Humans need food to survive, so it’s no surprise that when people hear about food addiction, a bit of controversy sparks up. Naysayers argue that those who claim to have a food addiction merely lack discipline and refuse to take responsibility over their eating habits, but as a growing obesity epidemic grows across the United States, it might be a little more than junk food cravings.
Food Addiction as a disease is still in its early stages of research and understanding, but several studies have established that there are addictive qualities in certain types of food—namely junk food and foods high in sugar and fat—that affect the brain’s “reward” receptors. As people fall into unhealthy eating-for-reward cycles, the addiction for food to fulfill an inherent part of their psyche grows.
People with food addiction face similar stigmas that alcohol and/or drug abusers face, being accused of having their problems be brought upon themselves, that they lack discipline, and that the answer is simple: just stop being addicted. Yet, when your vice is a part of your nutritional diet, how do you stop?
What is a food addiction?
It’s normal to receive pleasure from eating food, but there are some people who depend on it, much like how a person addicted to heroin depends on the high to make them feel good. For a person suffering from a food addiction, eating triggers a chemical reaction in the brain that spikes up dopamine levels and gives them pleasure. From this pleasure, the addict grows a dependence on eating to achieve happiness or at least distract themselves from their realities, much as how one would resort to drugs to escape their environment.
Tolerance levels to certain foods, particularly sugar, build up, thus requiring larger portions to achieve the same satisfied effect from eating them. This then throws the food addict into a vicious eating-for-reward cycle, which can lead to physical, emotional, and social consequences.
It should be noted that while it is referred to as a food addiction, the actual addiction lies less in the vice, but in the act of eating. As such, many food addictions revolve around eating habits and can be manifested in a variety of ways: overeating, binging, compulsive eating, bulimia, and anorexia. As such, while most people would assume food addiction only affects overweight/obese people, the reality is that food addiction can affect people with normal weights and ideal weights. In fact, another aspect of food addiction is over-exercising from those who obsessively exercise in order to justify their addictions.
However, it is true that most food addictions result in weight gain. The reality is that more than half of the American population is considered overweight and nearly one quarter of the adult population is classified as obese, and the numbers keep growing.
Can you really be addicted to food?
Food addiction is a type of eating disorder resulted by a culmination of biological, psychological, and social factors. From hormonal imbalances to depression/anxiety, the addict chooses food as a means to restore balance in their life. They eat when they’re not hungry, they are constantly under the submission of their cravings, they have no control over their eating habits, or they use food as an emotional crutch.
The need to overeat to increase dopamine levels is real, similar to the addictive qualities of caffeine. Much like the person who says he “needs” his coffee before starting the day, people with food addictions “need” their food in order to feel happy or to escape their realities. The addictive mentality to using food as a substance to escape your problems is where the addiction lies and which ultimately result in four main factors:
- Craving/Obsession: When the thought of food/eating occupies your mind when you are not hungry, or when you are working how to get your next “fix” by incorporating a “cheat” food into a diet somehow (this includes making of reasons for why you “deserve” a treat when you inherently know it is bad for you).
- Abuse: When discipline gets thrown out the window when you eat, resulting in portions much larger than necessary is consumed to the point that you feel “overstuffed” and sick; or partaking in other unhealthy habits: purging and/or starving.
- Tolerance: When more and more food is required to satisfy your urges, particularly in sugary, salty, and fatty foods.
- Withdrawal: When attempting to eliminate your vice from your diet, immediate dopamine withdrawal symptoms occur.
How do you know if you’re addicted to food?
The first thing you should establish is why you are eating. If your favorite food is chocolate and you like indulging yourself with a candy bar every once in a while, then there is nothing wrong with that. It’s when you grow a dependency on chocolate, interpreting your craving as an inherent need for it as if it were water, that the issue begins to occur.
Chances are you’ll never be addicted to something that’s good for you. It’s rare that you hear about people being addicted to broccoli, for instance, but it could still happen. Most food addicts will crave sugary, salty, and fatty foods—junk food, essentially. Wheat is another large addictive food, particularly breads and pastas. Still, even if you are notorious for having a “sweet tooth” or a real love for French fries, that does not necessarily mean you have a food addiction.
Again, it’s why you eat or indulge that poses the problem. Using food as comfort for times when you are sad, anxious, or angry—which occurs on a frequent basis—means food is an emotional crutch. Having a routine habit of eating while bored, getting up in the middle of the night just to eat, eating for the sake of eating, and going through stages of binging and starving are all factors that food is playing a larger psychological and biological role in your love. There are people who eat everything they find enjoyable all at once—instead of consuming it gradually over several meals—out of some irrational fear that it will all be gone, never enjoyed, a “last meal” type of mentality. If life upsets you and the only way to make you feel better is a box of cookies, then there’s a problem.
There are several symptoms of food addiction and a great deal of them are physical:
- Gorging in more food than you can physically handle, possibly until the point of vomiting
- Going out of your way to obtain foods or rationalizing why you can eat certain foods despite knowing the negative consequences
- Continuing to eat even when you are not hungry
- Eating in secret, hiding your food, being ashamed to eat in front of others
- Spending significant amounts of money on food, especially for binging purposes
- Decreased energy, chronic fatigue
- Malnutrition, emaciation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Obsessive thoughts about eating
- Sleeping disorders, such as insomnia and/or oversleeping
- Digestive disorders
- Low self-esteem; body image issues
- Suicidal thoughts
Where can I get help?
There are many support and recovery groups available for people who have some sort of food addiction. Below is a list of food addiction programs that practice healthy-eating habits, psycho-cognitive behavior methods on why food and/or their eating habits prove to be an addiction, and how to maintain temptations. Each program searches to find the core of why you eat and how you channel your insecurities, anxieties, and depression into a healthier form of living.