Food Addicts Are Like Drug Addicts, Study Finds

And it could be a personality disorder that's driving you to down those doughnuts.

January 28, 2014


It's probably no shocker that food companies make their foods as addictive as possible—they've bet on the trifecta of sugar, fat, and salt that makes your taste buds and your brain practically explode, and they spend countless hours in labs finding just the right food additive that will give chips the ideal crunch and sodas their perfectly tangy fizzz.


So why are just some people defined as food addicts while others are able to resist tasty temptations with an iron will?

Food addiction, a new study in the journal Appetite suggests, may have more to do with your personality than with your willpower. The authors found that food addicts often have the same impulsive personality traits that predispose people to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Using a group of college students of varying weights, the researchers asked the participants to fill out a personality questionnaire that measured their tendency toward impulsive behaviors—for instance, how much they enjoy taking risks, their ability to see a project through from start to finish, and how well they can (or cannot) control feelings and emotions. The students also completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a survey commonly used to diagnose food addictions.

Learn more about food companies have mastered the art of addicting foods in The End of Overeating!

People who qualified as having impulsive personality traits were more likely to report higher levels of food addiction and were more likely to be obese than people without those personality traits. In particular, the study revealed that food addicts often reported experiencing intense emotions, and that link was particularly significant in people who have strong reactions to being upset, anxious, or sad.

The scientists also noticed an association between being food addicted and being unable to follow through on boring or challenging tasks, which would suggest that those suffering food addiction might have a hard time sticking with a diet or exercise plan.

Although the results of this study might not be all that surprising, they're helping to chip away at the relatively new field looking at food addiction. There's plenty of research to support the notion that highly palatable foods, loaded down with sugar, fat, and salt, elicit brain reactions similar to those seen in people addicted to alcohol and drugs, but it isn't clear why some people are more likely to get addicted than others. And people who are suffering a food addiction respond less favorably to bariatric surgery and other weight-loss treatments. Therefore, learning whether or not an obese individual is also suffering from a personality disorder, such as impulsivity, can help doctors create more effective weight-loss plans for obese people.