Are foods really as addictive as alcohol?

Many people will claim to be chocoholics or sugar addicts... but can we really be addicted to food?

A new study has suggested that not only are some foods addictive, but they can actually be just as addictive as alcohol and almost as addictive as some drugs.

Yes, really.

In a recent episode of The Quicky, host Claire Murphy spoke with an obesity expert and looked at why there are some foods we simply feel like we can't live without.

Watch: The scientific cause of sex addiction. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

Recent data shows Australians are estimated to make 51.5 million visits to fast-food chains every month, investing up to 32 per cent of their household food budget on eating out. 

Which is... huge.

But while we spend more money on foods that are high in salt, fat and sugar, could we also be feeding an addiction?

A 2023 report published in the British Medical Journal found that some foods were just as addictive as alcohol and only slightly less addictive than tobacco. 


The study analysed addictive potential of some foods and found that while alcohol's addictive potential level is 14 per cent and tobacco is 18 per cent, some foods came in at 14 per cent for adults and 12 per cent for children. 

Meaning? For adults, food sits at the same additivity level alcohol.

The type of foods driving these addictions are ultra-processed foods, high in refined carbohydrates and added fats. Think obvious things like chocolate, pizzas, burgers, chips - pretty much anything with high sugar and high fat content. 

As Murphy explained, "They're cheap to make, cheap to buy and have a long shelf-life. They also make their producers a lot of money, so they can afford to aggressively market the product to us on various platforms."

"These types of foods can play a role in our behaviours when it comes to consumption, meaning we eat more of it, we get cravings for it, and we keep on eating it even if we know it's causing us health issues."

So what are these foods actually doing to us? And how do we break out of the addiction cycle? 

As an obesity expert at Monash University, Professor Michael Crawley, told The Quicky, craving is dictated by a part of the brain called the mesolimbic system. Sounds complex, but as he explains, people often call this system the 'reward pathways'. 


"The phrase 'reward pathways' is a little bit of a misnomer because this pathway in the brain doesn't actually encode reward or pleasure. It encodes something that we call salience, which is probably best described as importance."

"Compulsions form when we assign importance to things that are disproportionate to our need for them. And this pathway has an important basis in evolutionary history because it drives organisms and people to do things that are important for their survival."


As Professor Crowley explained, it's the same pathway that ensures our survival and compels us to procreate, to eat to survive, to keep away from tigers, etc. etc.

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However, this pathway can also be hijacked by, for example, drug abuse. 

This is where some of the controversy around the recent research comes in. Professor Crawley told The Quicky there really isn't enough evidence to support the belief that highly refined foods are as 'compelling' as alcohol.

"Data suggests that highly desirable foods do stimulate the release of dopamine in people who really like those foods," he said. "But the rate of that dopamine release is much lower than you get with, say, exposing a cocaine user to cocaine. It's about 1000-fold less addictive," he told Murphy.


"Eating food is necessary for survival. Just like you'd never say, 'I'm addicted to breathing' - it's necessary for survival. You do it all the time. And if you try to stop, your body makes you do it. That's different to an addiction to opioids."

"I think we run the risk of trivializing real addictions which require medical therapy and can be life-threatening, by calling a strong desire for chocolate, for example, an 'addiction'. 

This is not to suggest these foods might not be bad or that the food industry doesn't aggressively market things that are not good for us, said Professor Crawley. Because they do - and it's an area that is highly unregulated.

"But I don't believe that people would commit crimes, risking life and limb for a donut, even if they really, really like donuts. To my mind, it's just not the same."

As Murphy points out, for many low-income Australians, especially during this cost-of-living crisis, healthy foods are not as accessible as highly processed foods. 

Meanwhile, the rate of obesity in Australia has quadrupled in the past 40 years. And these ultra-processed foods aren't going to magically stop being high in salt, sugar and fat. 

So what do we do about it?

"It's clearly a place for government to regulate," said Professor Crawley. "The reason these foods are compelling is because things like salt, sugar and fat, are all signals of higher-density nutrition. When we evolved in an environment where calories were really hard to come by, because you had to fight the tigers to get your calories, anytime you found them, you wanted to incentivize consuming them." 


"This brain pathway evolved to encourage us to eat as much of it as we could because we didn't know when the next meal was coming. The problem now is, of course, we live in a world where it's not hard to find nutrition, it's hard to avoid that nutrition."

Meaning? The importance of these foods is disproportionate to our need for them. "This is a problem because we're incentivized to over-consume things that are bad for us," said Professor Crawley.

"I think what we need to do is to educate people better about appropriate dietary choices, recognizing that it's okay to enjoy things occasionally."

"It has to go hand in glove with better education for the public so they can make better choices and recognise that they have a choice. Because I think people get upset when we try to demonize things. Imagine a future where you can't fry your potatoes at home because fried foods are 'bad'!"

No, thank you.

What do you think about food as an 'addiction'? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty.

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