Is Food Addictive?

The American Psychiatric Association is pushing for a new classification of addiction, Food Addiction. The move is quite controversial. Psychiatrists, scientists, and drug abuse experts have not been able to settle this debate. Part of the controversy stems from the fact that we don’t need alcohol, street drugs, or even tobacco to survive. But we do need food. How can our sustenance be addictive? If food is addictive, can we be addicted to any food or just some substances, like sugar.

Addiction is a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly :  persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.” Although we may like a certain food and want to eat it, that does not mean that we need or should eat that food. Can food meet the same standard as drugs or alcohol? In general terms, no.

Yet there are some substances found in food that may be addictive. What about sugar? Glucose and fructose both give us energy.  While glucose is considered a nutrient and is essential for good health, fructose is not the same. “As it turns out, there’s no biochemical reaction that requires dietary fructose.” Yet it is found widely in processed foods.

The food industry has been adding sugar to our food for years.  It makes food taste better to us.  Experiments have shown that rats were not interested in lard, but add a little sugar and they became very interested.  Other studies show that rats would choose Oreo cookies over cocaine. Humans aren’t much different.

77 percent of the food items available in the American grocery store are spiked with added sugar.

Restaurants are similar to grocery stores. Americans enjoy their fast food because it is easy, tastes good and is inexpensive. Most fast food today contains high levels of fat, salt, caffeine, and/or sugar. Sugar in particular stimulates dopamine, a neurotransmitter that drives reward and makes us feel good. Dopamine down-regulates itself, which means that more sugar is needed over time to get the same reward of feeling good after eating. Eventually the result is high tolerance. Stopping sugar after tolerance has developed can produce headaches, jitters and other symptoms of withdrawal. The most popular ingestion method for sugar is soda.

The American Heart Association recommends a reduction in sugar consumption from our current 22 teaspoons per day to six for women and nine for men.

The food that we consume should help keep us healthy and make us feel good.  We need to get rid of our sugar habit and learn to enjoy real food. Meanwhile, we’ll let the experts debate about whether or not food in general, or sugar in particular, is actually addictive.

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