If you've ever tried to cut back on junk food, you may have realized that it’s easier said than done.
People tend to get cravings when the brain starts calling for these foods.
Even though people’s rational, conscious mind "knows" that they are unhealthy, some other part of the brain seems to disagree.
Some people don't have this problem and can easily control the types of foods they eat, while others don't seem to have any control whatsoever.
If you are one of these people, despite your best intentions, you may repeatedly find yourself eating unhealthy foods, even when you have previously decided not to eat them.
Though you might think this is caused by a lack of willpower, the situation can be much more complicated than that.
The fact is junk foods stimulate the reward system in the brain in the same way as abusive drugs like cocaine.
For susceptible people, eating junk foods can lead to full-blown addiction, which shares the same biological basis as addiction to abusive drugs (1).
There is a system in your brain called the reward system.
This system was designed to "reward" you when doing things that encourage your survival. This includes primal behaviors like eating (2).
The brain knows that when you eat, you're doing something "right," and it releases a bunch of feel-good chemicals in the reward system.
These chemicals include the neurotransmitter dopamine, which your brain interprets as pleasure. The brain is hardwired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine in the reward system.
Whereas eating an apple or piece of steak might cause a moderate release of dopamine, eating a Ben & Jerry's ice cream is so incredibly rewarding that it releases a massive amount.
Summary Eating junk food causes a release of dopamine in the brain. This reward encourages susceptible individuals to eat more unhealthy foods.
When you repeatedly do something that releases dopamine in the reward system, such as smoking a cigarette or eating a Snickers bar, your dopamine receptors can start to down-regulate.
When the brain sees that the amount of dopamine is too high, it begins removing dopamine receptors to keep things balanced.
When you have fewer receptors, you need more dopamine to reach the same effect, which causes people to start eating more junk food to reach the same level of reward as before. This is called tolerance.
If you have fewer dopamine receptors, you will have very little dopamine activity and start to feel unhappy when you don't get your junk food "fix." This is called withdrawal.
Tolerance and withdrawal are the hallmarks of physical addiction.
Of course, all of this is a drastic oversimplification, but this is basically how food addiction (and any addiction) works.
This can lead to various characteristic effects on behavior and thought patterns.
Summary Frequent consumption of junk food may lead to dopamine tolerance. This means that you will have to eat even more junk food to avoid going into withdrawal.
A craving is an emotional state, a desire to consume a certain food. It should not be confused with simple hunger, which is different.
Cravings sometimes seem to appear out of thin air.
You might be doing mundane things like watching your favorite TV show, walking the dog or reading. Then suddenly a craving for something like ice cream appears.
Even though the cravings sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, they can also be turned on by certain triggers, known as cues.
These cues can be as simple as walking past an ice cream parlor or smelling a pizza.
But they can also be turned on by certain emotional states, such as feeling depressed or lonely, a behavior known as emotional eating.
A true craving is about satisfying the brain's need for dopamine. It has nothing to with the body's need for energy or nourishment.
When a craving occurs, it can start to dominate your attention.
A craving makes it hard to think of something else. It also makes it hard to understand how on earth eating junk food could be bad for you.
It isn't unusual to get cravings, most people do get them in some form.
But if you find yourself repeatedly giving in to cravings and eating junk foods, despite having previously made a decision not to, that's definitely cause for concern.
For food addicts, these cravings can be so powerful that they cause people to break rules they set for themselves, such as only eating unhealthy foods on Saturdays.
In fact, they constantly overeat, despite knowing that it’s causing physical harm.
Summary If you regularly give in to cravings for junk food, you may be experiencing food addiction or emotional eating.
When you give in to cravings, you get your reward — a feeling of pleasure associated with the release of dopamine. The reward is what cravings and food addiction are all about.
People with food addiction get their “fix” by eating a particular food until their brain has received all of the dopamine it was missing.
The more often you repeat this cycle of craving and rewarding yourself, the stronger it becomes and the more food you need each time (5).
While four scoops of ice cream were enough three years ago, today you may need eight scoops to experience the same level of reward.
It can be almost impossible to eat in moderation when you are satisfying an addiction-driven craving.
That's why it’s hopeless for people to just have a small slice of cake or a few M&M's. It's like telling a smoker to only smoke one-fourth of a cigarette to cut back. It simply does not work.
Summary Cravings and food addiction promote overeating, binging and obesity.
Over time, food addiction can cause severe physical and psychological problems.
Many people who have been struggling with food addiction for a long time keep their eating habits a secret. They can also suffer from depression and have a severely broken self-esteem.
This is compounded by the fact that most people don't even realize that they're addicted to food and simply think that they're weak and undisciplined.
Summary People experiencing food addiction often hide their behavior from friends and family. Depression and low self-esteem seem to play a role.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to addiction. There is no supplement, mental trick or magical remedy out there.
While some people may need to learn how to control their consumption, it may be best for others to avoid these foods completely. If you struggle with food addiction, it may be best to seek professional help.
Psychiatrists and psychologists can help. There are also organizations like OA (Overeaters Anonymous), which anyone can join for free.
Binge eating disorder, which is associated with food addiction, is currently classified as an eating disorder in the DSM-V, the official manual that mental health professionals use to define mental disorders.
You can find some more info about food addiction treatment on this page.