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Is it possible to be addicted to food?

Is it possible to be addicted to food?

Kasper Lipiec
Kasper Lipiec

Some people swear they are addicted to food. They say that certain foods have a powerful hold on them, just like alcohol or drugs. Does this sound crazy? Recent scientific studies show that it can, in a way, be true.

Drugged by dopamine

When we eat an especially tasty food, our brain releases dopamine.

Dopamine is the main pleasure-producing chemical in the brain.

The dopamine locks on to receptors on our brain cells and creates a permanent memory trace.

The memory trace helps us remember the look, smell, and taste of that food.

Dopamine makes us want to eat that food again.

There is a type of brain scan called positron emission tomography that can actually measure the number of dopamine receptors - DRD2 (dopamine receptor D2) in our brain. Recent studies show that some people are born with fewer receptors than normal. They have a low D2 gene.

Addiction genes

People born with a low D2 gene are more likely to become addicted to food, alcohol, nicotine, drugs, and/or gambling. They don't get enough dopamine stimulation, so they never experience enough pleasure. They use more of their chosen substance, trying to feel pleasure. Between their doses of addictive drug or food, they feel anxious and depressed.

We are all born with some genetic weaknesses. The important thing to realize is that our lifestyle habits determine whether our harmful genes will ever be expressed. People with a genetic predisposition for heart disease or diabetes will not develop those diseases if they follow a whole food plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

The same is true of addictions. You have probably met non-drinkers who had alcoholic parents. They chose to eliminate their genetic risk by never taking a drink. They chose not to be alcoholics.

Food addiction in normal people

Even people who are born with the normal amount of dopamine receptors can become addicted to food or drugs. Recent studies show that as people become obese, their number of dopamine D2 receptors decreases.

If you want to cause a food addiction, scientists say that the best way to do it is by intermittent gorging, also called binge eating. And the best way to cause binge eating is by:

  • Trying to follow a diet that is too low in calories, and
  • Eating low nutrient foods

If you restrict calories and lack essential nutrients, your body eventually rebels and forces you to gorge on high calorie foods. Do you see the connection?

  • Dieting and eating low nutrient foods causes hunger
  • Hunger causes binge eating
  • Binge eating causes food addiction
  • Therefore, dieting and low nutrient foods cause food addiction

People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol have a physical dependency on these substances. When they try to stop using, they experience painful withdrawal symptoms. After they recover, it is important that they never use the substance again, or the physical addiction will return.

People who are addicted to food have a different situation. People need food to stay alive. If you try to withdraw from all food and never eat again, you will starve to death. What is a food addict to do? The good news is that, just as with drugs, not all foods are addictive.

Which foods are addictive?

Think about the foods you can't resist. Are they whole plant foods? Probably not. Nobody ever got in the car and drove to the 7-Eleven or a fast food restaurant at 11 pm to buy a head of cauliflower or a can of black beans, did they?

Neal Barnard, MD, author of Breaking the Food Seduction, names four common foods or food groups that are addictive:

  • Chocolate
  • Cheese
  • Sugar
  • Meat

Do any of those ring a bell for you?

The truth about chocolate

Many people understand that chocolate is addictive. In fact, chocolate stimulates the same part of the brain as morphine does. Some of the active compounds in chocolate are:

  • Caffeine, a stimulant
  • Theobromine, a stimulant
  • Phenylethalamine, an amphetamine-like compound

In one case, scientists studied obese people who craved chocolate. They gave the subjects naloxone, which is an opiate blocker used on drug addicts. The subjects lost all interest in chocolate. Don't get too excited about this. Opiate blockers can damage your liver if used for very long, so they are not a healthy solution for people who are addicted to food.

Cravings for cheese

Many people say they could never be vegans because they can't give up cheese. Why is cheese so addictive? Dr. Barnard explains that a major source of addictive compounds in cow's milk is casein. Casein is a protein made from a long chain of amino acids. About 87% of the protein in cow's milk is casein.

When we digest milk or other dairy products, not all of the casein is broken down into individual amino acids. Some of it breaks down to short chain proteins, each containing several amino acids. These short chain proteins are called casomorphins, and they are addictive compounds. Nature designed it so calves would be addicted to food: to their mother's milk.

Cheese is basically concentrated cow's milk. When we eat cheese, we get a big hit of these addictive opiates. Have you ever eaten a large amount of cheese and been constipated afterward? The constipation was caused by the narcotic effect of the casomorphins. We are not calves, and we should not be drinking cow's milk or eating cheese.

Major addictive ingredients

Dr. David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating names three ingredients that trigger addictive eating:

  • Sugar
  • Fat
  • Salt

Processed foods that contain this combination give us lots of pleasure and dopamine release, but no nutrition. It is easy to develop a fast food addiction or an addiction to junk food. Processed foods actually cause the addiction.

Even a whole food vegan must beware of the sugar-fat-salt combination in meals. Restaurants, even most vegan restaurants, use this combo to enhance the flavor of food. These ingredients stimulate our tastebuds and increase dopamine production. We eat, feel pleasure, and then we eat even more.

Learn to season your foods with ingredients that are healthy and less addictive. Good alternative flavorings are:

  • Herbs and spices
  • Citrus juices and zest
  • Assorted vinegars
  • Chilies and hot sauces

If you believe you are addicted to food, you are not a weak person who is lacking will power. You might naturally have low D2 receptors. Or you might have made some mistakes in the past, like dieting and eating low nutrient foods. It is never too late to change.

The way to overcome food addictions is to withdraw "cold tofu" from all addictive foods. Get animal foods and processed foods out of your house. Follow our vegan weight loss plan carefully. Be sure to eat plenty of dark leafy greens, both cooked and raw. Eat until you are satisfied. Do not try to count calories.

The good news is that eliminating addictive foods will not cause severe physical withdrawal symptoms. When you start eating satisfying amounts of whole plant foods, you will feel better immediately. These are the foods our bodies are designed to run on.