Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted To…Food?

Written by: Kevin Cann


Losing weight is never an easy task.  There are a number of lifestyle factors that we must change in order to achieve the goals that we desire.  Beginning an appropriate exercise program, eating better, and better managing our stress are all factors in a successful weight loss program.  One aspect however is often overlooked and in some cases not even recognized and that is the addiction that we have to certain foods.

Maybe we fail to recognize it as a society because the majority of us are addicted in some way to a certain food.  Watch any episode of the A&E show Intervention and the one thing that the addicts all have in common is they deny they even have a problem.  At the beginning of any dietary intervention we need to address the things that may derail us from the program.  A big example of this is with people who travel a lot for business.  Developing a preparation system for when they are on the road is key to the program’s success.  We all need to sit down and address how we feel about certain foods.  After doing this myself I was able to determine that I was addicted to salty foods.  I can easily resist them, but if I have one I will end up overindulging.  I will literally have a conversation in my head rationalizing the choice to overeat a food that I know is unhealthy for me.  This is the sign of an addiction.

Dopamine and serotonin tend to be the major players in the addiction of numerous drugs and alcohol.  A study performed by McBride proved that alcohol elicits a response from both of these neurotransmitters and are correlated with addictive behavior and alcohol (McBride, 1991).  A study done by Gessa showed that marijuana elicits a response from cannabinoids, our neurotransmitters that control cravings, and that these cannabinoids regulate mesolimbic dopamine (Gessa, 1997).  Even cigarettes have been proven to elicit a response of serotonin and dopamine (Staley, 2001).

So how does this apply too food?  Sugar also elicits a response from both serotonin and dopamine.  A Wurtman article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explained the mechanisms behind the release of serotonin.  Tryptophan is a precursor for the release of serotonin.  This study confirmed that high-carbohydrate diets leave excessive tryptophan in the blood and this leads to an increase in serotonin (Wurtman, 2003).  Nicole Avena published data in 2008 that proved that sugar elicits a response from dopamine as well as cannabinoids (Avena, 2008).   To be sure that the brain responds the same way with drug use Dr. Gold decided to check brain images of people that were constantly overeating.  He determined that the images were similar to the brain images taken from people addicted to drugs (Gold, 2011). In 1994 Noble showed that obese individuals had the same dopamine gene markers as alcoholics and drug addicts (Noble, 1994).

This gives us the proof that certain foods will make us feel good by releasing serotonin and dopamine and also make us crave them by releasing cannabinoids.  Understanding these concepts can give us a better understanding on how to treat food addiction.  Drewnowski at the University of Washington actually tested the opiate blocker Nalaxone on food cravings.  His study was successful in stopping binge eating (Drewnowski, 1995).  In some serious food addiction cases this may be a reliable option to treat binge eating.

Kriz is a specialist that deals in treating people with overeating addiction.  His research suggests that binge eating is caused by physical cravings.  The characteristics of binge eating are as follows; eating when not hungry, uncontrollable eating, feeling guilty about eating too much, and frequently dieting without losing weight.  Kriz believes in treating the physical cravings first and this means avoiding problematic foods completely while attempting to lose weight (Kriz, 2002).  This even means artificial sweeteners as they too have been proven to elicit a similar neurotransmitter response.

In conclusion, we need to realize and accept the fact that foods have an addictive quality to them if we ever want to be successful in long term weight loss goals.  As healthcare practitioners we need to understand this as well and develop a course of action to treat the food addiction in clients.  This is where we need to focus our counseling skills and find what works best from person to person.  Hopefully as more awareness of this problem comes out more people will be aware of it and better strategies of dealing with it will be developed.




Noble, Ernest (1993).  D2 Dopamine Receptor Gene and Obesity.  www.foodaddictionsummit.org.  Retrieved on February 20, 2012.

Kriz, Kerry (2002).  The Efficacy of Overeaters Anonymous in Fostering Abstinence in Binge-Eating Disorder and Bulimia Nervosa.  Doctoral Thesis University of Virginia Polytech Institute 2002.

Gold, Mark (2011).  Obesity and Addiction.  University of Florida Medical Center.  Retrieved on February 20, 2012.

Drewnowski, A (1995).  Naloxone, an opiate blocker, reduces the consumption of sweet high-fat foods in obese and lean female binge eaters.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  Retrieved on February 20, 2012.

Avena, NM (2008).  Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent Excessive Intake.  Neuroscience Biobehavioral Rev.  Retrieved on February 20, 2012.

Staley, Julie (2001).  Sex differences in b-cit spect measures of dopamine and serotonin transporter availability in healthy smokers and non-smokers. Synapse.  Retrieved on February 20, 2012.

McBride, WJ (2001).  Serotonin and dopamine systems regulating alcohol intake.  UK Pubmed.  Retrieved on February 20, 2012.

Gessa, GianLuigi (1997).  Cannabinoids activate mesolimbic dopamine neurons by an action on cannabinoid CB receptors.  European Journal of Pharmacology.  Retrieved on February 20, 2012.

Wurtman, Richard (2003).  Effects of normal meals rich in carbohydrates or protein on plasma tryptophan and tyrosine levels.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  Retrieved on February 20, 2012.


Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at www.geneticpotentialnutrition.com.

Categories: Anti inflammatory diet, General, Paleo/Low Carb, Weight Loss


Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation

Have you heard about the Paleo diet and were curious about how to get started? Or maybe you’ve been trying Paleo for a while but have questions or aren’t sure what the right exercise program is for you? Or maybe you just want a 30-day meal plan and shopping list to make things easier? Then Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation is for you.


  1. says

    One excellent way to break the addiction from food is to fast regularly.

    If every month you go on a 3 or 7 day fast, you have to learn to go without the foods that you are addicted to.

    The fact that people have such resistance to this idea is just further proof of how addicted they are.

    It is more of the rationalizing you talked about.

      • Amy B. says


        As difficult as it can be sometimes to resist altogether, I find it’s much easier to do that than to fool myself into thinking I’ll stop after “just one piece.” Because I. Never. Do. I guess the key is to know what your trigger foods are (and most of us probably do), and abstain entirely if possible.

        John Berardi has what he calls the “Berardi Corollary” — basically, if it makes it into your shopping cart and makes it into your house, you WILL eat it. (And you know you will. The very action of picking it up off the store shelf, or the farmer’s market cookie/pie vendor’s table pretty much ensures the entire thing will end up in your mouth.)

        Wish it wasn’t this way, but it is…at least for me, with certain foods.

        • TMS71 says

          Why even try to just have one bite? How satisfying is one bite? If you are going to eat something unhealthful then just decide you are going to eat as much as you want and then eat as much as you want. Otherwise don’t eat any of it. A little bite of something that I really like, like pizza or chocolate covered almonds is only going leave me wanting more and feeling frustrated that I can’t have more and in a stressful state as I try to resist the temptation to have more. Its ridiculous. And that’s why it makes no sense to keep stuff around that isn’t healthful. You’ll have a temptation to eat it every time you see it. Just don’t keep it around and its out of sight out of mind. Of course TV commercials bring it to mind but if you don’t have it in the house you have to go out and get it and that’s usually enough to keep you from eating it.

  2. Amy says

    So good to see this post here. I really appreciate the references, too. I commented on another post here that supported more of a moderate approach after day 30. That just doesn’t work for people who are addicted to certain foods.

  3. Martin says

    How does it all relate on the one hand, to the food reward/palatability advocated by Stephan Guyenet, and on the other hand to Gary Taube’s insulin hypothesis?

    Guyenet uses the same or related research as that presented in this post in support of his claims that it’s the brain-controlled set point that causes overeating or undereating, and as an argument against Taube’s position that it’s the direct effect of insulin on individual fat cells which leads to inbalanced calorie partitioning.

    I personally would tend to take Taube’s position, but at the same time I am well aware that food addiction is real (the reasearch on serotonin and dopamine looks also solid). What shall I make out of this?

    • says

      I also tend to agree w/ Taube’s. I was a food (carbohydrate) addict. I spent hours a day thinking and planning my next meal. I loved reading cookbooks and trying new recipes. I ate small healthy meals every 3-5 hours. I was hungry all the time. I went to parties and wedding for the food, not for the occasion. lol My life revolved around food.

      In less than 2 weeks of eliminating carbohydrates from my diet all that stopped and my life changed forever. I do agree that for me it was the insulin effect and not a certain food (other than any carbohydrate)that kept me thinking and eating food all day. It was not emotional, it was the insulin. Now,(after 4 years carb free) if I eat any carbohydrate, broccoli, sugar, fruit, etc, I will spend at least one whole day fighting cravings. It’s not worth it so I just stick to meats.

  4. says

    Great points but I think there are definite emotional issues as well. People will not only go through physcical withdrawal when they remove the foods but lets not forget that food acts as a reward, punishment, and distraction or as a numbing system. Distraction or numbing system means eating until all people can think about is how full they are.

    Where does will-power fit in? I think it fits mostly in the beginning and becomes less important as the food addiction dissipates. I say this because G-D damn if people are going to go through withdrawals. I have cut out gluten for over 3 months now. Now it is time for sugar, corn, and artificial sweetners. Everyday I wake up saying today ill cut them out and I still end up nearly binging on them. Anyone?

    • Joe says

      Hi Mat,

      I found myself in the same position you’re in. I would say to myself “Today I’m kicking sugar!” and then pour a bunch of sugar in my tea.

      What helped me was identifying all the things I wanted to cut out – not in general terms like sugar, corn, etc – but specifics like “No sugar in my tea”, “No oatmeal”, and so on. I would work on eliminating ONE of those until I no longer missed it. Then it was on to the next. Some, like sugar in my tea, only took a few days. Others will take longer.

  5. says

    Oh yes, an addiction to food is so unacknowledged in our society and interesting to see your comment that we are perhaps all addicted in some way. I thought it was just me! I do view the recovery from overeating in just the same way as more acknowledged addictions including total abstinence in order to avoid relapse. My personal experience has been that I was unable to go ‘cold turkey’ in terms of avoiding the food I overate and a gradual weaning off was necessary. And now that I’m off it, I do have to be constantly vigilant and prepared because it is *very* easy to go back. Hmmm, like an addict, I may say that I will never be cured…

    • says


      I went cold-turkey on everything for 6 months. The first time I cheated was at a family members 93rd birthday party. This kicked off a weekend of drinking, pizza, nachos, and any other crap food product I could find. Come Monday I was like “what am I doing?” and got back on track. This was a legit relapse and even now I have to be aware of my cravings. If I crave something I will eat a good meal and reassess. A lot of times this helps. If not I reach for some dark chocolate.

  6. Sandy says

    My friend has a LAP-band to help her lose weight. She will still eat until she throws up or have the food sit on TOP of her stomach. They have not even address her addiction to food. She looses five pounds one week and then gains it another week later. This as been going on for a long time. It is very sad to watch her eat herself to death.

  7. Matthew Jarosz says

    Hey Rob, what’s your stance on having a dessert from time to time like nice fresh ice cream or flour less chocolate cake? Should we not be eating this stuff at all and try to will it out of our minds? I’m asking because just a few days ago I had a delicious meal at a restaurant I rarely go to because of price and really had my heart set on a massive sundae with all types of hot fudge and caramel. When my other party member talked me out of it I felt this crushing feeling that left me depressed for the rest of the night. I also have adhd and was told by a friend who has the same condition that his doctor said his condition precludes him to crave and need carbs. That also would have been my first dessert or sugar of any type in a month aside from the brown sugar on the brisket I found at a nice bbq place nearby.
    One final note, I sometimes give way to eating ice cream and end up binging. I don’t usually feel sick but instead am very happy, much happier than I ever have felt in the past two years I’ve been on very high fat, low carb paleo.
    What’s wrong with me?

  8. Trav says

    Has anyone here dealing with alcoholism ever heard of or tried the Sinclair Method? I know many paleo people are skeptical of using pharmaceuticals, but hear me out. Dr. John David Sinclair’s research suggests that alcoholism is a conditioned response to consuming alcohol, driven by the opioid response to ethanol. Drinking in conjunction with a low dose opioid antagonist to block the endorphin reward in the brain that alcohol elicits, over time, can extinguish the cravings for it. I used to be a blackout drunk until I (skeptically) decided to give it a go. Surprisingly enough, it worked. It took a while, but now, to use an old analogy, the thought of booze has gone from honey, in my mind, to vinegar.
    Just wondering what some of you, who are more educated than I, think about this. Any input would be much appreciated.

  9. says

    It’s so true…and it reminds me a lot of this article I was reading about a book called the “End of Overeating,” which deals with how your body responds to overly saturated foods whether it be with fats, salts, sugars etc …
    It’s hard to break an addiction, especially when it’s food. It’s legal and everywhere and you can’t go abstinent. You have to eat to live! But when people do realise, and change, it’s hard to go back…you feel too good on Paleo and all this stuff

  10. Lindsay says

    I love eating paleo and have been enjoying its benefits for the last few years. I’m definitely have some weaknesses that I cave to from time to time. One habit I’ve had trouble breaking is chewing gum. Is it possible to be addicted to “sugarless” chewing gum????

  11. Debra says

    I’m thinking about doing the Paleo diet, but I know its a fact that weight loss is about calories in vs calories out. I’ve read literally hundreds of books on this subject and no one has proved anything different. Low carb diets help you lose weight faster, but in the long run, its the total amount of calories you consume that determines weight loss. So I’m wondering if Paleo helps you lose weight mainly because it naturally cuts the amount of calories you eat?

  12. says

    I was actually reading a little about this last night. I have came to realize that emotional eating is one of my glitches and its stopping me from reaching my goals. One interesting thing that I read was the fact that as an infant when you are upset you cry and then you get fed. Not only are you feed but you are usually held by a love one (i.e. given affection) So that you tie food with calming and affection at a very young age when your extremely impressionable. So as you grow it is easy to see how when someone was lonely or upset they would use food to recreate those feelings. It made a lot of sense to me.

  13. Brewed says

    I am well aware of my addiction to food. In the throngs of cravings, I am usually in tears.
    Stuffing my face and crying.. I know that sounds dumb, it’s the one thing I obsess about literally all day long and I know it’s killing me.
    I used to be in the binge and purge camp but I got sick of the purging and stopped caring if I was fat. At least during my binge parties.
    How the hell does someone only eat half a doughnut or just one slice of toast anyways?!?!
    It actually makes me mad, why am I the fatty who’s so obsessed with crap food and others have this magical force called self control?? For instance, my hubby who can’t gain weight to save his life. “Oh I’ll just have one muffin, thanks” WTH?
    Anyways my point is, having it in the house doesn’t work. It has to be gone. At least for me. Some people might have self control, and as much as I try, I don’t. It’s shameful and frustrating but it’s the way it is.
    Any kind of sugary carb loaded crack has to be out. If I even have ingredients to make something I will, no matter how crazy. Then an hour later I’m bloated and feeling sick and guilty so to remedy my guilt I find some other sugar crack to ease the frustration. Why not? I’ve already blown it. There goes the cycle.
    I start the morning a paleo women on a mission to health and end it a complete and total fat and unhealthy failure!

    Any helpful tips as to how to get through these monster cravings? As long as I stay away from trigger foods I’m pretty good but getting over the hump seems impossible. If I even see some crap food advertisement my mind starts to wander like a teenage boy in Victory Secrets.

    I guess I just need to stop fooling myself. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to suck at first, isn’t it??

    Can we make a Paleo rehab? So I can check myself in and get my shiz together?

    • says

      It is kinda tough for some initially…def keeping trigger foods at bay is smart, then trying to create habits.

      Re-hab settings are tough in that they are not “real life”. Might be something to roll out at some point however.

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