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Does High-Glycemic Index Promote Food Addiction?

Yesterday, I was widely quoted in national media on the issue of food addiction. The background for this was an interview done by CanWest’s Sharon Kirkey regarding a recent paper by Simon Thronley and colleagues from Auckland, New Zealand, published in Medical Hypothesis.

The basic tenor of their article is that food consumption shows many similarities to features of other addictive behaviours, such as automaticity and loss of control. They hypothesize that Glycemic Index (GI) is perhaps the key element of food that predicts its addictive potential.

They quote reports of a withdrawal syndrome from high glycemic food abstinence and argue that both empirical and clinical studies support an addictive component of eating behaviour, with similar neurotransmitters and neural pathways triggered by food consumption, as with addictive drugs.

Specifically, they argue that the short time to peak arterial concentration of glucose (similar to the short time to peak concentrations of nicotine in smokers) associated with high GI-foods, essentially ‘spikes’ the addictive potential of palatable foods – thereby making them more addictive than low-GI foods.

The authors suggest that subtle changes in the preparation and manufacturing of commonly consumed food items and/or reducing glycemic index through regulatory channels, may help break a cycle of [food-] addiction and draw large public health benefits.

While I much like their concept, and certainly buy into the fact that some folks demonstrate features akin to food addiction, this is certainly not a universal thruth that applies to all people with excess weight – in fact, I know a couple of normal weight people, who probably have “sweet addiction” as well.

Nevertheless, I do think that this paper should once again remind us of the important mental health component to ingestive behaviour and certainly explains why for some people kicking doughnuts and chocolate is apparently as hard as kicking alochol or cocaine.

Edmonton, Alberta.


  1. Good job Arya! I agree that their research is interesting, in at some points, compelling, but it is not a universal truth. I again refer interested individuals to the work published by the Rudd Center at Yale University just last year regarding the inability of a large and distinguished group of researchers from all over the world to come to any conclusion regarding the existence of food addiction. This remains the most compelling research to date for me. In this industry especially, we must be VERY CAUTIOUS not to throw around the term “addiction” especially as it relates to food in general, or even to specific foods, as the public seems to see this as a scientific truth and just one good solid reason for a person’s obesity – a reason that is wholly within or without their control, and something that is personal and certainly not the responsibility of society, science, or the insurance industry to have to fix. Please write more about the haphazard use of the word “addiction,” and the incorrect inferences taht accompany its use by medical and mental health professionals in relation to obese individuals. Perhaps that will get some national media attention as well. Kep up the great work Arya. Hope to see you at ASMBS or another conference this year.

    Julie Janeway

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  2. Well, I’m not sure I agree with Jane that the word addiction is an important distinction. Certain foods interact with certain genetic predisposition to light up certain neural pathways. The questions in my head are:
    1. what, if anything, can those people do to light up those neural pathways that isn’t a “negative addiction”? Maybe I get the same thing out of playing a game or solving a problem?
    2. Which are those foods? I question the high-GI by itself. I think sugar isn’t as addictive as fat, and neither is as addictive as the combination. For all the bad press, I’ve never seen anyone mainline sugar or hard candy or even jam. And then there’s the old “rice” diet. I thought sweet potatos were pretty high-GI but South Africans live on them. There’s something about mild variety, according to Kessler, whether it’s an issue of mouthfeel or hedonic interest.
    3. How controllable is it? What hormones are interacting there? Clearly my menstrual cycle plays a role, and I suspect my hypothyroidism interacts there. What about exercise, vegetables, protein, sleep? I’m not sure I fully understand how the addiction is supposed to work, but it seems like someone “in control” can give in a little bit and not get completely hooked again.

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  3. These are some very interesting findings. Food can be an addiction, just as much as nicotine and alcohol, however there is always hope. Thanks for sharing this information.

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