Does Fast Food Have Addictive Chemicals?

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A juicy hamburger smothered in cheese along with a bag of hot crisp fries. Add in a supersize soda, and you have the perfect fast food meal. It’s a combo designed to keep you coming back for more. And many people do, hooked by the combination of fats, sugars and sodium that can make fast food not just an occasional treat, but also a true addiction no different from an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

Studies on obesity and food addiction, as well as marketing research done by food manufacturers, reveal that the tasty ingredients so common in fast food, combined with marketing designed to push emotional buttons, can create both a physical and emotional addiction that plays a major role in the growing epidemic of obesity in the US and other parts of the world. And as with any other kind of addiction, kicking an addiction to fast – or any other kind – of food calls for more than just willpower alone.

Is Food Addiction Real?

It can be hard to believe that food can be an addictive substance. Not everyone will have occasion to become addicted to alcohol or drugs, but everyone needs to eat. Besides simply providing energy for the body to function, food has a host of pleasurable associations: tastes, smells, and the companionship and connection that comes from making and sharing meals with others.

But those pleasurable aspects of food are also responsible for turning simple enjoyment of food into something darker: eating disorders, obesity and addiction. Food addiction, like addictions to other substances, has both physical and emotional aspects.

Dopamine is a powerful brain chemical, often called the “feel good’ chemical for the role it plays in the brain’s pleasure and reward system. Substances like alcohol, street drugs such as heroin, and prescription medications become addictive because they trigger the release of dopamine. When dopamine is released, it sends a strong signal to seek out that particular event or experience again and again.

But over time, the brain becomes desensitized to the release of those pleasurable chemicals, so that more and more of the trigger substance is needed to get the same feeling. And recent research reveals that for many people, certain types of foods contain ingredients that are as capable of triggering pleasure and reward responses as alcohol or drugs.

Diagnosing a Food Addiction

People with a food addiction typically show the same, or similar, symptoms as someone with a drug addiction According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM, the standard tool for diagnosing a wide range of behavioral disorders, the 5 diagnostic symptoms of substance abuse include:

1. Tolerance for the addictive substance

The brain and body develop a tolerance over time for an addictive substance, which results in a user needing higher and higher amounts of that substance to get the same feelings. Over time, food addicts often need to eat larger and larger quantities of an addictive food to feel the same way they did at the beginning.

2. Withdrawal from the addictive substance

When the substance of choice is not available or the user chooses not to have it, withdrawal sets in. Food addicts can experience withdrawal too, with symptoms such as headaches, mood changes, and anxiety if the addictive foods aren’t available.

3. Using more of the substance or for longer periods of time than intended

The potato chip slogan says, “Bet you can’t eat just one,” and food addicts typically can’t. They may find that they have consumed far more of an addictive food than they expected or meant to do – or they continued to eat the food over an unusually long time period.

4. A persistent wish to stop or cut down on using the substance

Just as a substance abuser may try to stop using drugs or alcohol, so might a food addict who recognizes the harm but can’t break the addiction.

5. Spending excessive time trying to get the substance, or in recovering from using it

People with addictions to food as well as drugs spend considerable time planning and working to get the substance of choice – and they may require time to feel normal again after using it.

6. Giving up other social or professional activities in favor of using the substance

People with food addictions may avoid other people or activities they once enjoyed, in order to eat an addictive food in private or find ways to get it.

Along with these symptoms, other indications of a food addiction can include:

  • Taking extreme measures like purging with laxatives or emetics to avoid gaining weight after eating an addictive food
  • Feeling anxious when the addictive foods aren’t available
  • Being unable to stop once you start eating the food
  • Feeling overweight but being unable to change an eating pattern
  • Hiding, hoarding or stealing addictive foods
  • Feeling guilty or depressed about eating
  • Concealing eating from other people

Like other kinds of addiction, food addictions can affect a person’s personal and professional life, and cause both physical and emotional damage. Food addictions contribute to bulimia and obesity  – and new studies reveal that fast food may be a driving factor in most food addictions, thanks to their near-perfect combination of high palatability, convenience and emotional satisfaction.

What’s Behind the Fast Food Fix?

Whether they come from McDonalds, Burger King or some other kind of chain, the foods we typically call “fast foods” share a set of core features. Aside from a few “healthier” alternatives on the menu, they tend to be:

  • High in fat. Fast foods are “energy dense,” which means they pack a lot of calories in a single serving. Those calories tend to come from heavy concentrations of protein and potentially harmful saturated and trans fats.
  • High in sugars. Many fast foods –even French fries — and associated condiments contain sugar, and sweetened sodas usually accompany most orders. But the sugar they usually contain is not simple table sugar, but high fructose corn syrup, a cheap and intensely sweet ingredient that can disrupt the body’s insulin responses, so that the brain doesn’t get the message of satiety after eating.
  • High in sodium. Some fast food dishes can contain an entire day’s allowance of salt – and just about every item on the menu other than desserts typically contains a hefty dose of sodium, which can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure.
  • High in refined carbohydrates. Carbs are essential for health, but fast food meals contain many refined low fiber ones such as white bread, French fries, crackers and cookies. These kinds of carbohydrates trigger the body’s insulin levels to spike and then fall rapidly. High fiber foods digest more slowly and can keep insulin levels more stable over time.

All these ingredients have one thing in common: they make foods highly palatable. And highly palatable foods can be powerful triggers for the brain’s pleasure-reward circuits. These ingredients taste good and feel good in the mouth, so they prompt the release of dopamine, causing cravings for more. This cycle creates new pathways in the brain that make the addiction even harder to break.

Fast Food Also Creates An Emotional Addiction

As if the addictive ingredients in fast food weren’t enough to cause dependency and addiction, advertising and marketing help to foster addiction on an emotional level too.

Food manufacturers work hard to create powerful emotional associations with their products – and fast food chains are no exception. Everything from advertising slogans to the décor in fast food outlets and the look of the menus is carefully designed to trigger warm, positive feelings that keep customers coming back. Every time they do, those feelings are reinforced, along with the physical satisfaction of the meal itself.

Even the convenience of fast food plays a role in addiction. Studies on the reward response reveal that pleasure is most intense when gratification is immediate, so a fast food meal is actually more satisfying because it’s served within minutes of your order.

Fast Food Addiction and Obesity

Over the past 30 years or so, the United States – and more recently, other parts of the world – has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of people who are either seriously overweight or morbidly obese. This “obesity epidemic” also coincides with fast food’s surge in popularity – and studies on food addiction, fast food and obesity show a clear connection.

The same ingredients in fast food that could trigger a food addiction – fat, high fructose corn syrup and other sugars, refined carbs and sodium – appear to disrupt the body’s cycle of insulin regulation.

When a person consumes large amounts of sugars or refined carbs, the pancreas must release more and more insulin in response in order to process these sugars. Over time, the central nervous system becomes insulin resistant, so that it no longer produces insulin correctly to convert food to energy. Insulin resistance inhibits the body’s production of leptin, a hormone responsible for suppressing the appetite when enough energy has been consumed.

Leptin has been called the “satiety hormone,” and it has an essential function – keeping the body’s energy intake stable relative to energy output. But artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup don’t trigger the brain’s production of leptin in the same way that natural sugars do, so those satiety signals are missed and a person can simply keep eating. Without insulin to convert food to usable energy and leptin to send the message that the stomach is full, the body continues to consume more calories than it needs. That leads to weight gain – and, if the cycle continues, potentially life threatening obesity.

Treating (Fast) Food Addictions

All these factors make it hard to resolve food addictions. Unlike other kinds of addictions, it’s not possible to “just say no” to food. But the chemicals in fast food can contribute to obesity and other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Food addiction can pose a very real threat to both individuals and public health, so experts in addiction medicine have been studying ways to treat it.

Some aspects of substance abuse treatment can also be helpful for treating food addiction. Therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, solution focused therapy and other “talk therapies” can help people with food addictions discover the hidden factors that can trigger eating disorders and addictive behaviors. With the help of individual and group counseling, people with food addictions and eating disorders can learn to make healthier choices in food and modify behaviors that contribute to the addiction.

Medications for depression and anxiety can also help curb the urge to overeat, especially during stressful times. And because complete abstinence isn’t an option for food addicts, nutritional counseling and healthier diet plans can re-regulate the body’s responses to food and help people learn to avoid fast food in favor of healthier choices. For food addicts, recovery means re-thinking their whole relationship to food – and dealing with the presence of triggers everywhere in daily life.

Addictions to fast food and other kinds of eating disorders can be treated in both inpatient and outpatient settings, and a combination of individually tailored therapies can help address the multifaceted nature of food addictions. Like inpatient care for substance abusers, inpatient eating disorder programs can provide intensive therapy that can be especially helpful for people whose addictions have led to chronic health problems, or who have co-occurring substance abuse issues or mental health conditions such as depression.

Outpatient treatment programs can include peer group support as well as individual counseling to address the emotional side of food addictions and eating disorders. People whose food addictions have led to obesity might also need medical support and fitness coaching for safe weight loss.

Food addiction and obesity can have many causes – but fast food is a key contributor to both conditions. Thanks to clever marketing and brain-pleasing ingredients like fat and sugars, that tasty burger and fries may turn out to be as addictive as heroin or cocaine.