Healthy Habits

Can Food Be Addicting?

Family dining together

Content provided by the Health & Wellness Team at GBS Benefits

From the Dietitian’s Desk
With Becca Rick, MS, RD

The term “food addiction” has been popularized in recent years. Food addiction is the idea that the food we eat can be addicting in the same way substances like drugs and alcohol can be. 

Nutrition science has come a long way. Much of the research today focuses on diet patterns in relation to the increased availability of highly processed foods and their impact on the risk of chronic disease.

The broad focus on the combination of nutrients is relevant because we do not eat single nutrients, like sugar, in isolation. Rather, nutrients are consumed in limitless combinations of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Likewise, we do not consume meals in a singular emotional state or social environment, which are two factors that also impact the body’s response to food.

The Reward Experience of Foods

Evidence shows that the reward experience we associate with highly processed, energy-dense (high-sugar, high-fat) foods can promote excessive energy intake. The consumption of energy-dense foods elicits a natural reward response via dopamine in the brain, providing motivation which has helped humans survive when access to food was not so constant. Dopamine is also released while experiencing pleasurable emotions. Examples include viewing art and listening to music, which are core human experiences.

Halloween – October 31stHalloween dates back more than 2,000 years and is a day that represents good natured fun and exciting traditions. Avoid placing guilt around this holiday by implementing mindful eating strategies. Enjoy Halloween treats alongside healthy choices.

Considering that these abstract emotions can release dopamine, there are many factors to observe around the reward response of eating food. When eating, consider emotional state, social environment, convenience, and the rituals formed around food. Two key takeaways:

  1. The emotional reward value that can be associated with sugary and fatty foods is reflected in the brain’s reward mechanisms, leading us to ignore our body’s natural fullness signals.
  2. The creation of awareness and unlocking of emotional intelligence around hunger and fullness is called intuitive eating. Intuitive eating rejects the diet mentality in favor of relying on the body’s natural self-regulation system.

In connecting with the body’s natural cues to hunger and fullness, an intuitive eater can differentiate between physical drivers to eat versus social or emotional drivers to eat.

Begin to create awareness when you eat by noticing your mood, company, the time of day, and any associations the food brings with all five senses.

Tricks or Tips

Take a look at the “trick or tip” chart below to start your life-long journey towards intuitive eating.

The kids come home with a pile of your favorite Halloween candiesMake sure you’ve had a good meal and plenty of water, then enjoy candy if you’d like. Restriction can lead to a poor relationship with food.Remember, the candy will still be here tomorrow. If you want a piece, enjoy it, and look forward to this pleasure next time too.
Snack attack: coworkers or family are snacking around youCheck in: are you also ready for a snack? If so, give yourself full permission to enjoy a snack that others are sharing, or keep a few snacks handy that satisfy you and give you energy. Try combining protein with fruit or vegetables, like hummus and carrots or a banana and peanut butter.Snacking between meals is normal – we generally need food every 4 hours or so, depending on several factors. Try to enjoy three meals and one to two snacks a day to keep your energy going.
Out to dinner at a favorite restaurantBe sure to have balanced meals during the day so you don’t arrive famished, which can lead to eating well beyond fullness.If the portion is more than you need, take home some of your meal to enjoy tomorrow, rather than feeling like you need to clean the plate.



Long CG, Blundell JE, Finlayson G. A Systematic Review of the Application And Correlates of YFAS-Diagnosed ‘Food Addiction’ in Humans: Are Eating-Related ‘Addictions’ a Cause for Concern or Empty Concepts? [published correction appears in Obes Facts. 2016;9(1):39]. Obes Facts. 2015;8(6):386-401. doi:10.1159/000442403

Markus CR, Rogers PJ, Brouns F, Schepers R. Eating dependence and weight gain; no human evidence for a ‘sugar-addiction’ model of overweight. Appetite. 2017;114:64-72. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.03.024

Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre RJ. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci. 2011;14(2):257-262. doi:10.1038/nn.2726

Schulkin J, Raglan GB. The evolution of music and human social capability. Front Neurosci. 2014;8:292. Published 2014 Sep 17. doi:10.3389/fnins.2014.00292

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