March 19, 2018
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Is junk food addictive?

Dr. Michael Noonan
By Dr. Michael Noonan, Special to the BDN

One of the most important dietary changes I recommend for patients is to get off the “junk food.” I have noticed this change is fairly easy for some people, but almost impossible for others. Some patients seem positively addicted.

I have seen patients make a clean break from junk food for a few months. It is difficult at first but it gets easier after a while. They begin to feel better, have more energy, perhaps lose some weight. Their newfound energy allows them to begin a simple exercise program; we usually start them off with walking. Everything is going well.

Then come the holidays.

During the holidays, we are all expected to “pig out” and eat more than we need, especially foods high in sugar and refined fats. Cookies, pies, cakes, and sugary drinks are pushed at us from all directions. Some cooks are a little insulted when we try to politely refuse. “Come on, you can start your diet again after the holidays!”

And for most people, that works. We overeat, then recover and after a few days our diets are better again. But for many folks, it isn’t that simple. Eating these foods, especially in great quantity, sets off cravings for more, and these cravings can be very difficult to resist. Some patients are unable to shake their cravings and resume healthy eating again for several months after a holiday binge. The junk food seems to actually affect their brains, weakening their willpower, even causing depression for some.

Not everyone agrees that junk food can be addictive. In a recent interview, Joan Blake, who teaches nutrition at Boston University and is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, stated, “There are no bad foods, but there are bad diets. Consuming certain foods is fine as long as they are consumed in moderation and not all the time. To enjoy these things occasionally is reasonable. That’s kind of balance we need to aim for.”

I agree that they are certainly not addictive for everyone. But for some, the addiction is very strong.

Dr. David Kessler, former head of the FDA and author of “The End of Overeating,” implicates foods high in salt, sugar, and processed fats as being addictive. Healthy fats are not addictive, but processed ones are, especially trans fats. Dr. Kessler reviews a study where rats that were offered high-fat, sugary foods showed signs of addiction almost equal to that of cocaine.


The lead author of the study, Dr. Paul Kenny, commented, “In the study, the animals completely lost control over their eating behavior, the primary hallmark of addiction. They continued to overeat even when they anticipated receiving electric shocks, highlighting just how motivated they were to consume the palatable food.” When the junk foods were removed, and healthy options were offered, the rats simply refused to eat for two weeks.

Studies have shown sugar to have potent effects on brain chemistry, affecting the dopamine receptors associated with mood and addiction. Some researchers go so far as to call it a drug.

Because of this, I do not recommend most patients use the “eat all foods in moderation” idea. If a food is addictive for you, best to avoid it completely. For many, just the idea that junk food can be addictive, and have such an effect on their overall mood and energy, is new to them. They have to be away from it for a while to realize the difference. But it is very helpful information if you intend to kick the habit and improve your health.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at


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