Can Junk Food Be Addictive?


The idea that a person can be addicted to food has recently gotten more support from science. Here, I look at how eating certain kinds of food could be driving people to make further poor food choices.

On the third episode of Doctor in the House, the D’Arcy family orders four chicken meals, seven burgers, five large fries, and four large sugary drinks—just for one single meal. Eighteen-year-old Brandon often eats like this two or three times per day.

After they finish eating, the father, Russ, complains of not feeling full after his large meal: “Anyone who eats burgers and fast food knows that after 10 minutes you’re hungry again!”

Unfortunately, this picture is all too common. People are often blamed for not making better choices, but I don’t think that blame is helpful. Most people are aware that what they are eating is not good for their health. The majority of people  I treat have actually tried stopping—they just find it very difficult to do so.

I don’t think that this is just a willpower issue.

Can Someone Actually Be Addicted to Junk Food?

This fantastic paper published by Professor David Ludwig puts forward evidence that suggests that, yes, fast food may be addictive. Many believe that there are potential problems with labeling certain types of food as “addictive.” Food is fundamentally needed for survival—this is very different from classic addictive habits such as drug taking or smoking.

I would argue, however, that highly processed junk food is not essential to survival.

However, I do think that this concept could explain, in part, a lot of the poor food choices that people are making these days. Let’s remember that a lot of chronic diseases that are growing in prevalence—such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease—are in large part lifestyle driven. So, as well as our food choices making us sick, what if the types of food we are eating are actually causing us to eat more and more of the same kinds of food?

When patients eat processed junk food, they can overeat. Is it possible to overeat real, whole food? Can you eat a whole plate of cauliflower or a whole plate of apples?

In my experience it is much harder to do so. In fact, the D’Arcy family found it much easier to control their portion sizes once they swapped the processed junk food for fresh, unprocessed whole food.

They didn’t have to count calories—portion control started to take care of itself.

The reality is that when you change over from eating processed food to “real,” unprocessed whole foods, your taste buds start to change. You will find that you start to crave those foods less. It also becomes much harder to overeat—you start to self-regulate your eating, and you start to make better choices.

How Did This Happen?

Over time, we have evolved through periods of food abundance and periods of food scarcity. We now live in a society of ready, quick access to food everywhere, all the time—particularly sugary foods—but we have not evolved with this change. Humans are hardwired to crave sugar, which was fine when sugar was not readily available but is clearly a problem now that it is.

In 2013, the Guardian published a fascinating article detailing the investigations and hypotheses of Michael Moss, an investigative journalist for the New York Times. He believes that the food industry manipulates three types of ingredients—salt, sugar, and fat—to find the perfect combinations to establish the necessary “bliss point, to send consumers over the edge.”

In my practice in Oldham, England, I see countless patients, particularly children, who eat junk food seven days per week. The concept of fast-food addiction is quite controversial, but if some concepts hold true, does this reward-seeking behaviour from a young age have long-term consequences for those children?

When I started practicing medicine, we rarely saw type 2 diabetes before the age of 40 or 50. Now I routinely see it in 20–30-year-olds as well as occasionally in teenagers. Clearly, something is driving this!

What Are The Criteria For Addiction?

The American Psychiatric Association uses the following criteria for substance dependence:

  • Tolerance—progressive use over time
  • Withdrawal—symptoms, or substance use to relieve
  • Greater amount or longer duration of use than intended
  • Desire or attempts to cut down or quit
  • Seeking (significant time spent obtaining, using, or recovering from use)
  • Interference with life
  • Use despite negative consequences

I see many patients who experience some of the above when eating processed junk food.

In the third episode of Doctor in the House, Russ was the classic obese patient who found it easy to binge on junk. He told me that his intake had increased over time. When he tried to stop he got withdrawal symptoms. He continued to eat the same foods even though they were harming him.

Russ told me that he had tried cutting down on his food intake (unsuccessfully) for many months. He often craved junk food and continued to use despite knowing it was harming him. While he was driving me to the fast-food restaurant, he said, “I know that this is disgusting but it has become a habit.”

Clearly, it is possible to see some similar concepts.

Caffeine is a great example of an addictive food substance that many people struggle with. I have experienced these phenomena myself with caffeine!

How Do You Treat Junk Food “Addiction”?

On Doctor in the House, the way I dealt with this was to help the family “go cold turkey.” I emphasised the need to change the environment at home.

You cannot change the environment outside your house, but you can control it inside.

This was one of the key reasons that D’Arcy’s were successful. The reality, as I have experienced myself when I went on my own journey with food, is that if you keep crisps or junk in your cupboard, you will crack at some point.

Willpower may get you through one or two weeks, but at some point, you will come home tired and stressed, and if that pick-me-up, feel-good food is in your pantry, you will indulge. Now, indulging once in awhile may not be a problem for some people, but unfortunately, for others this kick-starts the whole craving cycle once again.

My message that I’d love you all to take away is to control your own home food environment —that way you give yourself the best chance of success.

You can share your thoughts or experiences with me via Facebook or Twitter—I’d love to hear what you think.