What if certain foods were addictive for some people in the same way as tobacco?

Doctors would no longer tell the obese just to eat less and move more. That advice would prove as useless as telling smokers to cut back on ciggies.

Instead, there would be support groups for people trying to quit addictive foods and public policy measures to counter their pull and consumption.

Smoking not so long ago was considered in the same way as food is now: just a bad habit. It wasn't until the 1970s that nicotine was identified as addictive.


What if the very foods that health professionals and food companies are pushing are precisely those with addictive properties?

It's happened before. The New Zealand government provided cigarettes free to soldiers in World War I. American doctors endorsed including cigarettes in ration packs in World War II.

The other week I attended a nutrition conference in Sydney. Dr Simon Thornley, a lecturer in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Auckland, theorised that certain foods are indeed addictive.

Along with AUT University colleague Dr Hayden McRobbie he's written a book called Sickly Sweet: Sugar, Refined Carbohydrate, Addiction and Global Obesity.

The two men are experts in nicotine addiction and treatment. They have recently turned their attention to obesity, for which the possibility of food addiction is largely unexplored.

The possibility of certain foods being addictive does not absolve us from personal responsibility. But it does change how we think about our own behaviour and how best we can improve ourselves.

It's hard to quit smoking by willpower alone. You may last a few weeks, or even months, but chances are you will end up back there. It's the same with dieting. People can lose weight. But very few keep it off.

So why do people smoke? It's to avoid the withdrawal discomfort. They feel terrible when they don't smoke.

I have never smoked so I don't understand it. But I felt sick for days when I cut out sugar and flour. I was lethargic, irritable. I had aches and pains. I found myself thinking about nothing but food - specifically, food with sugar and flour.

The signs for McDonald's, the billboards, the beautiful food wrappers filling supermarket shelves were siren calls pulling me in. And if I broke, if I put a slice of bread in my mouth, or a biscuit, the hit and relief were instant. Then I couldn't stop. I would gobble food until I was more than stuffed full. And soon I would be hungry for more.

As the two doctors explain it, that sounds less like quitting smoking and more like opiate withdrawal. Body aches and pains are more commonly described after quitting heroin than cigarettes.

Yet, after two months, I broke free of the pain and the cravings. Just like a heroin addict. Unlike dieting, and eating a balanced diet, white knuckle willpower has proved not to be a forever thing. I just had to break through the addiction.

And just like a heroin addict, I can't have a little bit of sugar or a little bit of flour. To do so is to start all over again. I am back there living my life obsessed by my next sugar fix. My only way to be free of the cravings is to live free of the stuff.

Doctors Thornley and McRobbie explain the pathways in the brain responsible for nicotine and cocaine addiction and the possibility they are responsible for food addiction. It's fascinating stuff.

But best you try it for yourself. Cut out sugar and flour for a couple of days. See how you feel. And consider that, perhaps, you too could be addicted.

Cut the sugar, the flour, the processed foods, the starch.

Of course, you have to eat something else. And so you must eat the nutrient-dense traditional food - eggs, cheese, fatty meats, cream, green vegetables.

They are the foods we always ate. They aren't the foods we crave and eat unconsciously, such as biscuits, bread, soft drinks and fast food. These are the foods that satisfy us. And nourish us.

I suspect Doctors Thornley and McRobbie are on to something. Bacon and eggs and cheese for breakfast. Not fruit juice, breakfast cereal and low-fat yoghurt.

I am not the perfect shape by any means. But it's marvellous living free of the addiction. And the food is better.