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Food Addictions: The Hidden Danger of Leading with Taste

Theresa "Sam" Houghton
April 26, 2021

This post may be triggering to people suffering from eating disorders or food addiction.

Taste. It's touted as the #1 way to drive fast adoption of new plant-based products, the holy grail of the alternative protein movement.

But taste can have a dark side. Or, rather, its nearly ubiquitous sidekick: craving. 🤤There's little question that leading with taste can drive purchases, giving plant-based brands the chance to recruit repeat customers.

The problem could lie in just how closely some alt proteins are trying to mimic the flavor of meat, dairy and eggs—and how brands are positioning themselves to intersect with the existing routines of as many consumers as possible.

As it turns out, taste can carry some pretty heavy psychological and physiological baggage. It can even be a driver of addiction. And, without necessarily meaning to, the plant-based movement could be positioning itself as an enabler of one of the most subtle and dangerous addictions of all: food addiction.

hand reaching for a stack of donuts

What is Food Addiction?

Food addictions appear to come down to a combination of desire and pleasure—with a good bit of neuroscience to back it up.

lAuthor Michael Moss does a stellar job of breaking down the complexities in his book, Hooked: Food, Free Will and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions. But at a basic level, this is what happens to make people crave tasty food (particularly nutrient-poor food with a lot of salt, sugar and fat):

  • Dopamine, a neurotransmitter often associated with reward, creates the feeling of desire, leading to a particular food choice
  • The taste of a food (and all its nuances) becomes ingrained in memory, along with details like where the food was eaten and who it was eaten with
  • Endogenous (natural) opioids flood the brain with a sensation of pleasure

And, just like that, the brain creates a connection. A memory that says, "This food is good."There's just one problem: Dopamine is generated in response to the difference between the expected level of pleasure and the actual experience of pleasure. If food doesn't live up to memory, desire increases. This is key in addiction because reduced sensations of pleasure over time can lead to a constant drive to seek greater pleasure in an attempt to fulfil an insatiable desire.

The brain is supposed to be able to regulate decisions made in response to this cycle. It has a natural check-and-balance system, often referred to as the "go" brain and "stop" brain, built to allow common sense and discernment to get a word in edgewise before taking action. In an ideal environment, this system would prompt careful consideration regarding food choices.

But the modern food system is pretty much designed to circumvent discernment. It's possible to go from, "I want French fries!" to "I just ate 4,000 calories of fast food" in a matter of minutes. A determination to avoid sugar can be overridden just by stepping into the grocery store checkout aisle and seeing a row of candy bars. It's dopamine desire to opioid pleasure, lightning fast, and the rational brain doesn't stand a chance.

Inside the Brains of Food Addicts

Not every person who hits the drive-thru or succumbs to the craving for an afternoon chocolate bar becomes a food addict, but those who do—and who self-identify as food addicted— may exhibit the same behaviors as people addicted to drugs. This makes sense, given that both problems involve the same neurotransmitters and neural pathways.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) lists 11 criteria for substance addiction, nine of which can also ring true for food addictions:

  • Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than intended
  • Inability to cut down or avoid a substance despite attempts to do so
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using or recovering from use of a substance
  • Experiencing cravings or urges to use
  • Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of substance use
  • Continuing to use a substance despite potentially dangerous consequences
  • Continuing to use even when it causes or worsens a physical or psychological problem
  • Developing tolerance to the point of requiring more of a substance to get the desired effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal when the substance is stopped, and feeling relief when use resumes

Get Triggered, Eat More

Just like drug addicts, food addicts can also get "triggered." A sight, a smell, a sound—anything that conjures up memories of foods they crave can activate pathways in the brain that have been ingrained by habit or culture and lead to behaviors that become uncontrollable.

Triggers can also lead people to eat when they're not hungry simply because they've been triggered.

The brain is seeking something else associated with the food—not satiety, but the fulfillment of whatever pleasure it expects, be it excitement, comfort or relief from anxiety.

This can make it difficult for food addicts to say no to foods they know can be bad for their health and difficult to stop eating at the point of having had enough.

The food-addicted brain gets stuck in the cycle of desire and pleasure-seeking, returning to foods in the attempt to re-create the initial experience of pleasure, even when subsequent experiences fall short. While the potential physical consequences of food addiction are obvious, the mental consequences are far less visible. Food addicts may also struggle with anxiety or depression and withdraw from social situations in an attempt to avoid triggers or hide their addictive behaviors.

It's a complicated problem that's only just beginning to be understood. Science hasn't yet given clarity on whether a single substance or combination of substances can be pinned down as the actual cause of food addiction, but it is likely that the dependence is physical and not purely psychological.

young person eating fries

And Then There's Binge Eating Disorder...

As if things weren't complicated enough, food addiction symptoms can overlap with those of binge eating disorder (BED). BED was officially classified as an eating disorder in the DSM-V and afflicts 2.8% of Americans at some point during their lives. It's the most common eating disorder in the US, affecting 3.5% of women, 2% of men and 1.6% of adolescents—and yet only 43.6% of people with BED seek treatment.

BED affects three times more people than anorexia and bulimia combined, and it doesn't discriminate between nationalities or income levels. For women, the disorder often strikes in early adulthood; men struggle with it later, more toward midlife.

What does BED look like?

  • Regularly eating more food than most people would in one sitting
  • Bingeing at least once per week for three months or longer
  • Eating faster than is considered normal
  • Eating beyond the point of feeling full—sometimes to the point of being sick
  • Feeling out of control around food and/or when eating
  • Feelings of guilt, shame and/or self-hatred related to food or eating habits
  • Bingeing when not hungry
  • Bingeing alone to hide the behavior

Specific foods and cues can also trigger binges for people who suffer from BED.

Due to the similarities between some of these criteria and the criteria for substance addiction, some researchers see a potential overlap between BED and food addiction.

In some cases, food addiction and eating disorders can and do co-exist, although one doesn't necessarily guarantee the presence of the other.

When food addiction and binge eating disorder do occur together, it can be a recipe for a mental and physical health disaster. People with BED don't engage in compensatory behavior like purging or over-exercising, so there's a high risk of developing obesity and its associated conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

So, What Does Plant-Based Food Have to Do With Food Addictions?

colorful vegetables and fruits

Change is the name of the game in the alternative protein space. Change the food landscape, change what people eat, save the world.

But how—and how much—is the movement actually changing people's eating habits?

For alternative protein companies and plant-based brands, the biggest market for driving adoption and shifting food choices away from animal proteins is flexitarians.

These are the people who still want to eat meat but are concerned about its impact on the planet or their health.

So they're looking for ways to eat less of it—without giving up the taste, eating experience or convenience they love.

And so the plant-based movement is obliging.

Instead of disengaging from the very contexts and frameworks that can drive food addiction, alternative proteins are showing up in the places people are already conditioned to go when they want to satisfy their cravings. (Fast food restaurants are a classic example.)

Instead of encouraging people to form new habits and memories as they explore new food options, many of the choices of placement and marketing play into what’s already ingrained in their brains. Instead of creating new tastes—which food trends show consumers are looking for—alternative proteins play into what people already eat too much of, sometimes using the same food industry tactics that created the problem of food addiction in the first place.

Such familiarity is important for driving rapid adoption among demographics that are unused to or wary of plant-based foods, but it could wind up being dangerous in the long run, especially for people who have serious addictions to food.

Trying to exactly mimic the same foods that can trigger people could lead to disaster rather than a pleasurable eating experience.

After all, it doesn't matter if you go to the drive thru and order the whole plant-based menu instead of the whole regular menu. It's still going to hurt you.

Forsaking (or Forgetting?) Our Plant-Based Roots

Part of the problem is that the plant-based movement seems to have forgotten where and why it started. The term "plant-based diet" was coined by Dr. T. Colin Campbell in the 1980s to describe a low-fat, high-fiber diet centered around whole plant foods like vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Dr. Campbell is best known for his research challenging traditional assumptions about protein and its effects on health.

What Dr. Campbell (and many after him) concluded was what science is continuing to show today: The less animal protein people eat, the better off they are.

And people don't need nearly as much protein as is often consumed in developed societies. With few exceptions, the amount of protein provided by a diet made up of a variety of whole plant foods is much closer to human requirements.

Thanks to Big Food playing the "value added" marketing card, the average person has been so conditioned to believe they need more protein that they demand more in everything from cookies and candy to water and beer.

And the plant-based movement, with its almost wholesale obsession with creating one-to-one identical replacements for animal protein, runs the risk of reinforcing that false belief, much to the detriment of the consumer.

In doing so, the movement is missing a golden opportunity to truly change the world—and begin to break the cycle of food addiction—by changing the narrative around both protein and food as a whole.

narrow grocery store aisle with healthy food

The Not-So-Healthy Halo

People like to justify their foods choices based on what they think or believe is healthy. Whether it's non-GMO, free from artificial ingredients or plant-based, "healthy" labels often beget a virtuous perception without prompting questions about what other aspects of the food might be problematic. This can easily be seen in the phenomenon of fad diets.

Every time a new diet appears on the scene, people get the mistaken impression that its novelty or extreme nature makes it healthier than the way they've been eating.

And the food industry jumps on it, pumping out scores of new products to, ostensibly, help the public stick with the regimen until something newer and shinier comes along.

What's the result? Paleo bread, keto cookies and the ever-enduring diet soda—complete junk masquerading as a dieter's best friend. But there's a problem with all this: A cookie is still, by and large, a cookie, no matter what dietary label gets slapped on it.

The even bigger problem is that most people have no idea that these products aren't actually healthier than their "regular" counterparts. And for people with food addiction, the paleo, keto or, yes, plant-based version of a trigger food is going to send them cascading down the same slippery slope into a cycle of craving, bingeing and seeking more.

Good News About Bad (or Dangerous) Habits

It's the age-old phenomenon of the health halo: conditioning people to think they're eating something healthy when they're not or that they're making a better choice when they're just feeding their addictions.

The fact that the plant-based movement is walking a razor-thin line between pointing to healthier habits and reinforcing the food addiction problem is more than a little troubling. Embracing the health halo, intentionally or otherwise, allows people to become comfortable in their habits at best and continue in their addictions at worst.

So, for people with food addiction, going after plant-based foods to satisfy their animal food cravings is a potential way to continue justifying bad or hurtful food choices.

By supporting the current narrative that it's okay to feed cravings and succumb to desires, the plant-based movement could become complicit in supporting the hidden and deceptive nature of food addiction. It's akin to creating a "healthier" alcohol and letting alcoholics believe it's okay to partake because it's not as bad as what got them hooked in the first place.

And that not only abandons the original intention of a plant-based diet but also threatens to undermine the larger goal of the entire movement: the creation of a better food system.

A way forward?

Obviously, food addiction is a huge psychological and societal issue that the food industry can't solve on its own, and the plant-based movement can’t be asked to solve it, either. But it does point to some potential pitfalls of how plant-based products are being positioned and the messaging being used to drive adoption.

While plant-based companies aren’t responsible for teaching people how to think or make decisions, it’s worth taking care to avoid couching alternative proteins in the same language that has so long driven dangerous food behaviors, including addiction.

Plant-based companies need to look at the big picture and plan how to strategically leverage their positions in the food system in a way that creates a trajectory for true change.

Instead of focusing solely on driving adoption because of a (real or perceived) race against the clock to prevent a gigantic climate disaster, it’s time to widen the circle of compassion to include those who struggle with food addictions, the people who can’t yet make better choices because they’ve been ensnared by the food system for so long.

There might be a way to do this by temporarily operating within the food system as it exists now. And there might not. Either way, plant-based companies have the opportunity to break the cycle and create something even better and more impactful than replacements for animal protein.

They could, in fact, point the way to freedom for the food addicted.

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