Have you ever wanted to stop eating but just couldn’t? Maybe you weren’t even hungry, but then someone offered you a French fry and suddenly the entire carton was gone? While we often joke about certain foods being more addictive than crack, it isn’t so far from the truth. A food addiction is an actual thing.

Addiction is defined as repeating the same behaviour in order to achieve a reward, no matter what the consequences might be. As we probably all learned during the substance abuse lectures in middle school, drugs are addictive in nature.

Drugs potentiate the action of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward-related behaviour. In simple terms, when we do drugs, the increased action of dopamine makes us feel good. This rewards the behaviour and makes us more likely to repeat it.

If this cycle continues enough, the levels of dopamine in our brain begin to decline, requiring an even greater amount of drug to achieve the same “high."

So what does this have to do with food? Eating food is usually considered a pleasurable activity, and in most individuals, food consumption results in dopamine release. However, not all foods are created equal in their addictive nature. A scientific study has proposed that highly-processed foods may share similarities with certain drugs of abuse when it comes to their action in the body.

This study surveyed 120 university students, asking them about their consumption habits of certain foods. The researchers then analyzed these foods based on nutritional content. Not surprisingly, chocolate, ice cream, French fries, pizza and cookies were at the top of list. But what makes these foods more addictive than broccoli or cucumbers? Processed fats and refined sugars, which are present in copious amounts.

Fat and sugar act through the same reward pathway as your run-of-the-mill street drugs, creating feelings of happiness and euphoria by super-charging dopamine. In fact, several studies have shown that sugar may be more addictive than cocaine. 

While most of us can indulge without going overboard, individual differences in the reward pathway may also predispose some to food addiction. And the ever-growing list of foods with added sugar sure isn’t helping.

The next time someone offers you a piece of candy-crack, it's okay to stand up to the peer pressure and “just say no."