When the editors at Psychology Today approached me a couple of years ago with an assignment to write a book called Breaking the Bonds of Food Addiction, my first (very conservative) thought was, “There’s no such thing as an addiction to food.” How could I possibly write 375 pages of material about a condition that doesn’t exist? I was wrong. While researching the book, I found out there’s plenty of evidence to support the theory of food addiction, and there’s a lot to say about it. Neuroscientists have found that food affects brain chemistry in ways that might lead to an addiction in some people. In fact, the brain chemistry and physiology of an obese person has been shown to be very similar to that of a drug addict.
It’s true that scientists have yet to figure out why or how someone can become addicted to food, or to prove that a true addiction to food even exists. But whenever I talk to someone with a compulsive overeating disorder, I inevitably hear about behavior that is secretive, self-destructive, and out of control. The obsession is the same as that of a gambler, a sex addict, or a compulsive gamer.
Food addiction goes by many names, including emotional eating, disordered eating, and binge eating. Food restriction and avoidance are also forms of food addiction. So, if you go on a diet to try to lose weight, or if you pay strict attention to what you eat so you don’t gain any more weight, does that mean you’re a food addict? No. But if you go on diet after diet after unsuccessful diet or if you are overly preoccupied with food and body size, you may be a food addict. If you constantly think about eating (or avoiding) food, if you’re planning your next meal before you’ve even finished the one you’re eating, or if the mere thought of entering a supermarket brings up feelings of guilt or shame, you may be a food addict. You’re definitely a food addict if your relationship with food interferes with your physical or emotional well-being.