Is food addiction a real thing?
Many of us have at one point or another declared that we must be addicted to a particular food — a food we crave and struggle to resist.
If you’ve ever stood there staring down a chocolate chip cookie trying to convince yourself to walk away while your body is internally screaming at you to devour it on the spot, you understand the power of such cravings.
Could it be that there really is a biological addiction that occurs with these foods?
Turns out, the answer is “yes.”
Here’s how it happens, and what you can do to help overcome it in your quest to conquer cravings and eat healthier.
Receptors get triggered
Tiny physical structures, called receptors, are located on the surface of the cells of various tissues (nerves, muscles, glands, etc.) throughout your body.
They are called receptors because they receive certain molecules that float around in your system. These molecules they capture are called ligands (from the Latin word ligare, which means “to bind,” because they bind with receptors).
Just like your uniquely-shaped house key fits only your home’s door lock, only a specific shape of ligand will fit into each type of receptor. When a passing ligand comes near a matching receptor that it fits, the receptor captures it and they bind together.
When a ligand binds with a receptor, it triggers either a chemical or physical reaction in the cell. You can think of it as inserting your car key into the ignition and turning it. Similar to how that activates the engine of your car, a ligand binding with a receptor activates activity within the cell.
There are many different molecules (ligands) that attach to various receptors on the cells throughout your body and consequently trigger reactions within those cells.
Some of the main classes of molecules that interact with receptors include:
- Neurotransmitters – such as dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in transmitting signals between nerve cells in your brain and body.
- Hormones – such as adrenaline, insulin, and estrogen, which are produced by glands in your body and help to regulate various bodily functions.
- Drugs – such as opioids and antidepressants, which are designed to interact with specific receptors in the body to produce therapeutic effects.
- Toxins – such as certain chemical food additives and preservatives, which can interact with receptors in the body and produce various effects, including toxicity.
These ligands and their receptors play an important role in communication (nerve signals and hormonal messengers), control and regulation within your body.
Understanding how these receptors function and how they respond to the various foods, drugs and toxins you ingest can give you an edge in overcoming cravings, food addictions and unhealthy habits.
The feel-good trap of food addiction
Foods that contain high levels of fats, salt and sugar while lacking nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals are called junk food.
Popular junk food includes fast food, deep-fried foods, pizza, chips, cookies, brownies, cakes, candy bars, ice cream, white bread, soft drinks, energy drinks, sweetened coffee drinks and alcoholic beverages.
The receptors in your body are affected by junk food in various ways. These effects can vary depending on the specific type and amount of junk food consumed, as well as individual differences in genetics, metabolism, and other factors.
One of the primary effects of eating junk food is the activation of the brain’s reward system, which releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin inside the brain.
When captured by receptors on nerve cells within your brain, the presence of these neurotransmitters results in feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
This is why we love junk food so much — it makes us feel good.
However, two nefarious factors that can lead to food addiction and overeating are simultaneously at work here:
- The effect of feel-good neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, is to make you crave more of the same types of food to maintain that good feeling.
- When you keep flooding your brain with feel-good neurotransmitters, the nerve cells in your brain become desensitized to them — so it takes more and more to achieve the same good feeling.
Notice how this sets up a loop that can spiral out of control. The more junk food you eat, the more you crave, but it takes greater quantities to achieve that same good feeling. So you have to eat more and more of it just to maintain the same good feeling.
If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like what happens in drug or alcohol addiction, that’s because it is. It’s essentially the same mechanism.
Why the brain wants more
The purpose of the brain releasing feel-good neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, in response to a pleasurable event is to encourage you to do more of it by rewarding you with a feeling of enjoyment.
It releases these neurotransmitters when it detects behavior that helps the body survive — eating high-energy foods, having sex for reproduction, achieving survival goals, etc.
This was once a useful mechanism for helping bodies survive in their present environment, as well as into the future by creating new generations — back when we lived in environments where food was scarce and survival was difficult.
But it became less useful, even detrimental, when humans discovered how to produce food in abundance through agriculture. And even more so when we got good at refining food to make it taste better and be more energy-dense.
Sugar, flour, fat, etc. provide potent energy in our food without the nutrients that naturally come along with such substances in nature. In the refinement process, the energy-dense portion of a food is “purified” by removing the other elements that contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc.
White flour is an example of this. Flour is derived from grains such as wheat. To process wheat into flour, various parts of the wheat have to be removed, including the bran, so that only the starchy portion remains. The bran which is removed contains important antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber. Starch is essentially just a complex sugar, providing energy but no other nutritional value.
When coupled with a brain reward system that encourages you to eat anything high in energy, we have a recipe for uncontrolled overeating and food addiction.
Desensitization contributes to food addiction
As mentioned earlier, eating too much junk food can desensitize the reactions of receptors in your brain and body.
In response to being flooded with too many stimulating molecules for too long, the cells reduce the number of receptors available for detecting these molecules.
They accomplish this by either stopping the production of new receptors that would normally replace older decaying receptors or by decommissioning existing receptors.
When there are fewer receptors to be triggered by the passing molecules, the cells are less sensitive to the presence of these molecules.
It’s a similar concept to squinting your eyes to avoid bright light or holding your nose to block out bad odors. Reducing the number of receptors is how your cells avoid being overwhelmed by too much stimulation through these receptors.
Some of the key receptors that are affected by junk food include…
- Dopamine receptors — Junk food tends to stimulate the release of dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward. This activates dopamine receptors in your brain, leading to feelings of pleasure and craving for more junk food. Over time, repeated exposure to high levels of dopamine from junk food consumption can lead to desensitization of dopamine receptors, which may contribute to food addiction and overeating.
- Insulin receptors — Junk food that is high in sugar can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels, which triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas. Over time, repeated exposure to high levels of sugar can lead to insulin resistance, in which insulin receptors become less sensitive to the effects of insulin. This can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
- Leptin receptors — Junk food that is high in fat can interfere with the function of leptin, a hormone that helps to regulate appetite and energy balance. Over time, repeated exposure to high levels of fat can lead to leptin resistance, in which leptin receptors become less sensitive to the effects of leptin. This can contribute to overeating and obesity.
Food addiction and cravings
A feedback loop can form between the brain and an addictive food or eating behavior.
When a person engages in this behavior or consumes an addictive food, it triggers the release of pleasurable chemicals in the brain. This pleasurable experience reinforces the behavior and creates a desire for more.
Over time, the brain adapts to the repeated exposure by reducing the number and sensitivity of certain receptors.
As a result, you may develop tolerance and require larger amounts of the substance or more intense behaviors to achieve the same level of pleasure, thus perpetuating the addictive cycle.
When you attempt to modify your behavior and slow down the consumption of the addictive food, you will likely experience withdrawal symptoms, including things like cravings, anxiety, mood changes, and physical discomfort.
These symptoms are your body craving and seeking the substances to which it is addicted.
Because of the desensitization that has occurred and the reduction of the number of receptors, your body feels it’s not getting enough of the substance and it starts “screaming” at you to give it more.
“Remember the receptors!”
As a result of the number of receptors being decreased, the dopamine or other molecules that are generated when you eat the addictive food activate fewer receptors.
When you cut back and eat less of the addictive food, even fewer receptors are activated. Your body interprets this as a severe shortage of something it desires and it turns on cravings to encourage you to consume more of it.
These cravings won’t go away until the number of receptors resets. So, when cravings and withdrawal hit, remember the receptors and wait it out until they reset. This can take some time, so be strong and patient and get through it any way you can.
For simple carbohydrates, which include foods made with flour and sugar, most people experience strong cravings for about four weeks after stopping their intake. This is roughly how long it takes for your receptors to reestablish themselves in the proper quantity.
For comparison, individuals trying to quit nicotine, such as from smoking or vaping, generally experience cravings for around three months. So withdrawal from flour and sugar is not as bad as quitting smoking — this should give you some hope and encouragement that you can do it!
Just as the Texian army used the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” to motivate and inspire troops during battles in the Texas Revolution, you can use the battle cry “Remember the Receptors!” to get you through the withdrawal period.
With some determination and a sound strategy for dealing with the cravings, you can succeed at breaking free of a food addiction!
Mitigating withdrawal symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms from cutting back on addictive foods can be uncomfortable and make it difficult to quit. However, there are ways to help ease these symptoms.
One way is by substituting certain molecules that also make the body feel rewarded. For example, for people trying to quit opioids, a drug called methadone can be used as a temporary substitute. Methadone helps reduce the cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Similarly, for those trying to cut back on simple carbs (like sugary foods), starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, corn or peas can be a good substitute to get your through it.
Such vegetables taste good, provide a sense of satisfaction and help lessen the cravings and discomfort during the withdrawal process — while providing more nutrition than the simple carb that is being substituted for.
These substitutions can make it easier to overcome food addiction or reduce/eliminate the desire to consume unhealthy foods.
You’ve got this. Good luck!