The science of food addiction is still in its early stages, but it probably won't come as a surprise to hear that food can indeed be addictive. Although the American Psychological Association hasn't yet recognized food addiction as an official disorder, study after study has shown that people and rats, to varying degrees, respond to certain foods in ways that are very similar to drug addiction.
According to these studies, not everyone qualifies as a food addict. But you've undoubtedly experienced the feeling: Who hasn't had an out-of-control moment with a tray of sweets or a super-sized McDonald's combo? You've probably not experienced a kale or spinach craving, though. Unfortunately, no one seems to have overpowering urges for food that our body can process healthily. No, we want calories, fat, sugar and salt, which slowly destroy our bodies and make our brains' reward circuits go haywire. Fast food, obviously, has loads of all of this bad stuff — and that's not by mistake.
Even though scientists and psychologists are just now getting on board with this food-addiction thing, the fast-food industry has had our number for years. Maybe the decision-makers didn't know the exact molecular science behind all of these bodily changes that junk food causes (although their food scientists probably did), but they definitely knew the effects. We eat this food and we can't help coming back for more.
Fast food is specifically engineered to be inexpensive, convenient, and to trigger cravings and overeating. It's flavorful but not so strong-tasting that you'd get tired of it quickly. And, most importantly, it's high in fat, sugar, salt and caffeine — all substances that have now been shown to alter brain chemistry in the same ways that drug addiction does.
Eating fast food causes you to lose control over regulating hunger. All that fat, sugar and salt make it taste amazing, which activates the release of the pleasure hormone dopamine — the same substance that causes a heroin or cocaine high. But dopamine receptors tend to get desensitized to high levels of dopamine, so you need to eat more and more to attain that fast-food high. And eating more and more, of course, is exactly what the industry wants you to do.
Fast-food marketing and advertising is a machine that links into food-addiction science. When food-addicted women in one study were shown a picture of a milkshake, they had increased activity in the areas of their brain connected to cravings. When they actually drank the milkshake, their brains displayed decreased levels in areas of self-control [source: DeAngelis]. So it's not much of a stretch to say that food addicts would probably be extra susceptible to the advertising machine. Fast-food chains are often criticized for exploiting residents of poor neighborhoods, who tend to have high rates of obesity, and now they can add one more vulnerable population: the food addicts.
Only about 11 percent of the American population fits the criteria for food addiction, so chances are you can control your urges for a Quarter Pounder or Filet-O-Fish [source: Barclay]. (Who are we kidding? No one craves a Filet-O-Fish). But it's worth a moment to consider how the fast-food industry is consciously manipulating our weaknesses to make a profit.