s got sugar in it. It’s bad for you. Don’t eat it.” and the addiction says “I don’t care.” You can’t reason with addiction–food, alcohol, drugs or otherwise. You have to say No! to all of it. For me and for others I know there is no “eat sugar once a week or on special occasions” because once I have it, I have to have more. For someone who has never experienced it (and I’m guessing you haven’t, Tom) it probably seems fake or a cop out, but it’s not. I have used Dr. Beck’s book and I read affirmations daily. I want more than anything to just be able to eat like “normal people” but I have to admit that I can’t or I will struggle for a life time. I tried for a long time to eat small amounts only on special occasions and it does not work. The only thing that does work is complete abstinence from sugar and refined wheat. Food addiction is real.

  • Anonymous: As the research I cited lends credence to food (esp sugar) having addictive qualities, I DO agree that some people may be best with total abstinence. You wouldnt tell an alcoholic to have a drink, but only once in a while for special occasions. But in the case of food, my feeling is that the need for total abstinence will be the minority of cases – the extreme cases, not the typical. I would also never suggest that its not serious and difficult problem to deal with. But overly strict, rigid, inflexible and or extreme diets for most people are more likely to be a cause of bingeing, not a cure.

  • XForce69

    The only real solution for me it was Intermittent fasting, because when i done the typical multiple meals per day, i was thinking all day about food, with hunger always, even if i ate a lot of veggies, it never gone the hunger.But thanks to I.F i dont have hunger anymore, and i can eat some of my favorites food and losing fat at the same time, something that multiple meals cant never do.Not to say the incredible freedom from food that i have right now.And all of the time i save with this, or the obsession of thinking that i will loss muscle if i dont eat within 3 hours, etc…Im not saying that you will have to follow I.F, im just saying what works for me, and I.F its the only way of eating that has really worked for me in absolutly every aspect

  • Xforce69; More research supports small, frequent meals for controlling hunger than the reverse, but indeed, you have to find out what works for you, as people have different preferences. It can go both ways. Ive heard a few people say the same thing you did about IF, but I’ve also heard from people who tried IF and said it backfired, led to bingeing and/or they were hungry all the time.

  • mlk

    What each of us puts into our bodies is a choice.Personally I am tired of the media (and our supposed scientific community) telling everyone that they are not responsible for the decisions they make.

  • gary kaposta

    Hormone depleted cravings result in an attraction to certain food/drink that can be more severe than the cravings for illegal street drugs. It is more than a coincidence that America is the fattest and most depressed nation in the world. 231 million scripts were issued last year alone for the anti-depressants like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft. Consuming junk-food/drink carbohydrate causes the brain to produce a sudden burst of the feel good hormone Serotonin..alas the term mood food, comfort food and emotional eating. Many Americans have been self-medicating with corrupted food/drink in an effort to compensate for the blue mood or mild depression that stems from this low serotonin state( Def. of drug…. Websters…Any substance used as a medicine). It is absolutely true that certain food/drink has a drug like effect on the human body. Sodas effect the neurotransmitter Dopamine, the most implicated hormone in addictive behavior. Know anybody who drinks 10 sodas per day? As a nation we consume 178 million cans a day!!!!! Kudos to Kessler for being right on the money.

  • Gary wrote:Hormone depleted cravings result in an attraction to certain food/drink that can be more severe than the cravings for illegal street drugsConsidering you have a product that proposes to be a solution, do you have a reference to verify your statement above? I know I certainly havent read all the resarch, but i’ve read a lot of it and the passage I cited above was consistent with what most of the research says: “the effects are smaller in magnitude than those produced by a drug of abuse.”… in short, food, especially sugar, can have addictive qualities, and it can be used as a “feel good” substance, but whether food can be as addictive let alone more addictive than street drugs in the diagnostic sense is highly debatable and that is the question posed in the title of this post.

  • Shani

    I believe that restaurants and food companies create foods that people order more. The sweet/salty/fatty combo is naturally more tasty and I’m sure that over time companies have noticed increased sales of those items. Clearly, they make more of the same style foods in an effort to gain more sales. It is a vicious cycle if there is no thought into proper health content for their menus or serving sizes.Another problem that is liked with the content of the food is the portion size problem. Remember about 10 years ago when menu prices went up and so did the portion size? I remember reading in trade magazines that the cost of the food was nominal so restaurants had made the servings larger to justify the menu price increase.Increase the serving size *and* serve extremely high calorie content foods (due to the sweet/salt/fat combo,) and add to that mix that many people now eat out much more than ever before, and you have a recipe for widespread obesity.The solution is for each person to start understanding what you’ve written above and start taking personal responsibility for choosing well at restaurants. Having nutritional info on menus is the first step to enabling us to making those choices. Thankfully New York and California have made that mandatory. What a difference it has made in *my* personal menu choices!And once you get away from that particular combo for long enough, the cravings really do ease up. Then we end up in a fantastic cycle…

  • Lea

    “Overeaters Anonymous uses the same 12 step principles as Alcoholics Anonymous.”

  • For SOME people the craving for rich fatty foods is the bodies cry for additional Omega-3. But few people have the awareness to distinguish between “I need Omega-3” and “I need FAT”.I have met a number of people who have had cravings for junk food that have GONE AWAY COMPLETELY when they start taking Flax Seed Oil.

  • Paul

    Tom,My personal experience is even occasional consumption of foods with modest amounts of processed sugar, chocolate, alcohol, or caffeine (even decaf products) often cause me to have addiction like eating compulsions that derail my nutrition. I deal with this by having occasional “treat” foods that are tasty and satisfying without the above ingredients; such as surf and turf, lobster bisque, alfredo dishes, etc. All made without cooking sherry (wine).For me it’s no big deal that I have an addition like reaction to certain food substances and additives. I’ve come to terms with it and even more important, surmount it! It seems that others have more issues with me having it. then me! 🙂 I understand that other people don’t have such a condition and that is fine by me.Putting too much focus on addiction terminology or the clinical science behind it is often a big waist of time for me. I honor myself and do what works for me. I feel comfortable that in time, my personal truth will be common knowledge and accepted on a large scale.For now I think it would be helpful if more in the media and fitness / health industry would get the message out that one can have an addiction like condition and it is okay if they have it. They can “treat” themselves without sugar, chocolate, or caffeine and have a nice physique and even better; good health and a great life! Thanks!

  • Sharon B

    Just like I can’t truly put myself into the shoes of an alcoholic, I can’t put my mind in a place to comprehend food addiction. Given that there are people – more and more people – who seem to be able to eat themselves into oblivion, I have to think they are addicted to food.Not all food. As Kessler points out, if you give people an unlimited supply of carrots or celery, they don’t stuff themselves with it. You can’t say that about chocolate cake, donuts, and potato chips.As I said, I can’t put myself in their place. I have never gotten to the bottom of a carton of ice cream and wondered where it all went. I can say “just stop now” but apparently there are folks who lose all conscious thought when they start. That sounds like addiction to me. Total loss of control in the face of highly palatable food.Just because you and I can’t fathom it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. That’s why wiley researchers think up crafty studies to increase of our understanding of these things – because for a good number of us, these emotions and behaviors make no sense whatsoever!

  • Tom,Like you say we are all ultimately responsible for what we put in our mouths. Yes we all love our sweets, but what is our main goal? How are we going to get there?Well mine is to loose fat and gain muscle. Your last article about the free meal relieved me of my guilt. My I don’t feel like I am cheating myself and I only use the free meal if and when I can afford it. All good thing in moderation, relieves the need for failure and idea of quitting cuz I just can’t do this anymore attitude.Thanks Again Tom,Randy

  • Martine

    Tom, I have your book and am always impressed with your conscientious and thoughtful (and thought-provoking) blog posts. And I also disagree with your concept of “food.” Your post puts sugar into that category. So I looked up “food” and found these definitions:1. any nourishing substance that is eaten, drunk, or otherwise taken into the body to sustain life, provide energy, promote growth, etc.2. more or less solid nourishment, as distinguished from liquids.3. a particular kind of solid nourishment: a breakfast food; dog food.4. whatever supplies nourishment to organisms: plant food.5. anything serving for consumption or use: food for thought.Sugar fails the definition of “food” in all but the very last definition, because it is NOT “nourishment!” Sugar does not strengthen or build up anything in our bodies except our fat. And I do not want that part of me to get “nourished.”When we limit this discussion to actual “food,” then I totally agree with the jist of what you’ve said. But sugar is so highly processed that it fails every legitimate definition of a product that could enhance my life. Let’s remember that poppies are not addictive, but their highly-refined essence is. Entire civilizations have risen and fallen without the questionable “aid” of this highly-refined substance known as sugar, so I think I can continue to do without it too. With God’s help and the 12 steps I’ve been without it since June of 2000, and God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll go to my deathbed without it.I am comfortable saying I am a sugar addict, because I have found a way out, and it is total abstinence from that non-food item. Every day I eat 2 1/2 pounds of real vegetables, 3/4 of a pound of protein, a fruit, 2 servings of whole grain (not wheat; I have celiac disease), and I’m here to tell you — I NEVER HAVE SUGAR CRAVINGS. Instead, I wear a size 8 clothing, have low cholesterol and low B/P, and create the kind of divine real-food recipes that make everyone’s mouth water. It’s certainly not “a red carpet of ease and pleasure”; rather it’s a decision I make every day, whether restaurants or food vendors accommodate me or not. Acknowledging my sugar addiction was not an excuse; it was the doorway to a new freedom.

  • gary kaposta

    Tom. I have never mentioned anything about a product that addresses the depleted brain chemistry issue. Aren’t you selling something? Cognitive health / function is only now being more fully understood as the byproduct of advancements in imaging technologies. To research studies on the mood/food connection, simply Google for ample info/studies on the subject. Industry analyst are now predicting that cognitive health is set to become one of the hottest areas of the functional food, beverage and supplement industries.I learned a very good lesson in skydiving, ” The mind like a parachute works best when kept open”. As an aside, the Bloomberg channel has just started a series on “The Brain” with Charlie Rose…you may want to watch it.

  • Gary, my position in this post is very simply that food/sugar addiction, if it qualifies as an addiction, should not be compared to hard drug addiction because there’s insufficient evidence to make a leap such as “sugar is more addictive than heroin, and yet that claim is all over the news this past week. I think this does more harm than good. Im open to anything and my mind is easily changed with proof. This is an evidence based blog, so if someone -whether the media or an individual, makes a claim, i’d like to know on what basis. “search google” is hardly an answer. One thing is for certain: I acknowledge this is a challenging issue for a lot of people, but i have never sold or proposed that a pill is the solution to the obesity problem

  • Rebecca

    I have this routine of restricting and then eating it all on Monday…I have told my husband and he is a big supporter, the problem is I keep choosing to do it. Yes, I still have my stressors too, work etc….I am very fit and athletic and I am in yoga teacher training and i find that i even avoid that when i am following my plan…In my head i look forward to all the things ive passed up during the week…and then boom, I eat them all in one day.I have tried to have little bits here and there like you mentioned, instead of totally restricting and it does work, but i still resorted to this one day of eating. Then over excercising and restricting again to make up for it…i feel high as a kite and i am soooo happy and having fun, then monday hits. Then Tuesday i avoid people and anything so no one can tell i have pigged out….I do feel that i am addictied to sugar…but I also get scared when i cut something out completely, b/c then i think i will obsess about missing it, but maybe i should try it again….I would love some feedback..

  • Angel

    I do, sometimes, have a trigger to take something sweet. I will then go down to the store to get some sweets. Due to my habit, I would tend to procrastinate because my logical and conscious brain said that I should not be having any because it makes me fat and I will regret later on. In the end, I opt for some mints without the added sugar and that does the trick.Before this experience, I would buy something sweet, put it into my mouth, and when the sweet is finished halfway, I would feel that it was too sweet for comfort. Then I would throw it away,perhaps my body was telling me that it needed something but not all of it. Once I had enough, a feeling of disgust runs in and then I rejected having any more.Has anyone have this sort of experience before?

  • Tony

    Kessler spends a goodly section of his book on talking with researchers who demonstrate that hyperpalitable foods stimulate the same brain centers as do narcotics such as heroin and do so in the same fashion.But perhaps the most telling was an experiment done with rats that were hooked on a narcotic and fed a diet of hyperpalitable food. After a short period of withdrawl, the rats were given a choice of the narcotic or the hyperpalitable food. The rats overwhelmingly chose the hyperpalitable food.In another experiment, rats were given a choice of easily obtainable standard rat chow and hyperpalitable food that was placed behind a nearly impenatrable barrier. The rat chow was completely ignored while the rats spent hours attaching the barrier.While people are not rats, the centers of the human brain stimulated by hyperpalitable foods are the same as those in the rats. I don’t find the idea of food addiction all that unlikely – especially since I sometimes find myself with some favorite food in hand with no concious memory of how I aquired it.

  • Esp

    Hi Tom.I had a terrible addiction to sugar for about 15 years. Here is how I beat that addiction earlier this year. It turns out that craving for sugar is largely the result of the stimulus of certain receptors in your brain – the very same receptors that trigger the desire for heroin in addicts.If you are ‘addicted’ to sugar and haven’t had a ‘fix’ for some period of time, these receptors send out signals to ingest more processed sugar (or white flour, which is metabolized exactly like sugar). So the key is to stop those receptors from behaving that way.I discovered that a combination of glutamine, tyrosine and ascorbate (Vit C) occupy those very same receptors. The result is that you feel satiated. Within about two days of supplementing with the above my sugar cravings had completely disappeared and have never returned. I still take take glutamine, tyrosine and ascorbate every day. With no change to my exercise regime, I and have dropped 25lb this year (my waistline is about 5″ smaller).It is also noteworthy that there is anecdotal evidence that above supplementation regime has helped heroin users beat their addiction without the use of methodone and without all the horrible withdrawal symptoms.Kind Regards and really enjoyed your article,Esp.

  • Tony wroteWhile people are not rats, the centers of the human brain stimulated by hyperpalitable foods are the same as those in the rats. I don’t find the idea of food addiction all that unlikely…I’ve seen the evidence of the “overlap” between neural/brain systems involved in food intake and drug addiction. And, as the quote from the Princeton study pointed out, scientists are beginning to widely accept that sugar and palatable food can have addictive qualities (although some say that even highly palatable foods are not addictive inherently or addictive to everyone, but only become so in susceptible people with a restriction and bingeing pattern).So, I dont find it unlikely that food has addictive qualities either. My main questions for all to ponder or research further are whether this addictive quality is anywhere near being on par with hard drug addictions and whether the comparison of junk food/sugar to heroin is the right message to be broadcasting at large.

  • lisa

    My main questions for all to ponder or research further are whether this addictive quality is anywhere near being on par with hard drug addictions and whether this is the right message to be broadcasting at large.Tom,A drug is a drug is a drug…ask a heroin or crack addict, or an alcoholic how they feel coming off a bender and i bet you’ll get similar answers. Now ask a food addict. Hmmm…most likely same answers. Maybe the food addict doesn’t land in jail (unless he/she steals because they’ve exhausted all resources), but the emotional (and potentially physical) despair is the same. The difference is, its not socially acceptable to smoke crack, heroin, drink excessively, or doctor shop for prescription pills. Sure, people might comment on someone’s gluttony, but most food addicts i know don’t gorge themselves in public..closet eaters, bulimics, etc….these people aren’t looking for “a red carpet of ease and pleasure” – they are in REAL pain, unable to control the one thing they wish they could most – food. These people will buy your product and any other product they find online or in stores to help them overcome their misery.Ever consider the sugar relationship in alcohol..i haven’t had a drink in 9 1/2 years, the only thing i wanted when initially sober was sugar….and frankly, sugar continues to be my enemy. Yes, I can choose not to eat it and life goes much better for me, but that choice does not come without continued frustration, angst, and often regret. So on par w hard drug addictions, in my personal experience (recovered alcoholic and drug addict), yes- it doesn’t matter the drug or substance, the consequences are very much the same.

  • Good article Tom.I actually wrote about resisting food temptations through tempting pictures today. Some really basic psychological stuff that helped me battle food temptations and ultimately eat healthier. Your strategies above are solid and I’ve used them at different points along my fat loss journey.Mike

  • Trish

    Tom,I don’t think your analysis of the data is wrong, but I do think it’s incomplete.Maybe junk food is not as addictive as drugs, but perhaps junk food’s addictive properties, incessant advertising, convenience, and availability combine to create as much craving stress as drugs?A heroin addict may have a more pronounced desire for the next fix than a sugar addict. However, a heroin addict doesn’t have to confront a barrage of advertising, fast food convenience, and Girl Scouts pandering to their addiction dozens, if not hundreds of time per day.It is also possible for a heroin addict to completely abstain, whereas, a food addict has to eat SOMETHING, and doesn’t always have choices that won’t trigger their addiction.I have maintained a 75 pound weight loss for 3 years now. It’s not like I haven’t lost weight before. I know how to lose weight, just like an alcoholic knows how to stop drinking and a heroin addict knows how to stop shooting up. I just couldn’t do it for an extended period in the face of temptations.The first step was admitting the reaction I had to sugar and refined carbohydrates. I now try to adhere to a low refined carbs policy, which helps me maintain my weight, and an exercise plan that helps me maintain my fitness level. Through weekly conversation with my personal trainer, I realized that sugar (and other refined carbs) acted like a bypass switch to my willpower. As long as I ate “clean”, I could pass an entire buffet full of sweet, fatty deserts, notice how pretty they were, and go on about my day. If I ate EVEN A SINGLE BITE, I became obsessed with desire to taste everything – even the things I knew I didn’t like! This craving lasted about two to three days. Now, if I want a food that I know might trigger my cravings, I ask myself if I’m willing to deal with three days of perpetual “mental hunger” and cravings before deciding whether to indulge.I have your book, and have learned a lot about the mechanics of nutrition from it, your website, and blog. I understand the concepts, and have incorporated some of them into my diet. It was a re-read of your book that helped me recognize that I wasn’t taking in enough protein. I increased my protein consumption throughout the day, and I stopped having binge episodes at night. In other words, I’m not a hater. I think you have provided a valuable tool to help people lose FAT.However, I think you have done a disservice to the portion of the population that experiences the addictive response to sugar by implying that sugar is not that bad and they simply lack willpower. It is true that they will need willpower to overcome it, but it’s important for them to recognize that sugar consumption alters their willpower.

  • Brien

    This is one of my favorite topics — because I have been 50 lbs overweight… I have worked with nutritionists and trainers to get down to 4% body fat… I am now 60 lbs overweight and I have a problem with sugar.Eating sugar every now and then kills my nutrition plans and triggers instant craving. After two or three weeks without it, I find that I don’t need it anymore.I agree that saying “it’s worse than heroin addiction” is over the top… To the point of being ridiculous. Though I have to wonder… If sugar were as hard to come by as illicit drugs, would we hear stories of burglars fencing stolen TVs to buy powdered doughnuts 😉 kidding aside, acknowledging the biochemical similarities is useful in treating the problem.”Potatoes Not Prozac” (K. DesMaisons) is a fantastic introduction to the biochemistry of addiction For the layperson. DesMaisons worked with addicts and had a lot of success treating the addiction when the addict ate a balanced diet with foods designed to moderate blood sugar, serotonin and beta endorphin levels. These same foods were useful in combating sugar addiction.

  • Trish wrote:Maybe junk food is not as addictive as drugs, but perhaps junk food’s addictive properties, incessant advertising, convenience, and availability combine to create as much craving stress as drugs?That sounds more plausible to me, and Im sure that even more factors are converging to contribute to the problem. Fortunately, we have some control over many of these environmental factors.However, I think you have done a disservice to the portion of the population that experiences the addictive response to sugar by implying that sugar is not that bad and they simply lack willpower. It is true that they will need willpower to overcome it, but it’s important for them to recognize that sugar consumption alters their willpower.Point taken, (although i did not say anything about lack of willpower). but couldnt it be a disservice to tell the larger portion of the population who are not addiction prone that they must put sugar or comfort foods on a forbidden list because “its just like drugs?” I think its the larger population (average weight loss seekers not people with binge eating disorder, etc), who will be more successful with flexible dieting / “all things in moderation” than abstinence.

  • Patrick

    Food Addiction – totally nonexistant !!Feelings of pleasure create repeat cravings regarless of source- sex, drugs, food, or anything else… compels you to desire again.The worst food cravings in order:sweets (sugar), salt, fat (and it’s a tie between the last 2 & even better if combined). When I go to the grocery store I see these 3 cravings most on the conveyer- lots of soda, lots of chips, and hamburger.

  • Nadine

    I do not think junk food and the consumption thereof can be classified as addictive. I am not American so cannot speak on their behalf, but here in South Africa (in my house anyway) we actually cook our meals. Take aways are limited to one night a week and then thoroughly enjoyed by all. We eat chocolates every third or 4th day after our meals.Demystifying “forbidden” food decreases the craving for it. No food should be forbidden or classified as good or bad, just healthy and unhealthy. Take the whole Anti Carb movement – the Italians eat a lot of refined pasta, the Japanes eat rice and maize is a staple food in Africa – these nations are just as healthy as the rest of the world.I think portion control (or the lack of it) is the biggest contributer to the obesity epidemic. Takeaway protions ar HUGE. Furthermore, in our hedonistic society the need to feel good RIGHT NOW and be pampered and pandered to is allowed and even encouraged – just look at Hollywood and what it gets away with.There are times to enjoy yourselves and times to knuckle down and resist some of life’s temptations, be they food, drink, drugs or sex.That was some speech – let me reward myself with a chocolate….

  • Great blog post, and interesting comments.One commenter raised the connection between stress, depression, junk food, and obesity. That connection, and other public health issues, are explored in a book called Unhealthy Societies; The Afflictions of Inequality, by Richard C. Wilkinson. In the book, Wilkinson demonstrates that the strongest predictor of public health is how wide a gap there is between the rich and the poor, and how much civic engagement there is. It has nothing to do with political structure, or even whether or not there is universal health care. England has universal health care, but public health outcomes that are not much better than the U.S. The two healthiest countries, Japan and Sweden, have almost nothing in common except the fact that they are relatively egalitarian.I don’t say this to argue with anything Tom said in his post, but to point out that we are all creatures of the social and cultural systems in which we live. The “diseases of industrialized societies,” (heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and even cancer), according to Wilkinson, are actually the things that kill the poor people in those societies. It’s not a problem for the rich. The book cites studies that compare countries, geographical regions within countries, and even individual companies. In one study in England, there was a huge disparity in health outcomes between the people in the executive suite and the people in the stock room. It turns out that the biggest health risk is being on the lower rungs of a very long social ladder. The stress, uncertainty, social disconnection and lack of personal power that go with being there have adverse health effects. And, as one commenter pointed out, this leads to eating high-carbohydrate foods as a way of self medicating for stress.Individually, we can train ourselves to treat our bodies better (and, by doing so, we can raise and maintain our own levels of self esteem and our perception of our own personal power.) I agree with that, and I applaud everyone who does that. But studies have shown that teaching better health habits to groups is of little effectiveness on a society-wide scale. In fact, at the “macro” level, personal health habits don’t account for public health disparities. France is one of the healthiest countries, yet the French smoke, drink, and eat high fat food. But they do it in socially cohesive communities and families.I’m also not arguing against universal health care in the United States. Effective, affordable, accessible, universal health care is long overdue. But it won’t solve the problem. We’ll still have obesity, declining life expectancy, high infant mortality, and all the other afflictions of inequality unless and until the huge gap between rich and poor in the United States is moderated.

  • Lisa

    I think as in anything moderation is the key

  • Lew

    I agree that junk foods, and that depends on your definition of -Junk Food,- is offending the body’s systems in all kinds of ways.Thanks to your information, I have eliminated most of the junk and have strengthened my mental resolve to stop or/and realize when I was eating via a craze and not for nutrition.It has been hard and still is hard but success is achieved in the action of stopping and doing the right thing, and that makes me feel good all over and my body I am sure says thank you in it’s own way…Lew

  • anonymous

    Which was harder for me, to give up a 15 yr meth habit? Or keep off the extra 20 pounds of fat I am carrying around…ha ha I suppose if candy were illegal and I had to call a dealer for it, there would be more psychological incentive for me to quit sugar! I would not doubt that I spend as much money on junk food as I did on drugs. To break the stigma, I worked, paid taxes, contributed to charities, didn’t steal, etc etc, there is a moderately functional meth habit, although it did produce many unwanted effects in my life!!! It is hard to say no to instant energy! Just as it is hard to say no to instant ‘feel good’ (sugar produced brain chemistry) It would be almost impossible to compare because there is no way you can entirely give up sugar. (one poster said he gave up sugar, but ate fruit and grains, well, guess what? sugar is sugar is sugar to your brain!) Good for you for staying in moderation! PS Halloween time is the worst!/(best!) ha ha , good luck everybody with your health goals!!

  • Ruth

    Tom,I’ve read a few books and sites about the topic of food addiction because, like you and many other commenters, I think sugar and refined starches can be addictive.For me, the difference between a person who is just overindulging and a person who is truly addicted (or sensitive to sugar and refined carbs) is when they stop. The one overindulging will stop when the tasty food is gone. The addict will even devour stale crackers in the absence of tastier food.The overindulger will probably feel bad after eating so much, and may go for days on a diet, while the addict will struggle with cravings for more sugar for days, even if he feels sick.

  • Alexis

    JMO,”Junk” food is just as addictive as any other substance. Food, as with drugs/alcohol/sex/dangerous sports etc, has an altering or calming effect, which is what ppl are really addicted to. They crave the escape.Any substance, or extreme behavior, has it’s own detox side effects, like the alcohol DT’s, becoming physically sick from a cleanse, being desperate for another adrenalin rush. So, habitually bingeing any substance or activity avoids the stress of emotional and physical detox.Processed sugar, table salt, and high fat is not programed into us. It is an acquired taste learned from ignorant ppl feeding us ice cream, french fries, hot dogs when we barely have teeth.Addiction/cravings is just semantics.

  • Linda Miller

    Dear Tom,I want to personally and very sincerely thank you for stopping this nonsense right here. I think the word “addiction” has been thrown around so much these days we rarely think about what it really means. I am the sister of two (one recovering) siblings with a heroin addiction. My brother still lives on the street and would choose to die rather than give up his heroin. What our family has experienced with this problem (which is extremely widespread in the US) was nothing short of a living Hell. I am not saying that people don’t have impulse issues with sugar and being a person myself who struggles with sugar consumption, I do empathise and understand that struggle. My sister nearly died when she shot up with “bad” heroin even though she knew that was always a real possiblity. When was the last time a sugar “addict” chose to eat sugar even though it could have been laced with rat poison????Thanks again Tom for being the voice of reason!!!

  • Dallin

    I partially agree what you are saying Tom. Food “addiction” is a very tricky subject. Food has so many different elements to it. There is the social eating, eating because you are stressed, eating because you are bored, eating because you crave something, and eating because the body needs to survive. However, I do believe that sugar can be addictive. No it is not as addictive as heroin because heroin is the most addictive substance and the withdrawal of heroin can actually kill you, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some addictive properties to food especially sugar. If you consume something that you know you shouldn’t but do it anyways and then fill bad afterwards, then you are addicted to it, and this holds true for food, especially sugar. It has happened to me more times than I can count. Also when I first started eating healthy and cut out the refined sugar from my diet, I suffered withdrawal symptoms. I was irratable, I got headaches, I couldn’t sleep but yet was tired, and I WANTED sugar badly. I think that is an addiction.

  • Very interesting article. I have heard of people who claim to be addicited to sugar and have even found that cutting it out of their diet completely in an effort to lose weight just put them into a flux and gave them headaches. I do like the solutions posed so “sugar addicts” can still adjust their eating but know they are not deprived completely.

  • Yeah I agree that junk food is Addictive as Heroin. Ingredients like highly refined sugar create an enormous physical addiction. The consumer is left in an altered, high like state after eating things like cookies and candy bars with refined sugar. Overtime, our bodies process this response as the “normal” way we should feel.The research findings underscore the incredible importance of feeding our children a diet largely free of refined high sugar/salt/artificial ingredient laden food choices. The adage about learning good eating habits early is very true.

  • Martine

    While REFINED sugar has never cause me to hallucinate, it is on the ~spectrum~ of addictive substances. Just as clinical depression is not as “serious” as schizophrenia, both are on the spectrum of mental illness. One may not be as deadly as the other, but they are both worth taking seriously.This discussion might be somewhat more productive if we could make a distinction between refined and unrefined substances. Yes, sugars are found in fruits & grains, but so are vitamins, minerals, and fiber. And the complex sugars contained therein are absorbed into the body gradually. There are NO vitamins or minerals or fiber or nutrients of any kind in REFINED sugar. Anyone who tries to equate a Twinkie with an apple … well, you be the judge.

  • Diet cola has stuff in it that makes me dizzy and nauseous. ‘fat’ cola makes me feel sick after half a bottle due to the sugar content. I guess if you have enough of something completely synthetic it makes you sick after a while. As with any addiction, you have to WANT to break the habits. Until you’re ready, you’re unlikely to succeed… but when you do it’s great!

  • it sure is but because it is socially acceptable to eat no one really thinks of the long term consequences.dont get me wrong the odd cheese burger aint gona be bad but for all those that eat junk everyday be warned it will chatch up on thing would be to follow a good diet and workout regime.check my blog for some MMA training tips

If you’d like a picture to show up by your name, get a Gravatar.