Can we really be addicted to food? After all, we need food to survive. Our brains are wired to experience pleasure from eating which is what motivates us to consume enough energy—clearly a survival instinct. Like any substance that taps the pleasure centers in the brain though, food has the ability to over-tap those pleasure centers, creating a drive to eat that is abnormal. Recent research has shown that unusually high consumption of certain foods can induce an “addictive” drive to eat in laboratory rats (Avena et al 2012). Processed foods have been implicated, including sugar, flour, some fats, and even salt (Gearhardt et al 2011).
Do you think you may have a food addiction? Consider the following signs.
1. Increased Consumption Over Time. Have you been steadily increasing your food intake over time? For example, do you eat significantly more on a daily basis now than you did 1 year ago? A food addict will have gradually increased their intake over time, particularly of the refined foods that I mentioned above.
2. Tolerance is when you need more and more of a substance to achieve a desired effect. Often the desired effect in food addiction is emotional, such as calm or relief from anxiety or depression. A sign of tolerance is when you begin to notice that you can consume amounts of food that are much larger than most other people can in order to feel “satisfied.”
3. Withdrawal is when you experience negative symptoms when you are unable to eat. Although we all feel a little uncomfortable when we are hungry and unable to eat (e.g., light headed, stomach growling), the difference with food addiction is that you may experience symptoms of anxiety, panic, and/or irritability.
4. Preoccupation. Addicts spend more and more time obtaining, consuming and/or even thinking about food, to the point of spending less time doing usual activities including social, work and recreational activities.
5. Unsuccessful Attempts to Cut Down. Addiction is also characterized by unsuccessful efforts to cut down. However, just because you have not been successful at dieting does not mean you are a food addict. The difference with food addiction is that dieting attempts are short-lived and end in out-of-control binge eating episodes.
6. Continue Despite Consequences. The food addict will often continue to overeat in spite of physical, psychological and/or relationship problems that develop. For example, one might develop type 2 diabetes or gain a large amount of weight in a short period of time (e.g., 50 pounds in a year) but still persist with their eating habits. Eventually the individual may even refuse to change their eating habits or may seem unaware of or very resistant to acknowledging health problems or the weight gain.
What Can Be Done?
If you think you might have a food addiction, you should seek help from an experienced professional in food or other addictions (e.g., clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed professional counselor, or other licensed mental health professional). Food addiction is not hopeless. Overcoming an addiction is work, but very possible. Addiction hijacks your brain. Areas of your brain that regulate decision making, motivation and memory become controlled by the substance. This is why addicts do things that are seemingly irrational or out of character. The object of treatment is to regain control. Here’s how.
1. Detox. Creating a bland diet is the first and most important step of recovery. Eliminating refined foods from the diet including simple sugars, flours, many fats, and even salt will be necessary, at least for a while. These foods need to be completely eliminated so that they stop hijacking your brain, giving you a chance to regain control.
2. Remove Cues. Removing any and all foods from the home that the addict has a tendency to overeat is essential, even if some are not refined foods. Any foods that cue binges should not be in arms reach. Other household members will need to cooperate with this measure to insure success.
3. Develop Regular Pattern of Eating. Food addicts have very irregular eating patterns, sometimes skipping meals, and then eating large amounts at times that are unusual. A focus of treatment is developing a regular pattern of eating which includes 3 meals and 2 small snacks. Often the use of alarms to remind the individual to eat at scheduled times is necessary to “reset” the dietary clock to a normal pattern.
4. Peer Support. Connecting with others who have the same problem is very important when overcoming an addiction. While family and friends can try to understand, it is helpful to have a peer group to vent and discuss the challenges.
5. Journaling. Stress and other negative moods are triggers for relapse in any addiction. Keeping a journal of one’s eating and moods is a helpful step to gaining an understanding of how different moods affect consumption.
7. Exercise. Exercise not only reduces stress and weight, but it has also been shown to reduce food cravings, increase self-control, and reduce addictive behaviors (Fontes-Riberio et al 2011).
8. Get Back to Living. Counseling involves identifying and planning activities that are consistent with life values and goals in order to create forward momentum towards a life that is meaningful and values-driven, and not dictated by food.
Avena, NM, Bocarsly,ME & Hoebel, B.G. (2012). Animal models of sugar and fat binging: Relationship to food addiction and increased body weight. Methods of Molecular Biology, 829, 351-265.
Gearhardt, AN, Davis, C, Kuschner, R, Brownell, KD. (2011). The addiction potential of hyperpalatable foods. Curr Drug Abuse Reviews, 4(3), 140-145.
Fontes-Ribeiro et al (2011). May exercise prevent addiction? Curr Neuropharmacol, 9(1): 45-48.