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The famous potato chip tagline that once sounded like a fun invitation now sounds like an insidious threat.  That’s because scientists are linking high-reward foods like potato chips to obesity, type 2 diabetes, food addictions, depression, anxiety, and death.  The “you can’t eat just one” slogan ironically points out the fact that large food manufactures now have the science to make their products virtually irresistible and literally addictive.

When we eat the kind of natural, whole foods we gradually move from interest (appetite) to disinterest (satiety) as we progress through a meal.  That process of increasing satiety that occurs when eating is one of our body’s natural mechanisms for maintaining proper body weight and health, but it’s a process that requires the kind of food we were designed to consume—minimally processed, natural, “real” food.  Our access to high-reward foods increased to the point of ubiquity during the 1970s and 1980s, the beginning of today’s obesity epidemic.

High-reward foods like soda, chips, and fast food have much higher concentrations of fat, sugar, sodium, and simple carbohydrates than natural food.  This turbocharges taste, decreases nutrient value, and concentrates caloric density, bypassing the body’s natural impulse toward satiety.   It stimulate the reward centers of the brain to the point that we just can’t seem to stop eating!

Tasting (or smelling, or even seeing) foods with exaggerated concentrations of high-reward ingredients can trigger the production of the hormone grehlin, which in turn overstimulates a specific reward center in the brain—the nucleus accumbens.   Researchers have found that hyper-stimulation of the nucleus accumbens can even impact our financial relationship with food, making us more willing to spend money on junk food and less willing to spend money on anything else.  It skews our sense of value and priorities powerfully toward junk food as our number one priority.

Like any addictive behavior, compulsive overeating can be triggered by a variety of stimuli.  A recent study, for instance, found that television programming dense with junk food ads stimulates viewers’ appetites for those foods, whereas ads for healthy, whole-food products do not.

Scientists are also seeing evidence that dopamine patterns associated with overeating are similar to those involved in other addictions.  The consequences of a food addiction, in many cases, are just as severe as those of any other addiction.  Physical and emotional issues associated with food addiction include depression, anxiety, financial issues, obesity, and death.  Unlike many other addictions, however, we can’t get away from food!  We need to eat and, unless we shut ourselves off from all media and have someone else do all of our shopping, the food addict simply can’t escape powerful food addiction triggers.

With some strategy and coaching, however, it is possible to wean off of an addictive diet of high-reward foods and cultivate a healthy love for real food.  With a long-term, medically supervised plan to wean off of junk food in favor of whole foods a little at a time (even mixing the two together at first), many are able to rekindle an appetite for and enjoyment of real food.  As with any addiction, some may choose to abandon junk food “cold turkey” but are likely to meet with mixed results.

If you or a family member is showing signs of an addiction to high-reward foods you don’t have to suffer alone.  There are many in-person and online support groups and resources, as well as treatment professionals with experience and training in nutrition and/or eating disorders.   We recommend that you find a trusted mental health professional with eating-disorder experience to help you navigate the options.

Junk food is genuinely and dangerously addictive.  But help is available.