Addictive Foods: on Heroin, Chocolate and Others in Between

We are often told that “all things are okay in moderation”.  A little bit of chocolate, a couple of glasses of wine, a small piece of cake… As long as we eat and drink in moderation, all is well.  But is it really?
Heroin comes from a plant – hey, it’s vegan! – yet would we argue that heroin, in moderation, is okay?  Of course not.  Heroin is addictive, and people who get addicted to heroin have a heck of a time getting off it.  Many never do, and die from their heroin addiction.
What does this have to do with chocolate?  Chocolate, indeed many other foods as well, like cheese, sugar and meat, is also addictive.  I don’t mean that in a trite way.  I mean they are totally addictive, like heroin is.  Studies show that when we eat these foods, receptors in our brains start firing off, giving us strong feelings of pleasure, just like heroin.  We start craving these foods, eat them when we aren’t even hungry, and go to great lengths to get them.  As Neal Barnard, MD, points out in his new book, 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart, “No one ever went to a convenience store at 9:00 at night to buy cauliflower.”  (page 37)  Why?  Because cauliflower is not addictive.  Broccoli, lentils, carrots, spinach, chickpeas … they are not addictive. We don’t have unnatural cravings for them and we don’t overeat them when they are in their natural, wholesome states.

The cravings of an addict

But let’s get back to chocolate and heroin.  Heroin snatches people into its deathly grip by firing off pleasure receptors in the brain every time a person takes heroin.  When you don’t take it, the brain starts having massive cravings, and the person will go crazy trying to get a hit so that they’re pleasure receptors will once again be satiated.  The need is so strong that they will steal from their own mother, alienate themselves from family and friends, and put themselves in danger to get the money to buy more heroin.  
And isn’t that true, to a lesser extent admittedly, with chocolate and other addictive foods?  I have, and know many who have also, snuck away with chocolate, sugar or other treats and scarfed them down alone in a secret place where they couldn’t get caught. I know people who have passed up an opportunity to go out with friends so they could stay at home with a gallon of ice cream.  A good friend ate her husband’s birthday pie – the entire pie – before he got home from work to have any himself.  Another person I know sat alone in her car in the driveway and ate a large bag of Doritos before her husband came out, knocked on the window, and said, “What the F*%& are you doing???”  Hmmm.  Sounds vaguely familiar.  In fact, sounds just like the behaviors of an addict.

Treating a chocolate addicts with Heroin meds

Dairy affects your brain
Naloxone, used on Heroin addicts, was found effective on chocolate addicts. Image: Shutterstock.

Still not convinced that food can be truly addictive?  Then let me hit you over the head with this study:  Researchers at the University of Michigan did a study in chocolate bingers using the drug Naloxone*. 

Naloxone is a drug used to treat heroin addicts, and it works by blocking the receptors in the brain that heroin stimulates.  If the person is on Naloxone and takes heroin, they won’t get the high they are used to getting because the receptors in the brain won’t get stimulated.The researchers gave the chocolate lovers Naloxone, and then put out a tray of chocolates.  Guess what?  Although this group was made up of self-proclaimed chocolate lovers, not many chocolates were eaten.  The chocolate still looked and tasted the same as it usually did to the study participants, but they didn’t get the same euphoric feeling that they usually got from chocolate, and so they quit eating them after one or two.  While it sounds like Naloxen might be your miracle drug, like most drugs, it has side effects and isn’t appropriate for the average person.

Certain foods CAN be addictive!

Food addictions
Certain foods are very addictive – just like heroin, even if not to the same degree. We simply can’t keep telling each other that eating them in moderation is okay. It’s not. Image: Shutterstock.

I’ve been blogging about food addictions a lot lately, but I have uncovered a serious truth in my life that I am convinced could help millions of people if they would take it seriously:  Certain foods are very addictive – just like heroin, even if not to the same degree.  We simply can’t keep telling each other that eating them in moderation is okay.  It’s not.  Trying to moderate addictive foods is like trying to moderate your intake of heroin, and inevitably leads to binging of these foods.  And while food addicts don’t usually die from a food overdose like heroin addicts die from a drug overdose, their continual overeating of these toxic foods leads to cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other maladies … and people die of these food related diseases more than anything else in the world.  Experts believe that 70-80% of all deaths are due to food related diseases, like type II diabetes. 

Yet because food is socially acceptable, we minimize how bad it can be, and make it “okay” to eat it.  In fact, we make it not just socially acceptable, but we make it practically a requirement – you must have cake on your birthday, and you must eat turkey and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.  This is completely unhealthy.  Should you choose to try (and try and try again) to eat these foods in “moderation,” you will fight the same losing battle you’ve been fighting most of your life. 
To break free, you simply must quit eating these foods altogether.  Do not try to moderate them, and do not splurge every now and then unless you’re willing to accept the consequences – spiraling back into addiction, spending your days starting yet another new diet and wondering why you can’t seem to control your eating.
Not everyone is addicted to food.  I know people who can have a few bites of a hot fudge sundae and be fine pushing the rest away.  But if there are certain foods, be it cookies, doughnuts, chips, pizza, or something else, that you have strong cravings for and can never seem to eat in moderation, you are almost certainly addicted. 
The good news is that you can break free.  You can break free from living in a constant state of dieting and depression – if you can stick to eating a healthy vegan diet for just 30 days.  You will probably crave certain foods for a few days or maybe even a few weeks, but if you can just stick to it for 30 days, I can just about guarantee you that all cravings will go away, and by then, you’ll also have lost some noticeable weight and will be feeling much better.  
I truly believe that 20 years from now, food addiction will be recognized by the medical establishment as a serious condition.  People are starting to speak up about it, and a few cutting edge doctors are starting to prove it (Neal Barnard, MD, Joel Fuhrman, MD and others).  But if you need more proof, quit reading and just do it – for 30 days, eat nothing but fruits, veggies, whole grains and beans in their natural forms without covering them with oil, fats, salt or sugar.  Then you can prove it to yourself.
Happy Eating,

Cover image: Shutterstock. Modification: TVW

* Drewnoski A, Krahn DD, Demitrack MA, Nairn K, Gosnell BA.  Taste responses and preferences for sweet high-fat foods:  evidence for opioid involvement.  Physiol Behav 1992; 51:371-9.

Sarah Taylor

Writter & Reviewer

The Conscious Vegan Columnist

Sarah Taylor is the author of Vegan in 30 Days, and runs the popular blog "The Vegan Next Door".

She has a certificate in Plant Based Nutrition from Cornell University, is on faculty at Joel Fuhrman's Nutritional Education Institute, and has been featured on many television and radio shows internationally.  

Her next book, Vegetarian to Vegan, will be available in 2012.

More about Sarah

Check out Sarah's blog – The Vegan Next Door