Can't resist the lure of KFC or the 4pm office chocolate run when you're feeling peckish? Then it's likely be your junk food addiction, not your stomach, talking.
According to intensive medical research in the US, fatty processed foods and high fructose sugar treats can be as addictive as cocaine and cigarettes.
The shocking findings come after American scientists looked into the results from 28 independent studies on food addiction. According to the most recent study by the University of Florida in Gainesville, the findings were so stark, it was hard to ignore the obvious links between junk foods and food addiction.
"The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it," says Nora Volkow from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "We are finding tremendous overlaps between drugs in the brain and food in the brain."
During their investigation, researchers found that obese and compulsive eaters were irresistibly drawn to images of junk food in the same way cocaine addicts were when shown a bag of the white powder.
In the junk food eaters, the decision-making area of the brain (the orbit frontal cortex) released a surge of dopamine as they looked at high-fat foods. This is the same reaction drug users get when presented with cocaine.
Another clue into how large quantities of fatty processed foods can change the way the brain is wired, lie with the results from the study on rats by the Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida.
Researchers gave the rats access to foods such as processed bacon, cheesecakes and creamy cake frosting, for one hour a day. They discovered that when the fatty treats were presented to the rats, they began binge eating them, even though they had an unlimited supply of nutritional food.
The rats' brain activity was measured and the study found that processed foods produced the same brain pattern that occurs with escalating intake of cocaine. "To see food do the same thing was mind boggling," said professor Paul Kenny from the study.
Another US food addiction study, by Princeton University, looked into sugar addiction. Lab rats were given 10% of solution of sugar water (the same amount as in most soft drinks) and the researchers found that although they had no problems with the rats having the solution occasionally, they reacted differently when they were allowed the sugar water every day. Scientists discovered that the animals experienced severe withdrawal symptoms, anxiety, the shakes and tremors when they had the sugar drink taken away - the same reaction drug addicts have when they need a hit.
"We consistently found that the changes we were observing in the rats bingeing on sugar were like what we would see if the animals were addicted to drugs," said professor Nicole Avena from the study.
The research findings across all studies are so significant that scientists are using them to help create a drug that could help binge eaters alter their food preferences.
"We are trying to develop treatments that interfere with pathological food preferences," says Mark Gold from the University of Florida in Gainesville.
"Let's say you are addicted to ice cream, you might come up with a treatment that blocked your interest in ice cream, but doesn't affect your interest in meat."
Moreover, if fatty foods are written off as addictive, food companies could be faced with a drawn-out consumer safety battle like the anti-smoking movement that took place on the tobacco industry.
"This could change the legal landscape," says Kelly Brownell from Yale University. "People knew for a long time cigarettes were killing people, but it was only later they learned about nicotine and the intentional manipulation of it."
However, the junk food companies are sticking to their guns. "I have never heard of anyone robbing a bank to get money to buy a candy bar or ice cream or pop," Indra Nooyi, the chief executive at PepsiCo, told Bloomberg.
Doreen Virtue, author of Constant Craving offers her advice on how to resist your salt, sugar and fat cravings and stay on the right track with your diet.
"Ginger ale and soy milk are high in tyramine, which can help relieve chocolate cravings. Pekoe tea is high in chocolate's other stimulating ingredient. theobromine."
"One reason we shun fruit during our sweet cravings is that fruit seems like a deprivation alternative. We've got to dress fruit up! Put a little flavoured, fat-free yoghurt on top. Puree the fruit with an ice cube and some ginger ale. Microwave sliced apple for two minutes at high temperature with a little bit of cinnamon and you've got a quick, low calorie apple-pie type treat."
"If, after analysing your cravings, you discover any anger, frustration or stress, ask yourself how you might take even one step toward alleviating the source of these emotions. Is there someone you can talk to, or some changes that you can make in your life? If you reduce the source of your uncomfortable emotions, you won't need to crave sweet things anymore."
If we tell our bodies that this chocolate bar or hamburger will be our last treat ever, we're more likely to binge. "It's like we're seeing a beloved person for the last time, so of course we want to spend as much time as possible with that object of affection." The key is eat all treats in moderation and if the craving get too much, seek healthier alternatives.
"Crunch on crisp vegetables dipped in low calorie, fat-free salad dressing. Instead of potato chips and french fries, go for carrot and celery sticks. Broccoli and cauliflower florets are also tasty replacements. They may not seem as appealing as the fatty versions, but the crunch and flavour will soothe your craving."
"Sweet treats usually equal reward. We all need pats on the back and kudos for hard work. But instead of stopping at the cookie shop or take-out, why not treat yourself to a new book, item of clothing or shoes? This will feel just as satisfying and is much healthier than a fat-laden treat."