Science does not need to tell us that processed foods are addictive. The body shapes of western populations are enough proof of it. Most importantly, it is what the food industry ads to their products what makes them addictive.
So, what food is addictive for you? Chocolate, chips, crackers?
You’ve already thought of one, right?
It is true that in our colloquial language we use terms such as “addiction”, which in the scientific field have a more complex meaning. It helps us to describe a situation that nobody interprets literally.
The conflict appears when the opposite direction is followed, and science takes it upon itself to determine that a new pathology exists: the addiction to food.
According to science, the existence of an addiction to food would reveal a mental disorder that affects the quality of life of the sick. That will cause them suffering and will interfere with their daily tasks.
In the case of food addiction, though, it is not a mental disorder what affects people, but a chemical disorder which then causes mental imbalance.
When we talk about certain patterns of behavior that we consider negative, we define them almost instinctively as addiction. Addiction to sex, social networks, internet … or food.
Some people not only identify themselves but define themselves as addicted to mobile phones, sugar or chocolate. But it is usually done from a trivial perspective, as a way of expressing how much you like something, without pretending to communicate a real problem.
When the addiction is real, it is usually accompanied by social stigma and feelings of shame, as it happens with all mental illnesses, unfortunately.
If there is no pathology, it is exhibited. If there is disease, it is hidden.
But, while the addiction to substances such as alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs can be diagnosed, the existence of food addiction is something the scientific community has not defined conclusively.
Food additives cause addiction to eating processed foods
Instinctively, almost without question, we would say that some foods trigger compulsive eating behaviors and that these are very similar to addictive behaviors.
Advertising uses claims or challenges such as “Try to eat only one” or “Why can’t you eat only one?” These phrases have accompanied some snacks for more than 30 years, and that clearly alludes to the loss of control.
Why not talk openly about food addiction, then?
A part of the scientific community considers that there is enough evidence to affirm that food addiction exists, and even tools have been developed to evaluate this dependence. They include the Food Craving Questionnaire, the Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire, the Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire, the Power of Food Scale and, the most specific, the Yale Food Addiction Scale.
Several reasons suggest that, indeed, food addiction can be a new pathology, since it has similarities with other addictions:
Scientists are able to observe biological changes based mainly on modifications of the brain circuitry.
Very palatable foods, such as ultra-processed foods and sugar seem to play a leading role in this phenomenon and a study has already used a test that measures it.
Alterations of the reward circuitry are being studied in people with obesity because they are more sensitive and have a higher prevalence of addiction measured with YFAS.
Some measurements include behavioral changes: relapse or inability to stop eating; psychological changes: loss of control, concern about food.
Science must decide, based on the strongest evidence available, if the addiction to food is really a new disease, but in the real world, it is clear that it is.
The term “food addiction” first appeared in the scientific literature in 1956, but since 2009 publications on the subject have grown exponentially.
The most recent systematic reviews agree that the concept of “food addiction” is not yet established and it is premature to consider it a new pathology, although the evidence suggests that some foods, especially the ultra-processed, have greater addictive potential.
Why do we get sensational news about food addiction?
Neuroimaging techniques, which allow us to see “live” changes that occur in the central nervous system, show that illegal drugs and sugar consumption produce similar responses in brain areas related to reward circuitry.
Does this allow us to conclude that food triggers an addiction as drugs do?
And on the images that show the activity of the brain areas before different stimuli (drugs or food), this meta-analysis indicates that the drugs act on the receptors of the reward circuitry, the same receptors that produce pleasurable sensations related to food or the sex.
It is almost like a natural response to perpetuate a behavior necessary for survival, but that in the case of food addiction it is not about survival but about chemically induced addiction.
To conclude, one cannot ignore an important differential fact regarding food and its intake: in known addictions, the substance or addictive behavior are dispensable and can be avoided, but this is not possible with food.
Food is essential to survive, which is why processed foods are so successful. People believe they are eating food, but they are not.
Part of the treatment of a person who suffers alcoholism, gambling or dependency on a drug is to avoid the substance and control the environment. This can also be done with food: the person will have to quit eating processed food.