Do Foods Have You in Their Power?

Most of us try to eat healthfully. Worrying about food is kind of an American craze, but having diabetes can mean taking food obsession even farther. We have to eat the right things, or else! But some foods seem to have other plans for us. Some food is so attractive that many of us can’t resist. Is that true for you?


In my book Diabetes: Sugar-Coated Crisis, I wrote that white sugar is addictive in a similar way to cocaine. It makes you feel good for a short while. Then it drops you down lower than before, so you need another fix. I learned about this from a book called Potatoes Not Prozac. Author Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, reported how her alcoholic and drug-addicted patients recovered only after they stopped eating sugary foods.

I got a lot of criticism for this claim from people who believed you couldn’t say sugar was addictive, or even habit-forming. So I was happy to read the best-selling book The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler, MD. Kessler doesn’t use the term “addictive,” but he calls modern foods habit-forming in about a dozen different ways.

Food scientists use terms like “craveability” and “irresistibility” to describe their foods. Their marketers will frankly admit, “We’re trying to get you hooked.” They do this by making food a source of pleasure for your senses: sight, touch (“mouthfeel”), smell, even sound (sizzles and pops.) All this anticipated pleasure excites you and motivates you to buy that food. And that’s before you even get to taste it.

Reading about these foods is the fun part of Kessler’s book — kind of like watching Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network. Everything is breaded, fried, sweetened, oiled, fried again, and then has sauce poured over it. I learned some surprising things, for example, about “breaded French fries.” Who would have thought of those?

After you swallow, the sugars and fats raise your endorphin and serotonin levels. They make you feel good, especially if you were feeling tired, stressed, sad, or angry before you ate. They give you a psychological reward along with the good taste.

Kessler says that the first five or ten times you eat a food like that, you are motivated by the reward. After that, it becomes a habit. You see, smell, or feel a cue in the environment, or you have a bad experience, feeling, or thought, and your “eat that food” habit is triggered. You don’t even have to think about it; your body knows how to do it. When a food choice becomes a habit, it’s not a choice anymore. It’s automatic, and it’s hard to break.

Is This Addiction?
Does this kind of habit formation constitute an addiction? According to Wikipedia, “In medical terminology, an addiction is…characterized by one of the following: the continued use of a substance despite its detrimental effects, impaired control over the use of a drug…and preoccupation with a drug…i.e. craving the drug.” Substitute “food” for “drug,” and these words describe many people’s relationship to food. We’re in a constant fight for control.

Addiction can also bring “tolerance” of a drug, meaning you need more of it to get the same effect. Addiction also may include physical dependence, meaning you go into some kind of withdrawal if you don’t take the drug regularly. Do these things happen with foods? I think sometimes they do, although Wikipedia says they are not “defining characteristics of addiction.” Certainly, if you go too long without food, you will get some nasty withdrawal symptoms!

Kessler’s book seems to focus on the “obsession” part. If you can’t stop thinking about food, if you worry about it all the time or think about the next meal while you’re eating the current one, you have the habit.

The last section of his book talks about changing these habits. I’m not sure this section is very helpful, but I’ll discuss it next week.

I think the concept of food affecting us emotionally and creating dependence (“habit” or “addiction”) is important. I would think that having such habits interferes with diabetes management. Have you experienced anything like that? Are there particular foods or restaurants that trigger you? And if it happens, how do those experiences affect your self-management? How do they make you feel? What do they do to your blood glucose?

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  • JEFF

    I fully agree with this observation. I have said this for quite some time. Food can definitely be addictive. Of course in this capitalist society (which I fully believe in) we are influenced greatly by the professional marketers. We are programmed for this stuff. For instance, the other day I went to a movie. I had just eaten large piece of stuff crust pizza. I was full, but when I entered the theater I bought some popcorn and a drink (the drink was diet!) It was the feeling that the movie experience would not be as pleasurable without it. Must be a strong motivator for me to have bought this stuff especially at the amazingly high price I paid! It sure would be nice if we could alter these programs toward broccoli or carrots! In some ways the addiction is much the same as for drugs. Technically it is a drug addiction. The drugs your body releases to make you feel good are as addictive as any.
    Good article, Jeff

  • Susan

    Yes! Food is addictive. And not just for diabetics and / or heart disease patients. It affects many of us. My husband will not admit to an addictive personality but it is there. There are certain things that he will never turn down, i.e. a beer when offered or wine. Even if it is something he normally says he doesn’t like. Now if there is something that I really really love it and it is offered, I will take a serving but I will stop if it is taken from my sight. I don’t think about any more but leave it in front of me and I continue to nibble. I have caught my husband going thru the pantry looking for my cooking chocolates because of a “craving” for chocolate. I love ice cream too and try to buy it in the small single serving containers, so we don’t over eat. Hubby will get the last serving and gobble it and never even tell me it is all gone until I look for a snack. He hides this behavior from me too. He is addicted. He is not a diabetic but does have heart problems. I have been unable to make him understand that his addictive behavior affects me also and not in a good way. What do you do with someone that will not admit to addictive behavior? How do I protect myself for his bad habits? I know I have enough of my own without having to share his behavior. But there are just somethings that cannot be ignored. S

  • David Spero RN

    Susan, how do you change someone else’s behavior? It’s hard enough to change your own. I think you want to reward behavior similar to the ones you want him to do. Like if he eats a healthful meal, you could, without even connecting it to his diet, give him some extra kisses or a massage or something. It works with mice.

  • Sally

    Wow. I realize your blog was written a while back but while doing a search for “do foods have addictive characteristics” online, I came upon this article. I have been overweight all but about one day of my life. I have dieted. I have lost weight. I have gained it back again and again.

    Having grown up the child of an alcoholic who is now deceased, I am concerned that I “inherited” that addictive gene. I have never had a fondness for alcohol but I am a sugar addict. I would love to substitute every meal/food with anything sugar laden. I get to work and start thinking about the jelly beans on the reception desk. About 9 a.m., (within minutes of arriving for work), I’m in them. An hour later, I’m craving lunch. After lunch, I want more sugar. After dinner, I want sugar.

    At a record of 229# this past year, I said enough is enough. At 44 years of age, I have accepted that I have the “addict” gene. I began to do some research online and found out how many calories I should be eating a day and set some goals for myself. I’m not going to overcommit to anything (like 2 hours of exercise a day). I want this change to fit in to my life without much fanfare.

    I started a 1200 calorie a day “Lean Cuisine” diet. I set my goal to get to my target weight by the end of the year, not the end of the week. I have hit plateau after plateau. Each of them was caused by set backs and diversions from my Lean Cuisine plan. It started at Easter with the variety of food offered. I didn’t over eat, I just ate food that I used to crave. For weeks I couldn’t get back on track. This happened whenever I ate “normal” food and continues to happen when I travel or go to a family gathering where I eat food that I wouldn’t normally at home.

    About a year ago, I began to get concerned that I may have developed diabetes. Afraid to go to the doctor to find out, I decided to make some lifestyle/diet changes to see if the problem would remedy itself. Although I’m happy to say I’ve lost 25# and feel MUCH better, I am obsessed with sugar. I have breakfast (I still haven’t found a decent cereal that doesn’t list the second ingredient as sugar) and then want a doughnut. It’s ridiculous. I understand the high. I want the high. On the other hand, I want to know what foods I can eat that won’t cause these sugar spikes for when I do stop doing the Lean Cuisine. What food will sustain me and not cause those peaks and valleys. I try to watch what normal weight people eat and sadly, I see a lot of junk food. It just hasn’t caught up with them yet.

    I will look in to the book you mentioned by Kessler. I definitely need guidance.

  • David Spero RN


    I would discourage you from focusing on your weight. Pay attention to how you feel, your glucose numbers, and your blood pressure. If those are OK, you are probably OK.

    Breakfast may be the key for you. I suggest avoiding the prepared cereals and starting with oatmeal, grits, or something where the list of ingredients is one or two items long. Also make sure you get some protein at breakfast.

    I don’t think Kessler’s book will help you. I much prefer des Maisons’ book Potatoes not Prozac. Check out her blog at