Are foods really as addictive as alcohol?

“Eating food is necessary for survival. Just like you’d never say, ‘I’m addicted to breathing’ – it’s necessary for survival. You do it all the time. And if you try to stop, your body makes you do it. That’s different to an addiction to opioids.”

“I think we run the risk of trivializing real addictions which require medical therapy and can be life-threatening, by calling a strong desire for chocolate, for example, an ‘addiction’. 

This is not to suggest these foods might not be bad or that the food industry doesn’t aggressively market things that are not good for us, said Professor Crawley. Because they do – and it’s an area that is highly unregulated.

“But I don’t believe that people would commit crimes, risking life and limb for a donut, even if they really, really like donuts. To my mind, it’s just not the same.”

As Murphy points out, for many low-income Australians, especially during this cost-of-living crisis, healthy foods are not as accessible as highly processed foods. 

Meanwhile, the rate of obesity in Australia has quadrupled in the past 40 years. And these ultra-processed foods aren’t going to magically stop being high in salt, sugar and fat. 

So what do we do about it?

“It’s clearly a place for government to regulate,” said Professor Crawley. “The reason these foods are compelling is because things like salt, sugar and fat, are all signals of higher-density nutrition. When we evolved in an environment where calories were really hard to come by, because you had to fight the tigers to get your calories, anytime you found them, you wanted to incentivize consuming them.”