Food addictive? A little more.

A few days ago Jason Schwartz published a very interesting piece on Recovery Review titled “Food addictive?” It’s a brief and interesting read. In his post he embedded the 30 minute interview that inspired him to write that piece. The interview is well worth a listen.

In short, Jason found the argument that food can be an addiction quite compelling. At the end of his post he said he would be interested in any counterarguments. That is to say, he indicated he would be interested in reasoning against the author’s assertions that were in favor of the existence of “food addiction”.

I decided to do some thinking as Jason requested, and share a little more.

Below are some things to consider against the notion of “food addiction“.

  1. Overall, eating among humans is A) an obligated behavior with B) a central mechanism.
  • That is to say, we cannot not eat.
  • And the physiological mechanisms of eating are literally hard-wired within us for the very behavior of eating.

Substance addiction is not like that per se. For example, survival of our species does not rely on smoking crack, nor are we physically built as a species literally for the central purpose of smoking crack.

Thus, the disorder the author describes is a kind of eating disorder, not addiction per se. The author describes a literally different kind of disorder, albeit with some features similar to addiction.

2. By extension of #1 above, hunger for food is literally not “craving” per se. Hunger for food and craving for substances are different phenomena.  And “satiety” is an umbrella term with categorically different sub-sets, such as:

  • eating-related satisfaction that is a normal physiological operation upon eating to sufficiency; and
  • removal of the aversive urge or desire to use a substance that, when accomplished, does not satisfy a pre-existing and intrinsically hard-wired survival mechanism per se.

The author argues that craving and satiety are the same in “food addiction” and “substance addiction”.

But the cycles of craving and satiety in food addiction would necessarily include both:

  • the in-born survival-based phenomena of hunger and satisfaction everyone experiences every day, and
  • the mechanisms and experiences of chemical addiction if the author is correct.

Experientially those are different by definition. And chemical addiction does not operate in that way, involving both. Thus, the author describes a kind of eating disorder per se, not addiction per se.

3. Beverages that contain alcohol are in fact beverages. One experiences an addiction in the conventional way of understanding “chemical addiction” when addicted to alcohol. This illuminates a difference between chemical addiction and the author’s claim of food addiction as being the same as a chemical addiction.

  • Fats, sugars, and so forth, as the author claims, are the chemicals or molecules within foods that hold the addiction potential.
  • By contrast, our species does not live or die based on drinking a beer or not drinking a beer.

If the author’s claims are correct, the author should show that addiction to beer is a food addiction and also show us an instance of addiction to fat or sugar per se – rather than argue about one having an addiction to the vague category of “food”.

2 thoughts on “Food addictive? A little more.

  1. I think you’re getting at some of the important questions.

    I don’t think she’s arguing that a vague category of food should be considered addictive, rather that some highly processed foods should be thought of as highly refined substances engineered for their reward-inducing properties.

    I see her acknowledging that eating is obligatory behavior and that some highly processed and engineered foods coopt our survival mechanisms. To me, this is central to the experience of addiction. Of course, drug addiction coopts these mechanisms for a category of substances that are completely unnecessary.

    As you know, I believe there are several mechanisms involved in drug addiction and that variation in addiction course and severity are likely associated with some cases of addiction (the most severe) involving all of those mechanisms, some cases of addiction involving fewer of these mechanisms, and other people with lower severity SUDs (not addiction) having fewer still. So… in my mind, some cases not experiencing all of those mechanisms doesn’t necessarily disqualify them in my mind. However, it does invite questions about which mechanisms might be considered essential to addiction.

    Like other substances accepted as addictive, I don’t think she’s suggesting that these highly engineered foods are universally addictive, rather that some minority will develop addictions.

    Interestingly, in the interview, she does discuss our “national binge” where fermented beverages were essential due to lack of access of clean water.

    While I find her persuasive, I’m still concerned about the boundaries practically and empirically. Many things could be considered highly engineered for reward responses – porn, social media, gambling, shopping, etc.


  2. Interesting about the specifics of chemicals in foods rather than the category as vague. Makes me think about food-drug interactions, and that our body only knows chemical as chemicals, rather than differentiating them by their source.

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