Are Certain Foods Really Addictive?

Whether you're constantly craving chocolate or have an uncontrollable urge for French fries, you probably think your food impulses are simply the result of hunger, boredom, or a lack of willpower. And some experts would agree—ultimately, you're in control of what you're eating. But according to others, certain foods may be as addictive as drugs.

A 2002 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory found that the mere sight or smell of food spikes levels of dopamine, the brain's pleasure chemical. In a 2003 Princeton University study, rats fed a diet of 25 percent sugar exhibited withdrawal-like symptoms when the sugar was removed. And a 2007 report by Drexel University researchers concluded that the overabundance of food in some societies may create a form of appetitive drive similar to that produced by drug use and compulsive gambling.

Addiction or Overindulgence?

Still, many experts remain skeptical about the addiction claims. Overeating, they argue, is primarily a psychological and behavioral issue. Even those who concede that certain foods have addictive qualities are quick to point out that true addiction, such as drug addiction, is a much stronger compulsion than feelings about food.

According to researchers at Penn State, a substance is considered addictive in medical terms if it:

  • induces a pleasant state or relieves distress;
  • causes long-term chemical changes in the brain;
  • leads to adaptive changes in the brain that trigger tolerance, physical dependence, and uncontrollable cravings; and
  • causes dependence, so that abstaining is difficult, and creates severe physical and mental reactions.

3 Common Culprits

While experts continue to debate the addictiveness of foods, the following three treats are considered among the hardest to resist:


  • Chocolate

    According to researchers at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research in Madrid, chocolate bars contain a group of alkaloids known as tetrahydro-beta-carbolines, the same compounds found in alcohol. But other experts are quick to point out that any potentially addictive ingredients in chocolate are pharmacologically significant, meaning that "chocoholics" are simply tempted by the candy's sweetness, texture, and aroma.

  • Sugar

    The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) maintains that your body can't tell the difference between the sugar in a piece of fruit, like an apple, and table sugar. Therefore, while people may crave or enjoy sweet foods, the EUFIC says that it's highly unlikely a person would ever actually need larger and larger portions to meet needs or suffer physical withdrawal if sugar becomes unavailable.

  • Coffee

    Many Americans can't seem to get going in the morning without a cup of coffee. But according to the American Beverage Association, people who eat foods or drink beverages containing caffeine can control and moderate their intake. Nevertheless, caffeine is considered a mild stimulant, so after quitting, people may experience side effects, such as headaches, that tend to go away after a few days.