It sure can seem like we have a food addiction. Intense cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods abound. Sales of fast food, chips, cookies, and soda outweigh fruits and veggies by far. Do we have an actual addiction or is something else going on here?
Hi and welcome to Nutritionally Speaking. I’m your host, Michaela Ballmann. Today I’m going to be looking at whether you could be addicted to food. As a disclaimer, note that I am not a medical doctor and am unable to make diagnoses.
If you’ve noticed, it seems like food can be addicting, but not just any food. I wouldn’t call apples or cauliflower addictive, but chocolate and chips certainly would fit the description.
To start, it would be helpful to describe “addiction”. Merriam-Webster defines addiction as “a compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal”; Collins English Dictionary describes addiction as “the condition of being abnormally dependent on some habit”; Wikipedia specifically defines Behavioral addiction as a “recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences, as deemed by the user themselves to their individual health, mental state, or social life. There may be biological and psychological factors contributing to these addictions”. So, in hopefully more clear terminology, we would describe food addiction as being an obsessive, overwhelming, compelling need to eat certain foods even when you recognize the physical consequences (i.e. weight gain, lethargy, gas, stomach pain, etc.), accompanied by a tolerance to a certain amount of that food (meaning you need more to satisfy you). This addiction may be related to unmet needs, emotional lability, current or past life stressors, etc.
Lets get specific. Many people think that they are addicted to sugar because they notice that they have intensely strong, overpowering cravings to eat sugary foods (like candy, cakes, soda); over time they need more sugar to get the same amount of pleasure or relaxation or positive effect; they feel a lack of self-control and continue to eat and overeat sugary foods even when it gives them headaches and other physical symptoms; they notice that they turn to sugar when they are angry, sad, or bored; they eat dessert and binge in secret; or they recall that their dad ate a lot of sugar-laden foods after he came home from work.
Before we go on, let me clarify that occasional food cravings or a strong desire for a salty or sugary food is not what I’m discussing today. For times when you feel that you’re going to eat a whole bag of cookies if you’re alone and bored, there are strategies that may help you like: going out for a walk, calling a friend, painting your nails, not keeping trigger foods in the house, doing a self-care activity, etc.
Let’s look at what might contribute to a food addiction.
Some argue that the environment is to blame, that over-consumption is a natural result of marketing of sugary products and the availability and accessibility of cheap foodstuffs (like fast food and soda).
Adding to that is the actual addictive experience of eating. Quoting from “The Meaning of Addiction” by Dr. Stanton Peele, “People become addicted to experiences…it engages every aspect of a person’s functioning, starting with the rewards (as interpreted by the individual) that an involvement provides and the individual’s needs for these rewards. The motivation to pursue the involvement, as compared with other involvements, is a function of an additional layer of social, situational, and personality variables.” In other words, eating is an experience that has familiar, expected, and consistent rewards of “good feelings” in the brain and body (just like, say, smoking or illicit drug use). The experience alone may be enough to lead to an addiction in people who maybe are more prone or susceptible to a food addiction, but for others, the experience tied in with a difficult time in their life, isolation and loneliness, impulsivity, and a high sensitivity to stress becomes the perfect storm by which an addiction is made manifest.
But isn’t there something about the food itself that is addicting (apart from whatever mind games ads might play on us or the potentially addicting pleasure of partaking in a meal)?
It looks like there might be a Triple Threat in the world of food–sugar, salt, and fat.
Dr. David Kessler, in his book “The End of Overeating”, proposes that the combination of sugar, salt, and fat in processed foods stimulates opiod circuits through dopamine, overrides the brain’s ability to regulate food intake and leads to addictive eating behaviors and over-consumption of these foods. Over time, dopamine receptors are blunted, tolerance is developed, and more sugar, salt, and fat are required for the same level of pleasure. Since these ingredients are usually combined in a highly refined end product, the simple carbohydrates quickly raise the blood sugar, which is followed shortly after by low blood sugars. It is suggested that these volatile effects on blood sugar also contribute to cravings.
In looking at research that supports the existence of a chemical food addiction, we see that there is a lot happening and not happening in the brain not only when eating but also when looking forward to eating something.
A study published in 2011 from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity looked at the biological process of food addiction using women and chocolate milkshakes. After having the subjects take a test that measured food addiction, the researchers used MRIs to look at what happened in the brain when these women both anticipated and drank either a chocolate shake or a tasteless, Calorie-free solution. Interestingly, regardless of body weight, those with high scores on the addiction test had similar brain activity to that of drug addicts, namely more activity in the “pleasure and craving” regions of the brain (the amygdala, anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), and medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) to be specific), and less in the “inhibition or self-control” region (the lateral orbitofrontal cortex). What’s more, there was greater activation in the caudate area of the brain when anticipating the food–the caudate appears to play a role in motivation, value, and rewards, so these results suggest that people with higher Food Addiction scores may be more likely to respond stronger to food cues and go out in search of their food reward.
Though we certainly aren’t rodents, a 2010 study found that rats started binge eating on processed, high-fat/-salt foods, related to damage to the dopamine centers of reward. Another study from Princeton found that daily access to sugar-water led to increased consumption by rats compared to their normal food, and symptoms of withdrawal when a drug was used to negate the effect of the sugar.
It looks like Food Addiction is a real problem stemming from the steady stream of sugar, salt and fat in our diet in the forms of refined foods that trigger reactions in the brain which leads to the development of a strong motivation-reward pathway which then leads us to crave more of these foods to get the same pleasure. The proposed solution might sound simple–cut these foods out of your diet–but if one is eating these foods on a daily basis or multiple times a day, this is asking for a diet transformation. Additionally, I think that with time and recovery, these foods can still be occasional treats and don’t have to become a forbidden food that is inevitably binged on in secret. Winning over a food addiction will likely involve finding other, healthy sources of pleasure for your brain that are less potent or addicting, like positive self-esteem, self-love, meaningful relationships, gratifying work, and service to others.
Note that each case will be different depending on the individual so general recommendations may not be relevant or sufficient to help you. Recovery may involve looking to a dietitian, counselor, or family member for help. If you need more than they can offer, there are many more resources out there, such as Food Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, 12-step programs, and other Eating Disorder support groups. The Food Addiction Institute has self-assessments on its site and goes into detail describing what they have distinguished as the four stages of food addiction. You can go to their website, www.foodaddictioninstitute.org, to learn more about and from this non-profit organization.
As you seek freedom from a food addiction, it may be helpful, just as for less intense cravings, to make sure to treat yourself with compassion and be patient! Take time for self-care activities, like taking naps or bubble baths, getting a facial or massage, and doing enjoyable exercise. Avoid trigger situations and foods as much as possible, and, if you’re comfortable, have a person you can be real with who you can call when you feel triggered to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors or feel that you’re on the verge of binging. Become comfortable with negative feelings; don’t be scared of feeling your anger, fear, or sadness. If you are able to process these emotions, you’ll be less likely to turn to food to soothe yourself or ignore what’s going on inside.
I hope that this episode has helped you learn more about what food addictions are, how they work, and how you can prevent or recover from one.
I recently launched my new website wholify.com where I offer nutrition counseling and other nutrition services in addition to my blog and this podcast. You can email me any comments or questions about this episode or about getting individualized nutrition counseling at firstname.lastname@example.org My new Twitter handle is @wholify. Thanks again for listening and I’ll see you next time!