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What is Junk Food Addiction?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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Junk food addiction is a recently studied phenomenon in rat populations that many scientists are now extrapolating to human populations as a real potential addiction and health hazard. This is by no means proven addiction because the issue has not been studied in any depth in human subjects, but there is some evidence to suggest such studies might be warranted, and that it could be possible to become addicted to junk food in a way that makes it hard to stop eating it and difficult to change to healthier eating patterns. In a more general sense, many people who overeat seem to principally choose junk foods and might consider themselves addicted.

The study that has principally evoked interest in nutritional and medical fields is one published in Natural Neuroscience in 2010. In the study, scientists took a group of rats and fed them a steady stream of high fat, high salt, and high sugar foods, and the rats quickly began to overeat these foods, even when negatively reinforced by electric shocks. At the same time, some rats were taken off this diet, and many of them refused to eat healthier food for several weeks. Another group of rats was fed a much healthier diet with limited access to junk food, and even though they were given greater access to food, they didn’t overeat.

What the rat’s behavior suggests about junk food addiction is the possibility that the brain gets controls the need to eat certain types of food. It’s possible that neurotransmitters in the brain may be influenced by habitual eating patterns. A life of addiction to junk food may start by eating it frequently, where these fatty “reward” foods may cause people to actually need more rewards to boost neurotransmitters like dopamine to acceptable levels.

Similar patterns have been described when people become addicted to drugs. They grow to need the drugs more, the more they are used. The chemicals involved in junk food addiction are the same ones involved in serious drug addictions.

While such research is bound to be intriguing, there is poor evidence to determine that people suffer from addiction to junk food. Despite scientific evidence, it’s not difficult to understand that many people have a tough time breaking eating habits of foods that routinely “reward,” but do so at the cost of health.

It could be useful to consider junk food addiction as a series of physical symptoms. People trying to discontinue eating high fat or high sugar foods might understand the first few weeks, at least, of a new diet, would be something like a withdrawal period. Alternately, there might be medications designed to boost neurotransmitter levels so that people don’t miss neurotransmitter reward foods as much, though attempts at this for smoking cessation are still not that successful. For now, it’s certainly advisable that people consider mostly avoiding junk foods, thus avoiding potential addiction.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By donasmrs — On Dec 02, 2013

@ddljohn-- I personally think that food cravings are not just about neurotransmitters but also about blood sugar. Junk foods contain little fiber and nutrients and have a high glycemic index. They raise blood sugar very quickly and then cause it to fall suddenly. So a short time after eating junk food, you have to eat more to get your blood sugar up again.

After a while of rapid blood sugar changes, what develops is insulin resistance or diabetes. I have type two diabetes and ever since I started taking my diabetic medication, I have been craving less junk food. Even when I taste junk food, it doesn't taste as good to me anymore. People who are seeking to stop junk food addictions should get a glucose tolerance test at the doctor's office to see if they have insulin resistance.

By ddljohn — On Dec 01, 2013

Even if there is such a thing as a junk food addiction, it doesn't explain why our neurotransmitters are so sensitive to it. Why do we respond differently to French fries than we do to carrots? Is it just about taste?

By stoneMason — On Dec 01, 2013

I'm sure that junk food is addictive. This is why it's so hard to eat these foods in moderation.

There was a doctor on TV the other day who was talking about a study that showed that sugar is addictive. He said that it's as addictive as cocaine and heroine, if not more. Junk food and processed foods now also contain additives that make us want to eat more. One of those additives is monosodium glutamate (MSG). This ingredient gives us that "I can't get enough" feeling when we're eating processed foods. It's a marketing gimmick to make us buy more.

The only way to get out of this addiction and stop food cravings is to stop eating junk food cold-turkey and to never look back. This is what I've done and I couldn't be healthier or happier.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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