Food addiction. It is two words that for many years people were discouraged from using for fear they would “shame” people away from eating. Somehow, educating people about the potential health consequences of eating processed food was a horrible thing to do if you suggested these edible products were in any way addicting. However, as Dr. Mark Hyman puts it in his latest book, “The conversation has changed now that science has proven that processed foods – and especially sugar – are addictive.”1
How can we possibly help the 70% of our American population that is overweight or obese if we can’t explain the real problem? How can we restore health to millions of Americans of all shapes and sizes if they don’t recognize the way their taste buds, hormones, and brains have been literally hijacked by the food industry and thrust into a vicious cycle of cravings, anxiety, and irritability caused by processed food addiction?
When we say processed foods are highly addictive, this does not include what nutritionists consider real foods or whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, whole grains, meats from animals raised in natural environments, all herbs and spices in dried or whole form, and even cold pressed oils from healthy sources are all considered whole foods.
You can make an endless amount of delicious meals from these whole foods alone. Unfortunately, most Americans simply don’t understand that processed food is not real food. We have been raised to believe anything that is edible and on a supermarket shelf is food. We falsely believe the FDA and USDA are somehow protecting us. In truth, the food industry commits a form of malpractice that is blatantly obvious to scientists, but escapes the minds of the unsuspecting consumer.
We are dangerously becoming a society that does not know what food is anymore. We have been brainwashed into believing that the knowledge of how to prepare great tasting healthy meals should be replaced with “convenience” foods to enhance our lives. Yet all this so-called “convenience” is only destroying our health and our relationship with food.
Do you want to know the real reason no one can stick to a “diet?” It’s because almost no one can eliminate processed food from their diet for any significant time. But it’s not just because these foods have a high addictive value. It’s also because the food industry spends millions of dollars on developing aggressive marketing strategies to make processed foods look healthy.
The majority of people in the United States still don’t understand exactly what are processed foods and that none are truly healthy. Put “ancient” grains or exotic berries in any processed food and people perceive it as healthy. It is all lies. It is clever marketing strategies designed to make you eat more than you should so they can profit.
I have literally had medical doctors, company CEOs, young athletes, and many highly intelligent people ask me what exactly is processed food? I never understood it myself until I studied nutrition. It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are. It’s nearly impossible for the average consumer to identify healthy foods, and without an advanced nutrition degree you stand little chance against the food industry.
In fact, the food industry spends billions of dollars on psychological marketing strategies to get people to believe exactly what they want them to believe about their products. They go to great lengths to create the illusion of healthy to be sure you try their products. After all, you can’t create addicts, or as they call them in the food industry, “heavy users”2, if people don’t try the product.
The Food Industry Intentionally Creates Addictive Foods
People don’t want to believe the foods they love are the source of any problem, especially their own health problems. We are all emotionally attached on some level to the foods that we love and eat whether we know it or not. Try to explain to someone who loves sweetened almond milk that this food is unhealthy because it promotes weight gain, insulin spikes, gut dysbiosis, sugar cravings, and distorts function of the hormones that control appetite and they will look at you as if you’ve lost your mind.
What are you talking about??!!! It’s ALMOND milk!
Actually, it’s not almond milk. Because by definition almond milk is almonds and water. You can make it yourself in a blender or food processor. Almonds and water. That’s it. While there are some brands of almond milk that include only almonds and water in the ingredients, they can be extremely hard to find.
Forget the nutrition label. Read the ingredients. Anything other than almonds and water is added to promote dependency on the product by enhancing flavor, texture, or both. This may sound harmless, but it’s exactly how the food industry hijacks your brain. They spend millions on in-house research to figure out the exact combinations of (primarily) sugar, fat, and salt that will make your taste buds and brain go absolutely nuts!
Whole foods in their natural form do not do this to your brain centers and, therefore, are not addictive. We become hooked on processed foods because the activity created in the brain’s pleasure and reward centers is similar to recreational drugs and other addictions.
A study in 2011 measured the brain activity of subjects that scored high on a food addiction scale to compare it with the brain activity seen in people with known substance abuse addiction. In conclusion they found that “Similar patterns of neural activation are implicated in addictive-like eating behavior and substance dependence.”3
Another study out of Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care is quick to point out that “Available evidence in humans shows that sugar and sweetness can induce reward and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs.”4 The authors of this article further summarize that “sugar and sweet reward may be sufficient to explain why many people can have difficultly to control the consumption of foods high in sugar when continuously exposed to them.”4
It’s important to realize that it’s not just sugar, although years of published research now shows sugar to be possibly more addictive than nicotine for some people. On the other hand, proper combinations of salt, fat, and sugar in food products can surpass the addictive power of sugar alone. Like all addictions, some people are more susceptible to processed food addiction than others. I tend to believe we all have food addiction to some extent regardless of our weight, but that obese individuals are, unfortunately, at a greater disadvantage against the food industry. I think Dr. David Kessler put it well when he wrote:
“Many people, fat and thin alike, lose control in the face of rewarding foods. But those who are obese do seem to be more susceptible to the disinhibited patterns of eating that often allow rewarding foods to gain the upper hand.”5
Do Not Be Overwhelmed
I will never forget the first time I went into a grocery store after realizing that almost everything in there was not only processed food, but also not healthy. I was overwhelmed. I was a graduate student studying nutrition and it wasn’t until then that I realized just how serious and big was the problem. I now had the knowledge to distinguish real food from food “products” disguised as healthy and I nearly started to cry.
Do you want to know the secret to better health and weight loss? Stop eating processed foods. That’s it. How many people do you think can actually do that now that we have over 4,000 products in the grocery store that are not real food?
The food industry is laughing at us. It doesn’t matter how many doctors write diet books. They mean nothing in the long run and create zero permanent change. No one is telling you the whole truth – the big picture. No one is talking about the food addiction that is a direct result of eating processed food.
We have fitness “experts” on social media with tens of thousands of followers teaching people that grocery shopping for the ketogenic diet includes cheese, Jimmy Dean sausage, and bacon. Yet, the ketogenic diet that researchers use in clinical settings to potentially restore health is a whole foods diet, not a diet heavy in these processed foods.
If you truly want to improve your health with nutrition, the key is to include as many whole foods in your diet as possible. Start thinking about ways to add whole foods to your diet, even if it’s a gradual process. Trying to do it all at once is overwhelming for most people and may not work long term. Look around the grocery store and think about ways you can work more whole foods into your diet; ways that will work for you.
Your food choices matter. They matter to your health, your children’s health, the health of the environment, and the overall health of society as a whole. You literally have the power to help change the world by making better food choices.
Be the change. Eat real food.
- Hyman M. What the Heck Should I Eat? New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company (Hatchette Book Group, Inc.); 2018. (page 15)
- Moss M. Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. (Kindle Edition). New York, NY: Random House; 2013. (Location 1941 in Kindle edition).
- Gearhardt AN, Yokum S, Orr PT, Stice E, Corbin WR, and Brownell KD. Neural correlates of food addiction. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2011; 68(8): 808-816.
- Ahmed S, Guillem K, and Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. 2016; 16(4): 434-439.
- Kessler, D. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. (Kindle Edition). New York, NY: Rodale Books; 2009. (page 158).