The Biology of Food Addiction & The Calorie Hypothesis

By Jill Carnahan, MD, ABFM, ABIHM, IFMCP

Current view: Obesity is a lack of will power … just eat less and exercise more!


This model FAILS because:

  1. Our body’s wise compensatory mechanisms defend against weight loss by decreasing energy expenditure and increasing appetite as we diet.
  2. High glycemic carbohydrates (like added refined sugars, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, and starches) light up the nucleus accumbens – the brain’s addiction center – promoting compulsive overeating of processed high glycemic foods.
  3. Multiple other factors actually regulate metabolism: dietary composition, gut microbiome, toxic exposures, infections, allergens, nutrient status, mitochondrial dysfunction, and imbalance of hormones and neurotransmitters.


Caloric-restricted, traditional “diets” exacerbate metabolic dysfunction and actually lead to OVEREATING over the long-term.


A more accurate view…

Poor diet quality, not calories, is the driver of obesity.

  1. All calories are NOT created equal.
  2. Food is more than calories; it’s information that programs genetic expression and changes metabolic states.
  3. Diets don’t work because they are not addressing fundamental drivers of excess caloric intake:  physiologic addiction to refined carbs and sugar!  


Sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine!

Experimental research reveals a commonality between addition to sugar and addiction to cocaine.

  • Both sweet taste and drugs of abuse, such as cocaine, stimulate release of dopamine in the ventral striatum, critical in the process of reward-processing and learning
  • Cross-tolerance and dependence are seen in both sugar consumption and drugs of abuse.  This means that over time it takes more and more of each to get the desired effect.
  • In one study, rats preferred saccharin over IV cocaine. In another, they chose sucrose over cocaine.


Cumpulsive Overeating Can Resemble Drug Addiction

Visceral fat is “hungry” and may drive overeating behavior.

  1. Visceral fat is packed around the organs.
  2. These visceral fat cells are metabolically active and suck fuel out of the blood stream, making you eat more!
  3. They secrete hormones and cytokines that promote weight gain and inflammation:
    • Hormones: adiponectin, insulin, resisting, leptin and MSH.
    • Cytokines such as IL-6, TNF-alpha, and other pro-inflammatory molecules.
  4. Insulin release surges in response to high glycemic foods, creating more inflammation and obesity-promoting metabolism, more visceral fat storage = vicious cycle


Dietary Composition is More Important Than Calories

  • In this large European study,  increase in protein content and a  reduction in the glycemic index led to an improvement in study completion and maintenance of weight loss.
  • Another study shows a low-glycemic diet higher in fat and protein improves metabolic rate and energy.
  • Mice fed high-GI diet had almost twice the body fat of those on the low-GI diet after 9 weeks.
  • Athletes on ketogenic, high-fat diet had better performance, less fatigue

Bottom line: Latest research indicates that sugar consumption is an independent risk factor for many, if not ALL, chronic disease.


Is everyone ready to stop eating sugar now?!


Healthy Eating Suggestions I Give to My Patients

  1. Quality of foods is essential… low glycemic load, high micronutrient and phytonutrient and fiber content = eat a rainbow of colors in your foods.
  2. Choose organic, pastured meats and wild fish.
  3. Eat more vegetables and low-glycemic fruits, like berries and green apples.
  4. Avoid all packages, processed foods – if it has more than 3-4 ingredients don’t buy it!
  5. Limit high glycemic starchy foods, like white potatoes and white rice.
  6. Eliminate gluten if you’re sensitive and avoid ALL refined processed grains.
  7. Avoid all hydrogenated and trans fats. Use organic butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado and other healthy fats freely.
  8. Avoid genetically modified foods, like corn, soy and canola.


Original blog by Dr. Jill Carnahan can be found here.


About Jill Carnahan, MD, ABFM, ABIHM, IFMCP

Dr. Jill Carnahan emphasizes an integrative holistic approach to wellness using both conventional medicine and evidence-based complementary therapies, taking into account the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. She emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between physician and patient and seeks to give her patients a full range of healing options with an emphasis on healthy living, nutrition, and disease prevention.