Is your food addictive?

As the nation’s waistlines continue to increase, it is hardly surprising that concern about obesity is reaching fever pitch amongst health care professionals, politicians and the media.  

Behind the rhetoric there is a serious health problem that is spiraling out of control with no sign of abating anytime soon. It is now estimated that around 60% of adults and around 30% of children are either overweight or obese. Obesity rates have increased so quickly and become such a serious problem that it is now considered a greater threat to the nation’s health than smoking. The health problems associated with being overweight or obese are costing the NHS more than £5 billion annually, and this is now considered to be one of the biggest time bombs facing the government, second only to global warming.

But how exactly have we all become so fat so fast? Has the entire world just become increasingly lazy and greedier over night?

Obesity is clearly a complex disorder that is influenced by a host of biological and environmental mechanisms. But whatever the underlying cause, the general consensus until now has been that it has ultimately been self-inflicted, and the advice to manage our weight has been to make healthy lifestyle choices by eating less and doing more exercise.

But although no one can argue that this isn’t good advice, so far it hasn’t reversed or even slowed down an epidemic that is now out of control across the globe.

The seeming ineffectiveness of this kind of advice has prompted many to start looking beyond what we have previously known about excessive eating and weight loss. Many researchers are now starting to ask whether the foods we love to eat so much might have a role to play in excessive weight gain by triggering the same kinds of biological responses seen in addictions to substances like nicotine, caffeine, alcohol and drugs.

But to suggest that any type of food could be addictive is still highly controversial, and has been met with strong opposition from those within the food industry. This is partly because clinically classifying foods as being addictive has massive legal implication - remember what happened in the mid 1980’s to the tobacco companies - and partly because there is still no consensus as to the cause of addictive disorders.

However, overeating does seem to share many of the behavioral mechanisms associated with addiction, including cravings, loss of control and continued use despite bad consequences. But this could all be put down to simple biological drives that have evolved over millennia.

Our 10,000 taste buds naturally find densely caloric foods highly appealing as they are an essential source of fuel for the body and we have developed biological drives to ensure that we seek them out.

These kinds of energy rich foods were once extremely rare and consuming them lights up neural pathways and reward centres of the brain, signalling that our energetic needs are being meet. Having these foods meant that it was a time of feast rather than famine – little wonder that their consumption led to feelings of reassurance and that we still call them comfort foods today.

In many ways the working of the brain has changed very little in the past millennia, however what has clearly changed is that we’ve evolved to a point where we now have a convenience store on every corner. Food is more plentiful than at any other time in the history of the planet and is never far away at either day or night. This means that highly palatable foods are now free to play havoc on our primal instincts, leaving us helpless over our cravings and any rational understanding of when to stop. 

The food companies that employ thousands of research and development scientists are clearly aware of this basic biology. The question being asked now is whether or not these large corporations are willing to exploit our biological drives in order to sell more products. 

Amazingly the big food and drink manufactures have artfully avoided any criticism or responsibility for the obesity crisis so far by claiming that they are simply supplying people with what they want, and that their job is to make it cheaper and of course more convenient to use.

But recently there have been numerous demands by both consumers and health experts for the big food giants to lead the way and take a greater share of the responsibility when it comes to obesity, especially when it comes to children. And the food that everyone is up in arms against are the highly processed, highly advertised convenience foods, with the largest amount of calories and little nutritional value, that have come to dominate our food aisles

In his book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Michele Moss traces the rise of the processed food industry and the strategies they use to fight one another. What he uncovers is a hard-working industry run by very bright, highly paid executives that are ingeniously developing and engineering a whole variety of foods and drinks to keep us hooked on their products. These food giants seem well aware of the negative issues surrounding their foods but are undeterred in their attempts to out-flavour competitors and turn a bigger profit.

The majority of the foods that the big food giants sell combine the three key ingredients salt, sugar and fat, which the companies’ scientists painstakingly manipulate to create what is known in the food industry as the "bliss point". This is in fact a range, rather than a point, in which the food that is being engineered, whether it’s a soft drink, flavoured crisp or pasta sauce, packs the optimum concentration of stimulating flavour - no more and no less. This sweet spot is the magical point that guarantees customers keep coming back for more.

It seems that the food industry is even more addicted to salt, sugar and fat than we are, which doesn’t bode well for the future of our food and drink. Without a doubt, more and more of the nutritional content within highly processed food is being replaced by stimulating ingredients that just make us crave more of it.  One of the problems of not getting enough nutrients from our food is that we never reach a state known as satiety – this is the moment where we feel full beyond the point of being satisfied.  

There have been many studies done on rats that show how quickly they develop physical addictions to junk food, but perhaps what is most worrying is that the more the rats eat, the more they need to consume in order to satisfy their cravings and addiction.

We of course are not rats, but most of us recognise the whole concept of a food being “moorish” -- the more you eat the hungrier you become. Often what starts off as something initially pleasurable ends up being just a need to satisfy a craving. Surely if we were to remove all the added salt, sugar and fat from highly processed food, there would be little left – and what remained would be totally inedible.

The addictive nature of our foods goes way beyond the issue of obesity as it clearly affects us all. Whether we are aware of it or not, it seems that a large percentage of our eating habits have been formed by our cravings

Our supermarket shelves have now become a battleground for food companies to gain as much share of our stomachs as possible and our health has become the biggest casualty. There is too much at stake for us to allow ourselves to become collateral damage – we have to fight back.

We need to start understanding the difference between eating from our heads and eating from our stomach. Being hungry and not knowing what you want to eat is a classic example of the need to satisfy a craving that has nothing to do with being physically hungry. We need to pay greater attention to the kind of foods we are consuming on a regular basis. This has less to do with reading food labels than with listening to or bodies.  By simply recognising the difference between eating from your head and eating from your stomach, you will not only help yourself to lead a healthier life but ultimately allow yourself to enjoy your food more.