Researchers at the University of Michigan have made a bold statement: All the pizza or ice cream cravings that keep coming back despite your feelings of guilt and depression might be a sign that you have a food addiction. And that food addiction isn't something to laugh about in a self-deprecating way in front of your friends; it's a real disease that is just as bad as drug addiction or alcoholism.

The authors of the new study wanted to discover what foods were most likely to lead to food addiction, a disease that contributes to the widespread obesity epidemic in the U.S. In the past, studies have shown that foods high in sodium, sugar, or fat are likely to trigger food addiction and over-eating, due to the way they act on the brain’s reward system. But the University of Michigan researchers wanted to dig deeper and find what specific foods meet the criteria for “substance dependence.”

They found that highly processed foods were more likely to have the same effect on the brain as hard drugs, compared to non-processed foods like wheat, fish, and other “boring” and “healthy” foods.

Frankly speaking, the results of the study aren’t anything shocking to hear. In fact, most scientists have already pinpointed the link between processed foods filled with salt and fat and food addiction. A 2002 study found that food high in sugar and fats affected the brain just the way heroin, opium, or morphine did. Other brain imaging (PET scans) have shown that obese people, like drug addicts, have lower numbers of dopamine receptors, which means they’re more likely to crave foods that will boost their dopamine (carbs, sugars, fats). Our bodies are biologically wired to desire foods that are dense, caloric, and provide us with a lot of energy, but eating too much of these can send our brains into haywire and lead to addiction.

In many ways, it’s common sense: You never want to binge-eat a mountain of broccoli or carrots. You want to stuff your face with a bag of potato chips or a pint of ice cream. The healthy stuff — things that aren’t processed, like salmon or brown rice — just don’t do that to your brain. Perhaps this is why the obesity epidemic has been so difficult to battle. The drivers behind obesity may be more psychological than physical. Addiction is a disease, and it impacts the psyche and emotions just as it does physicality.

“The ‘just say no’ approach to drug addiction hasn’t fared very well,” Dr. Mark Hyman, a physician and author, writes on his blog. “It won’t work for our industrial food addiction either. Tell a cocaine or heroin addict or an alcoholic to ‘just say no’ after that first snort, shot, or drink. It’s not that simple. There are specific biological mechanisms that drive addictive behavior.”

Hyman goes on to note that just like other addicts don’t choose to become addicted to heroin or cocaine, obese people don’t choose to be fat. Instead, “the behaviors arise out of primitive neurochemical reward centers in the brain that override normal willpower and overwhelm our ordinary biological signals that control hunger.”

Who is to blame? Should we argue it’s the fast food nation’s fault, where McDonald’s reigns on nearly every corner and highway, where cheap, tasty junk food has been pushed into nearly every household? Or should we blame the individual for not being self-aware enough to avoid such bait? Maybe it’s the economy’s fault. Besides, it’s the low-income areas that are known as “food deserts.”

Perhaps it’s a little bit of all these things, impacted by environmental factors and genetic predispositions, as well as the modern world’s penchant for sedentary lifestyles in front of screens. But at the end of the day, change stems from the individual. If you think you have a food addiction and it’s making your life difficult, reach out for help. You’re not alone.

Source: Schulte E, Avena N, Gearhardt A. Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load. PLOS ONE. 2015.