When we hear the word “addiction,” we tend to think of alcohol or other harmful substances like cocaine, heroin, and prescription pills. However, there is a wide spectrum of addictions from which individuals can suffer. In addition to the chemical dependencies, there are a number of behavioral addictions that are quite common, including gambling addiction, spending addiction, exercise addiction, and even food addiction. Some have expressed some doubt as to the veracity of some behavioral addictions, wondering whether they constitute actual addictions or whether they could more accurately be described as impulse control disorders. Regardless of the nomenclature, the reality is that there are individuals who have a complex, unhealthy relationship with the foods they consume, which can profoundly influence many other aspects of their lives. The following is intended to enlighten individuals on the reality of food addiction, including the most compelling evidence for food addiction, how it compares to eating disorders, and what makes it similar to or different from other types of addiction.
Food Addiction: Is It Real?
For most of us, we eat food because it’s required for our survival. Of course, we each tend to prefer certain foodstuffs to others while disliking or even being allergic to others entirely. However, eating is generally a means to an end, providing us with the nutrition and energy we need to proceed through each day’s routine. However, evidence has shown that some individuals can develop a physiological dependency with food, in particular those that are considered more palatable with an especially high sugar, fat, or salt content.
Alcohol and drugs are addictive because their consumption is associated with the reward and pleasure centers’ activation in users’ brains. In a relatively short time, the repeated activation of these parts of the brain results in the formation of a habit and when combined with the effect that habitual intoxication has on other functions of the brain, individuals develop the disease of addiction. In the case of food addiction, it’s been found that certain individuals experience the same activation of the reward and pleasure centers in the brain as do those individuals who abuse mind-altering, chemical substances, which has lent credence to the validity of food addiction. Moreover, when individuals eat highly palatable foods, the brain triggers an increase in the production of dopamine and causes feelings of pleasure and happiness, which the individuals begin to associate with eating and, consequently, begin to desire to eat more frequently. And much like alcohol and drug addiction, these food addicts quickly develop a tolerance to food, requiring larger amounts of food in more frequent intervals in order to achieve the same levels of satisfaction.
Eating Disorders vs. Food Addiction
Food addiction shares some similarities with certain eating disorders, but there are also some key differences. Generally speaking, eating disorders tend to be influenced by things like self-esteem and issues concerning one’s body image as is the case with conditions like anorexia and bulimia. In other words, the unhealthy eating habit occurs as a result of an individual’s need to control their eating behaviors in a way that yields a desire change in physical appearance. Individuals who either won’t allow themselves to eat or who won’t allow their bodies to obtain nutrition from food—by vomiting after meals—want to become excessively thin, which they view as a positive outcome despite realistically being quite negative.
On the other hand, individuals who are addicted to food are often fully aware of the negative consequences—weight gain, risk of heart attack, loss of physical endurance, and so on—but as the food addiction progresses they have increasing disregard for the negative consequences, which is a dominant characteristic of addiction. Although there are similarities between some eating disorders and food addiction, a more accurate view is that food addiction and eating disorders are two distinct, yet overlapping, types of conditions.
Similarities to Other Types of Addiction
In a way, eating disorders almost always correlate to self-esteem, self-concept, and/or body image. Moreover, individuals who suffer from an eating disorder usually continue to maintain their other interests and hobbies until such a time as their change in weight—becoming either obese or emaciated—prohibits them from partaking in certain activities. Food addiction is much more similar to other types of addiction, especially alcohol and drug dependence, due to some of the psychological changes that occur as a food addiction develops. As an individual becomes addicted to food, he or she quickly becomes cognizant of how others might perceive this behavior and, consequently, respond by being more secretive about their eating; however, this often coincides with a level of denial as the individual is either unable or unwilling to recognize the reality or severity of the dependency that he or she has developed on food.
With these concerns in mind, the individual with a food addiction separates him or herself from many of the hobbies and interests that were previously held as the seeking and consumption of food takes an increasingly central place in his or her life. Similar to alcoholism and drug addiction, an individual with food addiction will often damage important relationships, become unreliable and emotionally despondent, spend more and more of his or her income on unhealthy foods, and generally display a dramatic decrease in quality of life. Oftentimes these changes are noticed by family members who become increasingly concerned by the food addict’s decline of physical health and overall well-being.
Fortunately, food addiction can be treated. Individuals who suffer from food addiction respond to virtually the same treatments as those recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. Counseling and psychotherapy are essential to figure out why an individual developed a food addiction in the first place—often due either to an impulse control issue or in order to fill an emotional void—while helping him or her to develop strategies that will ensure the individual maintains only healthy eating habits in the future. Food addicts are often also enlightened by education concerning nutrition and the dangers of eating unhealthy foods excessively. Those in recovery from food addiction must have a stable, supportive network of family, friends, and other loved ones who can help by encouraging the individual to sustain a return to healthier eating habits. As a final piece to the puzzle, there are a number of support groups, like Food Addicts Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, that are comprised of individuals at varying stages of recovery from food addiction and who can offer much guidance to those who are struggling with this condition today.
Find Your Way to Recovery with Recovery Hub Today
Addiction to food is just one of the many dependencies from which countless individuals are suffering today. The disease of addiction takes many forms, each of which is potentially deadly if left untreated. If you or someone you love is suffering from food addiction or another type of dependency, call Recovery Hub at 888-220-4352. Our team of recovery specialists is always available to help addicts in need of treatment find the programming that best meets their individual recovery needs, allowing them to return to lives of health and fulfillment. Don’t wait—call us today.