In her clinical practice, Dr. Gearhardt encountered patients – some obese and others not – struggling in vain to control their intake of highly processed foods. Some try to eat them in moderation only to find that they lose control and eat so far that they feel sick and distraught. Many of their patients find that despite having uncontrolled diabetes, excessive weight gain, and other health problems, they cannot quit these foods.
"The noticeable thing is that my clients are almost always aware of the negative effects of their highly processed food consumption and have typically tried dozens of strategies like crash diets and detergents to control their relationship with these foods." She said. "While these attempts might work for a short time, they almost always lead to relapses."
But Dr. Hebebrand denies the idea that all food is addictive. While potato chips and pizza may seem irresistible to some, he argues that they don't cause an altered state of mind, a hallmark of addictive substances. For example, smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine, or drinking heroin instantly makes the brain feel like food doesn't, he says.
"You can take any addictive drug, and it's always the same story that almost everyone has an altered state of mind after taking it," said Dr. Lifting fire. “This indicates that the substance has an impact on your central nervous system. But we all consume highly processed foods and none of us experience this altered state of mind because there is no direct hit of a substance in the brain. "
With substance use disorders, people depend on a certain chemical that acts on the brain, like the nicotine in cigarettes or the ethanol in wine and liquor. They first look for this chemical to get high and then become dependent on it to relieve depressed and negative emotions. But there is no compound in highly processed foods that can be found to be addicting, said Dr. Lifting fire. In fact, the evidence suggests that obese people who overeat tend to consume a wide range of foods with different textures, flavors, and compositions. Dr. Hebebrand argued that overeating is due in part to the fact that the food industry markets more than 20,000 new products each year and gives people access to a seemingly endless variety of foods and beverages.
"It is the variety of foods that is so attractive and that causes the problem, not a single substance in those foods," he added.
Those who argue against food addiction also point out that most people consume highly processed foods on a daily basis without showing any signs of addiction. Dr. Gearhardt notes, however, that addictive substances do not appeal to everyone who uses them. Research has shown that around two thirds of people who smoke cigarettes become addicted and one third do not. Only about 21 percent of people who use cocaine in their lifetime will become addicted, while only 23 percent of people who drink alcohol will develop addiction to it. Studies suggest that a variety of factors determine whether people become addicted, including their genetics, family history, trauma exposure, and environmental and socioeconomic backgrounds.