The Serious Reality of Food Addiction

Dr Agnes Ryu

In my functional medicine practice, I regularly see the impacts of food addiction across nearly all chronic health conditions – whether it’s cardiovascular disease, cancer, hormone imbalances, or fertility struggles.

The truth is that certain foods can be just as physically and psychologically addictive as illicit substances due to their effects on our brain chemistry and hormones.

However, society still does not fully recognize the gravity of food addiction or see it as requiring serious treatment. Terms like “comfort food” downplay the reality that ultra-processed foods high in salt, unnatural fat and sugar can hijack the reward pathways in our brains, light up the same regions triggered by drug use, and drive compulsive overeating.

Just as with other addictions, denial and lack of awareness helps food addiction thrive, sinking its hooks deeper into both body and mind. My goal is to pull back the curtain on the science showing that food addiction is real, help patients understand what drives their cravings biologically, and equip them with tools to regain control.

What Drives Food Addiction?

Food addiction develops through a combination of family/genetic tendencies, brain wiring, hormone imbalances, and regular consumption of hyperpalatable foods engineered by food scientists to override our natural hunger/fullness signals.

Specifically, foods like crackers, chips, fries, pizza, cookies and ice cream spike dopamine production. This “feel good” neurotransmitter lights up the reward centres of the brain, flooding us with pleasure chemicals, which our brains quickly learn to crave more of. We essentially become hooked on the high calorie bursts these processed foods provide.

Simultaneously, these foods drain our dopamine reserves over time, killing motivation and leaving us wanting more low-nutrient junk food rather than real whole foods. We end up in a ‘Dopamine Deficiency’ state – unhappy, unfocused and constantly chasing dopamine hits from processed carbs and sugars. This creates a vicious cycle of addiction and declining health.

The High Calorie Malnutrition Trap

Many of my patients struggling with excess weight and chronic health problems are actually in a ‘High Calorie Malnutrition state’, meaning they consume plenty of calories but lack proper nutrition for cellular health. When cells are starving nutritionally, wide cellular function fluctuations result. Hormone signals go haywire. Neurotransmitters deplete. Mitochondria fail to produce enough energy.

All of this significantly impacts brain function – reward circuits get hijacked more easily. Impulse control, decision making and delayed gratification pathways weaken. Cravings and binge tendencies strengthen. Metabolic flexibility decreases. Compulsive overeating and addiction intensifies.

In essence, poor cellular nutrition from addictive hyperpalatable foods begets more addictive eating, trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle that I see daily with patients.

Treating Food Addiction Seriously

Just as with other addictions, overcoming food addiction requires understanding the underlying biological drivers, removing triggers, establishing lifestyle structures and support system to prevent relapse, rebuilding nutrition at the cellular level, balancing neurotransmitters and hormones, enhancing metabolism, and truly shifting how the brain relates to food.  The first step is accepting that food addiction is real – as powerful as other addictions – and tackling it seriously through holistic protocols that heal body, brain and behavior simultaneously.

This level of comprehensive treatment is essential because food (or food-like stuff) addiction involves complex neural wiring built up over years or decades. An effective protocol must unwind the layers of hormonal dysregulation, cellular starvation, neurological addiction pathways and distorted thought patterns simultaneously. Piecemeal approaches typically fail.

Managing Food Addiction for Fertility and Pregnancy

When it comes to fertility struggles and trouble conceiving, insulin and leptin regulation are absolutely essential yet often hindered by food addiction patterns. Insulin is key for facilitating proper ovarian function and ovulation. Meanwhile, the hormone leptin acts like a “nutrient sensor,” communicating with the hypothalamus about our energy reserves so hunger/fullness regulation can work properly. But when someone is stuck in food addiction cycles of processed carbohydrate and sugar overload, insulin spikes while leptin signalling becomes impaired.

This wreaks havoc for reproductive health and fertility on myriad levels – from irregular periods to poor egg quality to problems sustaining healthy pregnancy. Rebalancing these hormones and metabolic factors is hugely important.

As I guide patients struggling with infertility through the 7 Cellular Keys protocol, we methodically repair metabolic flexibility, optimize nutrients for fertility, rewire neurological reward centres and stabilize hormonal pathways so the body has the best foundations possible for supporting new life. With deeper healing at the cellular level, nutritionally-renewed eggs and improved metabolic regulation, I’ve seen patients transform their hormone balance and fertility, opening the doors for the healthy pregnancy they have hoped for.



Food Addiction, High-Glycemic-Index Carbohydrates, and Obesity


Agnes Ryu

Agnes Ryu

Dr. Ryu is a clinician and biochemist specializing in integrative medicine. Her clinical interests include fertility, hormones, metabolism, healthy ageing, menopause, and natural breast cancer care. As an integrative practitioner, Dr. Ryu aims to uncover the root causes of health issues and strives to empower patients with the knowledge and tools to take charge of their own health.

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