How Our Food Obsession Makes Us Fatter, Hungrier, and Unhappy…and Leads to Food Cravings

Family meal

As I was scrolling down some of the topics of November’s Top Holistic Health Reads, a few headlines focused on weight and appetite caught my attention. I’ve discussed the topic of cravings, diet (wars), and food addiction in the past, and these studies further displayed the complex interaction between humans and their food intake. It seems the greater our focus is on weight loss, the more our nation becomes more obese, unhealthy, and increasingly food obsessed.

According to an article in Psychology Today, most societies that have plenty of food should be less focused on their bellies and more focused on alternate and higher pursuits. However, that’s not the case in America. Our society has an unhealthy infatuation with food:

Obsession means that food is the central focus of nearly all social events and not just occasions of feasting such as Christmas or Ramadan. These food-centered events are now a daily occurrence, as no office anniversary gets by without a frosted cake.

Obsession means that food occupies a great deal of waking thought, the recipes, the purchasing thereof, the gadgets, the gourmet shows, the fine dining, the Proustian recollection of meals past. It means that a bowl of snacks is rarely out of reach. But why? 1

The author discusses several theories:1

  1. Americans aren’t starving, but they are dieting. This means they are constantly hungry.

It’s interesting to note that one study reported there’s a difference between fasting and dieting, potentially demonstrating that intent of food deprivation (health verses weight loss) may be a factor related to hunger. One abstract reads:

One group of fasting obese patients and one group of dieting obese patients were instructed to report their feelings of hunger and craving on a continuous basis before and during a three-week treatment period. Once a week they were also exposed to food slides to measure their reactivity to food stimuli. The frequency of hunger/craving responses and reactivity to food stimuli showed radically different changes over time in the fasting and dieting groups. During the last week of fasting, reactivity to food slides was completely abolished, and the frequency of hunger/craving responses was close to zero. Only slight changes of frequency of hunger/craving responses and reactivity to food stimuli were observed in the dieting group. The results suggest that the frequency of hunger/craving responses and reactivity to food stimuli show parallel decreases during fasting, but no changes during dieting.2

However, one abstract does not a conclusion make.

I’ve discussed previously that there may be differences in the impact of fasting on men and women, actually causing more health issues in women.

Furthermore, it may be macronutrient content and meal timing that can modulate craving and hunger cues.3 In other words, different dietary compositions may have different effects in appetite regulation in different people. However, it seems to be pretty well agreed upon that protein is satiating for many.


  1. Nutritional deficiencies

There are several mechanisms that could make this factor true. One possibility is the link between specific nutrients to mood and brain health.4-5 Another is the impact of certain nutrients on blood sugar, hormonal health, and the microbiome. All of these effects modify desire for food.


  1. Insufficient Fiber

Interestingly, it was just recently found that a breakdown product of fiber, acetate, may be what causes a reduced appetite by its signal of satiety to the brain. Guess what breaks down fiber…our belly bugs of course (well, our colon bugs)! 6 Furthermore, our diet modulates our microbiome which effects inflammation, assimilation, and nutrient absorption, all linked to nutrient availability (see above).

This brings me to the first of my favorite headlines last month…because it had to do with the 1 trillion friends that line our insides. According to new animal research, gut microbes may help you stay full, not just by fiber, but by protein signals. Science Daily reported on this recent study in Cell Metabolism:

Don’t have room for dessert? The bacteria in your gut may be telling you something. Twenty minutes after a meal, gut microbes produce proteins that can suppress food intake in animals, reports a study. The researchers also show how these proteins injected into mice and rats act on the brain reducing appetite, suggesting that gut bacteria may help control when and how much we eat.

Little caveat here is we need to replicate this study in humans, but there is evidence that our microbes do shift with diet,9 and that our microbiome effects our mood and behavior.


  1. Inactivity

Most practitioners are aware of the “exercise induced anorexia” effect;10 however, studies have shown conflicting results related to exercise and appetite.10-13 In fact, one study reported that there are exercise compensators and non-compensators related to whether people “made up” for their increased activity by increased food consumption.12 Therefore, exercise interactions with the appetite are complex and will differ among people.

  1. Fast Food Restaurants and Junk Foods

I actually combined theories five and seven because they are similar. Previously, I discussed this “Dorito effect” of the junk food companies. Specifically, it’s the concept that food scientists use different combinations of hedonics, dynamic contrast, evoked qualities, caloric density, food pleasure equations (sensations and macronutrient combinations) and emulsification to make our taste buds tingle and crave more of their products.14-16 The addictive properties of various food combinations have been studied in rodents and humans. Many are familiar with the rat study that preferred saccharin water over cocaine.16 In humans, it may be a bit more complex. It has been found that certain individuals with neurotransmitter variances may have a predisposition to more cravings and need more food to get the “same fix” as a “normal eater.”

Still, the proof of food being addictive is compelling and has support. A recent cross-sectional study sought to examine if “highly processed foods share pharmacokinetic properties (e.g. concentrated dose, rapid rate of absorption) with drugs of abuse, due to the addition of fat and/or refined carbohydrates and the rapid rate the refined carbohydrates are absorbed into the system, indicated by glycemic load (GL)…”17

The study was two parts. The first part involved the ever popular subject population of undergraduate students…120 to be exact. The eager undergrads completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). This was followed by a “forced-choice task” to discover which 35 foods were most associated with addictive-like eating behaviors. Study two then used these 35 addictive foods and sought to investigate which food attributes (e.g., fat grams) “were related to addictive-like eating behavior (at level one) and explored the influence of individual differences for this association (at level two).”

(Just as a side note, let me give you more information on study population two as reported by the authors, “398 participants were recruited using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) worker pool to complete a study about eating behaviors and were paid ($0.40) for their time..” So, needless to say, this may bias the generalization of the study.)

Still, the study did have some impressive findings as reported below:

In summary, the current study found that highly processed foods, with added amounts of fat and/or refined carbohydrates (e.g., sugar, white flour), were most likely to be associated with behavioral indicators of addictive-like eating. Additionally, foods with high GL were especially related to addictive-like eating problems for individuals endorsing elevated symptoms of “food addiction.” Individuals endorsing symptoms of addictive-like eating behavior may be more susceptible to the large blood sugar spike of high GL foods, which is consistent with the importance of dose and rate of absorption in the addictive potential of drugs of abuse. Collectively, the findings provide preliminary evidence for the foods and food attributes implicated in “food addiction” and for proposed parallels between pharmacokinetic properties of drugs of abuse and highly processed foods. As an important next step in the evaluation of “food addiction,” future studies should also expand on the current findings by measuring biological responses and directly observing eating behaviors associated with highly processed foods in order to examine whether addictive-like mechanisms, such as withdrawal and tolerance, may be present.17

Green Med Info did a wonderful write-up on this article that gave a list of the top 20 foods found to be the most addictive, you can find them here.18

Before I leave this topic on junk food and fast food, I have to mention artificial sweeteners. Of all the crazy and brilliant things for the food industry to do is to make us convinced that calories are the regulator of our weight, which is now known not to be the case, and devise a substance to be sold that was devoid of calories and nutrition. Unfortunately, studies have shown that “low and no calorie” “diet foods” actually can lead to weight gain, more cravings (due to its effects on satiety cues), and metabolic derangement.19-22 In fact, some studies have even shown tumor growth in rodents from various artificial sweeteners.

You can read more about the science and controversy of food addiction here.


  1. Isolation

More and more, we are realizing that emotions play a big role in our health. Probably the best example is stress on our immune and cardiovascular system.23-25 I want to dig deeper into the emotional aspect of food, appetite, and cravings. Wait, I already did! Here is the link.

I also suggest, for those who struggle with the emotional aspect of eating, to take the time to listen to one of my favorite authors and “health celeb,” Marc David here:


I explore more about the complex interactions of weight loss in my upcoming book, BreakFree Medicine. Stay tuned!

This blog focused on appetite and cravings, but don’t forget that a comprehensive weight loss program will include many factors relating to healthy weight management. These include: maintaining a healthy microbiome, food quality, stress mediation, hormonal balance, digestive health, activity level, genetics, gender (You can’t change this, but there are dietary and exercise implications.), environmental exposures, neurotransmitter balance, and sleep hygiene

As a bonus, my Top Reads for November 2015 just came out! I got a little distracted by my appetite for knowledge on this topic, but still wanted to get that to you!



  1. Barber R. Top Reasons Americans Are Food Obsessed. Psychology Today. September 16, 2010.
  2. Lappalainen R, Sjödén PO, Hursti T, Vesa V. Hunger/craving responses and reactivity to food stimuli during fasting and dieting. Int J Obes. 1990 Aug;14(8):679-88.
  3. Martin CK, Rosenbaum D, Han H, et al. Change in food cravings, food preferences, and appetite during a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md). 2011;19(10):1963-1970. doi:10.1038/oby.2011.62.
  4. Rao TSS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, Rao KSJ. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 2008;50(2):77-82. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42391.
  5. Meeusen R. Exercise, Nutrition and the Brain. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z). 2014;44(Suppl 1):47-56. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0150-5.
  6. Frost G, Sleeth M, Sahuri-Arisoylu M, Lizarbe B, Cerdan S, Brody L, Anastaovska J, et al. The short-chain fatty acid acetate reduces appetite via a central homeostatic mechanism. Nature Communications. April 29, 2014; 5:3611. doi:10.1038/ncomms4611
  7. Cell Press. Microbes signal to the brain when they’re full. ScienceDaily. November 24, 2015.
  8. Breton J, Tennoune N, Lucas N, Francois M, Legrand R, Jacuemot J, Goichen A, et al. Gut Commensal E. coli Proteins Activate Host Satiety Pathways following Nutrient-Induced Bacterial Growth. Cell Metabolism. 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2015.10.017
  9. Chen Z, Guo L, Zhang Y, et al. Incorporation of therapeutically modified bacteria into gut microbiota inhibits obesity. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2014;124(8):3391-3406. doi:10.1172/JCI72517.
  10. Caudwell P, Gibbons C, Hopkins M, Naslund E, King N, Finlayson G, Blundell J. The influence of physical activity on appetite control: an experimental system to understand the relationship between exercise-induced energy expenditure and energy intake. Proc Nutr Soc. 2011 May;70(2):171-80. doi: 10.1017/S0029665110004751.
  11. Bellisle F. Food choice, appetite and physical activity. Public Health Nutr. 1999 Sep;2(3A):357-61.
  12. Blundell JE, Stubbs RJ, Hughes DA, Whybrow S, King NA. Cross talk between physical activity and appetite control: does physical activity stimulate appetite? Proc Nutr Soc. 2003 Aug;62(3):651-61.
  13. Apolzan JW, Flynn MG, McFarlin BK, Campbell WW. Age and physical activity status effects on appetite and mood state in older humans. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme. 2009;34(2):203-211. doi:10.1139/H08-150.
  14. Naleid AM, Grimm JW, Kessler DA, et al. Deconstructing the vanilla milkshake: the dominant effect of sucrose on self-administration of nutrient-flavor mixtures. Appetite. 2008;50(1):128-138. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2007.06.011.
  15. Sørensen LB1, Møller P, Flint A, Martens M, Raben A. Effect of sensory perception of foods on appetite and food intake: a review of studies on humans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Oct;27(10):1152-66.
  16. Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH (2007) Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE 2(8): e698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000698.
  17. Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load. Weir TL, ed. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(2):e0117959. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117959.
  18. King, M. Top 20 Foods, Are You Hooked? GreenMed Info. December 5, 2015.
  19. Swithers SE1, Davidson TL. A role for sweet taste: calorie predictive relations in energy regulation by rats. Behav Neurosci. 2008 Feb;122(1):161-73. doi: 10.1037/0735-7044.122.1.161.
  20. Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends in endocrinology and metabolism: TEM. 2013;24(9):431-441. doi:10.1016/j.tem.2013.05.005.
  21. Fagherazzi G, Vilier A, Sartorelli S, Lajous M, Balkau B, clavel-Chapelon F.. Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort. American Journal of Nutrition. January 30, 2013; doi: 10.3945/?112.050997
  22. Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2010;83(2):101-108.
  23. Hussain D. Stress, Immunity, and Health: Research Findings and Implications. International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation. 2010; 15(1): 94-100.
  24. Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological bulletin. 2004;130(4):601-630. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601.
  25. Dimsdale JE. Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2008;51(13):1237-1246. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2007.12.024.