Can Food Be Addictive?

Dr. William Davis Health Pro
  • From time to time, you've likely heard someone say-or said yourself-that some tasty food is "addictive." Perhaps it was rocky road ice cream, or spicy taco chips, or fried onion rings. Of course, you didn't literally mean addictive. You may have overconsumed now and then, but you are not likely to make a habit out of overconsumption, nor knock your husband or wife out of way to get to the bag of chips.


    But can any food truly be addictive, meaning it generates a physiologic response that resembles that of addictive drugs, as well as a withdrawal phenomenon when removed?


    Yes: wheat.


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    The peculiar effect wheat products have on the human brain was suspected as long ago as the 1960s. Psychiatrists observed that people with schizophrenia experience worsened symptoms with wheat consumption: worsened auditory hallucinations, detachment from reality, and other unique and incapacitating facets of the disease. Remove wheat from their diet and these abnormal phenomena improve.


    In an effort to understand why a food as common as wheat might have brain effects led to a line of research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This research led to the identification of "exorphins," or exogenously-derived morphine-like compounds, that result from human gastrointestinal digestion of wheat. Exorphins are able to enter the human brain. Oddly, the binding of exorphins to brain cells can be blocked by morphine-blocking drugs, the very same drugs administered to heroine addicts or people who experience morphine overdoses.


    Subsequent research demonstrated that administration of morphine-blocking drugs, like naloxone, results in reduced appetite in humans. In one study, naloxone administered in the morning reduced calorie intake by 28% over the entire day. The appetite-reducing effect can be especially large in people who suffer from "binge eating disorder," i.e., uncontrollable impulses to eat large quantities of food, sometimes followed by "purging." Binge eaters reduce food consumption by several hundred calories after receiving an opiate-blocking drug.


    Anything that causes an addiction also has a corresponding withdrawal. Nicotine, alcohol, and opiate drugs are all addictive; all are associated with withdrawal when the flow of cigarettes, whiskey, and heroine cease.


    How about wheat?


    Yup, wheat has a withdrawal effect, too. Thankfully, wheat withdrawal is a much softer process than, say, the seizures and hallucinations of heroine withdrawal. When the flow of wheat ceases, 30% of people experience dysphoria (unhappiness, low mood), mental "fog," and fatigue that usually lasts 5 to 7 days, occasionally longer. (I've also witnessed intolerable withdrawal symptoms on occasion, in which someone experiences such emotional distress with wheat withdrawal that they give up in a wheat-consuming frenzy.)


    Morphine-like compounds, withdrawal . . . It sounds like a discussion about drug abuse. But it's just a discussion about the peculiar effects of this thing called "wheat" that all "official" sources of dietary advice, like the USDA, tell us to eat more of.


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    Wouldn't you know that, sooner or later, a drug company would come to the "rescue"? Yes, indeed. Likely sometime next year, a drug company is planning to launch a drug combination that includes the oral opiate-blocking drug, naltrexone, along with the antidepressant, buproprion (used for quitting cigarettes), for the indication of weight loss.


    So wheat is associated with addictive properties. We are told to eat more and more of it, such as the widest part of the USDA food pyramid with 6-11 servings of grains per day. We gain weight, often huge quantities, and develop the complications of being overweight and obese such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and arthritis. We're then sold the "antidote."


    Perhaps a better solution would be to get rid of the cause in the first place. I don't mean the USDA, but wheat. 




Published On: December 17, 2010