FDF supports the findings from recent scientific reviews[i] [ii]which show that the current body of evidence does not demonstrate that people
can be addicted to food, either as specific nutrients (with the exception of
caffeine) or combinations of ingredients in foods; nor that ‘food addiction’ is
responsible for the prevalence of obesity witnessed globally.
The causes of obesity are multifactorial and demonising individual ingredients
and food groups does not help consumers to build a realistic approach to their
diet. The key to good health is a balanced and varied diet in the context of a
healthy lifestyle that includes plenty of physical activity.
The theory of obesity being caused by ‘food addiction’ has been growing in
popularity recently, both in the media but also in scientific literature. There
been particular focus on the notion of sugar addiction, in part due to some
evidence of sugar dependence in rat models (where the feeding regimes were
controlled and not comparable to human feeding patterns) Given the differences
between human and rat brains (including the lack of executive control in the
decision-making process of rats), it is unclear how relevant these models are
study of human obesity or ‘food addiction’.
Recent reviews on the topic indicate that addiction to a specific nutrient (with
the exception of caffeine), does not exist in humans. A NeuroFAST report
suggested that ‘addictive-like eating behaviours’ caould be displayed towards
(with a focus on behaviour rather than specific food components) but this is a
relatively new theory.
The word addiction is commonly used and is often taken to mean little more than
people assigning a high priority to a particular activity (such as never
an episode of their favourite TV programme). Medically however, scientists no
longer use the term addiction – preferring to use ‘substance-related and
disorders’ (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition [iii](DSM-5), which is sub-divided into ‘substance-related’ and
‘non-substance-related’ disorders. They also differentiate between physical and
dependence. Currently the only ‘non-substance related disorder’ recognised
medical profession is gambling disorder.
Most of the scientific research undertaken to date on ‘food addiction’ is
based on the notion that food addiction and drug addiction share behavioural
biological traits. Two theories for the underlying mechanism of ‘food
have been put forward, and are discussed in more detail below:
Foods activate the same reward pathways in the brain as addictive drugs and
thus may be considered as addictive substances;
- ‘Food addiction’ is a behavioural phenotype seen in some obese people which
manifests itself as binge eating and this resembles the same patterns witnessed
1) Food Activates Reward Pathways
Food is essential to survival and the brain has systems in place to ensure
there is sustained motivation for eating. Dopamine is released within the brain
when food is consumed, producing sensations of pleasure and satisfaction which
encourage the behaviour of eating[iv].
Substances which have addictive properties also stimulate the release of
dopamine and for this reason, the theory has been put forward that food could
considered an addictive substance. However, dopamine release in response to
the normal response to a component essential for survival and addictive drugs
hijack these natural reward pathways.
A WHO report[v](2004) recognised that dependence-producing substances differ from conventional
reinforcers (e.g. food) in that their stimulant effects on dopamine release are
significantly greater. Food increases dopamine levels in the brain by 45%
whereas amphetamine and cocaine increase dopamine levels by 500%. In other
effect of food on dopamine release is ten times less that of these drugs. This
would therefore not support the theory of food as an addictive substance. These
findings are backed by a summary of results from neuroimaging studies which
explored altered brain responses to food-related stimuli (e.g. images) and
food stimuli in people with obesity or altered eating patterns and which showed
consistent results that could be interpreted as food addiction[i].
It has also been hypothesised that it is specifically processed foods that
are addictive because they have nutrient profiles that are not found in
naturally-occurring foods i.e. they are high in fat, sugar or salt. However,
classification of processed versus non-processed foods is very general and to
is insufficient evidence to label any food (with the exception of caffeine),
ingredients, micronutrient or combination of ingredients as addictive.
2) Obesity, Binge Eating and Addiction
A second theory which has been put forward is that the characteristic pattern of
behaviours displayed by people with substance dependencies (as defined by the
DSM-5) are similar to behaviours shown by obese people.
Whilst some criteria from the ‘substance dependency’ definition can be applied
to overeating, others, in particular tolerance and withdrawal, are not observed
in human studies of eating. Any overlap is limited and as such, a profile of
obesity which resembles a ‘substance abuse or addictive disorder’ has not
A narrower view of ‘food addiction’ in obesity is that it may represent a subset
or sub-type of individuals with binge-eating disorder (BED), which consists of
repeated binges of uncontrolled consumption of large amounts of food. However,
the presence of BED is not always accompanied by obesity; and obesity is not
always accompanied by binge-eating episodes.
NeuroFAST consensus opinion on food addiction
Researchers at NeuroFAST (the Integrated Neurobiology of Food Intake, Addiction
and Stress, a large multidisciplinary research project looking into the
neurobiological and socio-psychological causes of overeating and substance use
disorders) met in February 2013 to discuss addiction in the context of food
intake and to
develop a common consensus.
After a thorough discussion of issues related to the potential existence of food
addiction as a disorder, the research group agreed on the following consensus
- Current evidence does not allow us to conclude that a single food substance via
a single specific neurobiological mechanism (e.g. specific brain receptors or
specific neuronal pathways) can account for the fact that people overeat and
- In humans, there is no evidence that a specific food, food ingredient or food
additive causes a substance based type of addiction (the only currently known
exception is caffeine which via specific mechanisms can potentially be
Within this context we specifically point out that we do not consider alcoholic
beverages as food, despite the fact that one gram of ethanol has an energy
density of 7 kcal.
- Addictive (over)eating is clearly distinct from substance use disorders that
cause addiction via specific mechanisms (e.g. nicotine, cocaine, cannabinoids,
- An addiction-like eating behaviour may, in rare instances, be caused by
mutations in single genes which entail an elevated feeling of hunger and
The researchers also highlighted that food addiction cannot be diagnosed
according to any set of criteria which have gained general medical or
recognition with the result that the term ‘food addiction’ appears
(although a recent review[vi] postulated that certain behaviours surrounding eating could become addictive in
some individuals under specific environmental conditions – for this sub-group
the term ‘addictive-like eating behaviour’ may be more appropriate).
In summary the current body of scientific evidence does not support the
theory for physical addiction in humans to any food or specific nutrient (with
exception of caffeine); nor is there evidence that the widespread prevalence of
obesity in the UK and elsewhere can be attributed to food addiction.
Last reviewed: 17 Dec 2016
- Ziauddeen, H., Farooqi, I.S., and Fletcher, P.C. Obesity and the brain: how
convincing is the addiction model? Nat Rev Neurosci. 13, 279-286 (2012).
- Benton, D. The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and
eating disorders. Clin Nutr. 29, 288-303 (2010).
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition. (American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC, 2000).
- Barry, D. et al. Obesity and its Relationship to Addictions: Is Overeating a
Form of Addictive Behaviour? Am J Addict 18, 439-451 (2009).
- World Health Organization. Neuroscience of psychoactive substance use and
dependence. WHO, Geneva (2004).
- Hildebrand, J. et al, “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better
captures addictive-like eating behaviour (2014) Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763414002140 [Accessed 19/09/2014]