Until recently, it was just a cute potato chip slogan, “you can’t eat just one” But in this age of food addiction and obesity, it also points to the ability of large food manufactures to make their foods virtually irresistible and literally addictive with scientific precision.
High-reward foods like soda, French fries, hamburgers, and ice cream have much higher concentrations of fat, sugar, sodium, and simple carbohydrates than natural food. This turbocharges taste, decreases nutritional density, and increases caloric density. This tasty, empty, caloric food bypasses the body’s natural impulse toward satiety during a meal.  That’s why you really can’t eat just one. It stimulates the reward centers of the brain to the point that we keep eating and eating well beyond our caloric needs. With whole foods, on the other hand, we naturally reach a point of satiety–a point when we don’t feel like eating anymore.
Tasting (or smelling, or even seeing) foods with exaggerated concentrations of high-reward ingredients can trigger the production of the hormone grehlin, which in turn overstimulates a specific reward center in the brain, the nucleus accumbens. Researchers have found that hyper-stimulation of the nucleus accumbens can even impact spending patterns, making people more willing to spend money on junk food and less willing to spend money on anything else. It skews our sense of value and priorities powerfully toward junk food as our number one priority.
Like any addictive behavior, compulsive overeating can be triggered by a variety of stimuli. A recent study, for instance, found that television programming dense with junk food ads stimulates viewers’ appetites for those foods, whereas ads for healthy, whole food products do not. That’s bad news for healthy food manufacturers and bad news for consumers.
Scientists are also seeing evidence that dopamine patterns associated with overeating are similar to those involved in other addictions. The consequences of a food addiction are often just as severe as those of more notorious addictions such as those to drugs or alcohol. Physical and emotional issues associated with alcoholism include depression, anxiety, financial issues, obesity, and death. Unlike many other addictions, however, we can’t get away from food! We need to eat and, without shutting himself off from all media and having someone else do all of her shopping, the food addict simply can’t escape powerful and ubiquitous food-addiction triggers.
With some strategy and coaching, however, it is possible to wean off of an addictive diet of high-reward foods and actually cultivate a love for healthy food. With a long-term, medically supervised plan to wean off of junk food in favor of whole foods a little at a time (even mixing the two together at first), many are able to rekindle their natural–and more manageable–appetite for real food. As with any addiction, some may choose to abandon junk food “cold turkey” but are likely to meet with mixed results.
If you or a family member is showing signs of an addiction to high-reward foods you don’t have to suffer alone. There are many in-person and online support groups and resources, as well as treatment professionals with experience and training in nutrition and/or eating disorders. We recommend that you find a trusted mental health professional with eating-disorder experience to help you navigate the options.
Junk food is genuinely and dangerously addictive. But help is available.