Food addiction is real—or is it?

Be a critical consumer of information

The idea that certain foods have addictive properties, just like drugs and alcohol, is not a new one, but it has become increasingly popular over the past decade or so, especially since the advent of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which was developed to measure it.

Given that obesity rates have also increased, it makes sense that people want explanations. Why do people have such a difficult time keeping their weight down? Food addiction conveniently happens to be one possible “cause.” I use that word loosely because, if anything, it might be a contributing factor, but by no means is there any evidence that it is exclusively responsible for weight gain, or issues with weight loss. More importantly, it is just that, a “convenient” explanation. Saying that food can be inherently addictive removes personal responsibility from the equation. Giving people the idea that food is addictive simultaneously provides a crutch; if food is addictive, yet we need it to survive, then what can we do about the consequences that has on weight? This leaves the door wide open for weight problems to spiral out of control.

Recently, psychology researchers at the University of Liverpool in England expressed similar concerns and decided to delve into them further. Specifically, they choose to explore the question, “does endorsing food addiction as a valid construct cause people to feel less control about what they are eating?” And subsequently, how does this influence dietary behaviours? So, how did they go about doing this?

Essentially, they created two experimental situations: one in which food addiction was portrayed as a real thing, and one in which it was portrayed as a myth. Obviously, they had to be surreptitious in disguising their true objectives in order for it to work. To do this, participants came into the study under the premise that it was about memory and mood. First, they were asked to read three newspaper articles and were told that they would later be tested on their memory of the articles. The first two articles were irrelevant, but the third one portrayed food addiction as either a real construct, or a myth.

Following the readings, participants were asked a series of questions. Most importantly was the manipulation check, “can foods be addictive?” People were asked to answer “yes” or “no” in relation to whether they read about it as real or a myth. Next, they took part in a taste test where they were asked to taste and rate different foods, after which, their consumption was measured without their knowledge. Finally, they completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale to assess whether or not they endorsed personal food addiction.

Not surprisingly, a higher proportion (57 per cent) of people who read that food addiction was real also reported that they had it. Only 27 per cent of those who read that food addiction was a myth endorsed also having it. Despite these findings, there was no difference in food consumption (during the taste test) between groups.

The idea that simply reading about food addiction being real is enough to make people believe that they have it is concerning. Although on the bright side, it didn’t impact actual eating behaviours in this experiment. However, it does raise questions regarding the extent to which we should be promoting food addiction as a real, valid problem. If people hear about it enough and mentioned frequently in news stories and through various media outlets, at what point is everyone going to start thinking they have it? Dietary fads have been known to catch on in the past (just consider the gluten-free “trend”), so it seems feasible that food addiction could fall ill to this as well.

Critically, I think we all need to take a step back and note that we still don’t know for sure if food addiction is real or a myth. As the saying goes, “further research is necessary.” This study points to the importance of being a critical consumer of information. Just because you hear about something doesn’t make it true, and it definitely does not mean you should self-diagnose. This goes for everything. Especially when it comes to food addiction, the jury is still out.


Hardman, C. A., Rogers, P. J., Dallas, R., Scott, J., Ruddock, H. K., & Robinson, E. (2015). “Food addiction is real”. The effects of exposure to this message on self-diagnosed food addiction and eating behaviour, Appetite, 91, 179-184.

(Photo by Amy on Flickr Creative Commons.)