Food addiction is a serious health problem that has many divergent definitions, my favorite one being from the American Society of Addiction Medicine:
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
The addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can involve cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
When a person starts to get sick from eating low quality foods, the body begins to exude warning signals such as increased weight, poor sleep, and fatigue. If a doctor is giving proper advice, he’ll say to clean up lifestyle in order to avoid a lifetime of bad health and premature death. But all too often, individuals will yo-yo diet, fall back into a poor dietary pattern, and eventually give up altogether.
Unfortunately, this results in a multitude of the health problems we see today. And even though we all want to make changes, we’re often unable to summon the willpower to take control. Is it really that hard to believe much of the population is absolutely addicted to junk food?
Junk Food and the Brain
Two common components in junk food are sugar and wheat, the two things that seem to be at the forefront of providing us with the plethora of modern Western diseases. There is actual research evidence that these “foods” can cause changes in brain chemistry, specifically involving dopamine and opiate receptors. This leads to a food addiction similar to illegal drugs.
In prehistoric times, evolution taught us that everything that tasted sweet was safe to eat. Neural mechanisms in our brains have been designed to give us a sense of reward whenever we eat something sweet in order to encourage us to seek out the behavior again. Evolution didn’t anticipate that we would someday have processed sugar in such abundance that it could make us unhealthy.
When rats are fed with sugar, they experience behavioral and neurochemical changes that are similar to what happens when they consume narcotics. These changes are specifically related to dopamine and opioid receptors in the nucleus accumbens of the brain (1).
Another rat study found that development of obesity in rats was correlated with down regulation of dopamine receptors in a part of the brain (2), which is similar to the changes involved in reward homeostasis in cocaine or heroin addicts. These rats ate bacon, sausage, cheesecake, pound cake, frosting, and chocolate.
Wheat Glutens form Opioid Peptides
Opioid peptides are short amino acid sequences that can cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate opioid receptors in the brain. What substances do we know that do this as well? Well, heroin and morphine are the most commonly known, along with natural opioid peptides like endorphins that the brain releases after activities like exercise.
When wheat is broken down by enzymes, it forms four types of opioid peptides: A4, A5, B4 and B5 (3). These substances are believed to be able to cross the digestive tract, in to the blood, across the blood brain barrier to get to the brain, and stimulate opiate receptors there, making us addicted to wheat.
There is also evidence to suggest that wheat gluten can be a contributing factor in patients with schizophrenia and autism, but as we know, gluten can cause the intestinal lining to become permeable to gluten peptides, causing immune reactions in the gut.
I believe that humans are able to become addicted to these substances. The process often starts in childhood, when kids are rewarded with candy when they behave well, contributing to psychological dependency.
Judging from the above studies and personal experience, it is highly likely that junk food causes addiction in the brain of many people, causing them to become unable to change their diet despite wanting to.