Food Addiction

In 2014, Beatingdisorders.org carried out a national survey in the UK to learn why people overeat. The survey, aimed at adults aged 18 years and above, involved 1,017 respondents. They found that 85% of individuals who overeat have a negative body image of themselves, and 79% felt pressured from society to lose excess weight.

Scientists around the world are divided about overeating as a problem, its contribution to obesity and the right treatment means. Anyone who has ever tried to quit behavioural or substance abuse will tell you that it’s one of the hardest things they’ve ever had to do. According to the Daily Mail Online, binge eating is the hardest addiction to beat, blighted by frequent relapses, and a superabundance of triggers that make it very difficult to sustain abstinence.

If you do not get help for compulsive eating, you gain weight, which leads to problems such as high cholesterol levels, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep disorders and mental health problems, including depression and body image issues.

Treatment for food addiction is more complicated than other addictions because you need food to live, it’s not something you can completely quit. Treating food addiction requires the help of professional therapists to help you understand the causes of your addiction and help you work towards learning to diet properly and live a healthy life.

Food addiction explained

Like most chemical substances, food is addictive. Food is a comfort when you’re feeling depressed, stressed, angry, anxious and sad. Foods that contain higher levels of salt, sugar, fat and starch are some of the most addictive food groups, which trigger feel-good chemicals in the brain, just like cocaine and heroin do. These foods trigger there lease of dopamine, that makes you feel the urge to eat again, even when you’re not hungry.

Currently, the only recognised food disorder is binge eating disorder, a problem that leads to obesity. Some scientists argue that labelling food disorders as addictions make it impossible for affected individuals to find help for recovery and removes personal responsibility. Brain imaging studies on humans show that food can be an addiction when the brain’s reward centre is not functioning properly.

A study by the Global Burden of Disease found that a poor diet is responsible for one in five deaths around the world, killing more people than carrying excess weight, smoking and obesity. The average woman lives 83 years, while men live 79 years on average. Women and men are only expected to enjoy good health until the ages of 71 and 69 respectively because of unhealthy eating habits.

Individuals who are susceptible to food addiction might build up a tolerance for food that is high in sugar, fat and salt. You might also experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop overeating.

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Are You a Food Addict?

A common manifestation of food addiction is craving junk food loaded with fat and carbs. A few questions to help determine if you’re a food addict includes:

  • Do you reach for one cookie in a bag of cookies or chips but soon find you’ve emptied the contents of the bag?
  • You can control your food intake during meals but overeat where junk and snacks are concerned
  • You’ve lost the energy to complete activities you enjoyed in the past
  • You eat even when you’re not hungry
  • You worry about quitting food with a high-calorie content
  • You always feel guilty after overeating
  • You experience physical withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and agitation when you cut back on foods or beverages like coffee, soda and energy drinks.
  • Your eating habits affect your productivity levels at work
  • It’s easier for you to skips meals than to eat smaller portions
  • Once you’ve had a taste of pasta or bread, you have to go back for second and third helpings

Top signs of food addiction

Food addiction involves a problem with overeating, cravings for certain foods and lack of control where food is concerned. The most common symptoms of food addiction include:

You get cravings for food even when you’re full: Cravings and hunger are not the same. When you eat a nutritious meal, you’re not hungry. If you crave another food that has more calories and find it difficult to control your response, that’s a sign of food addiction.

You always eat more than you intend to: Some people can have a slice of cake once in a while and be content. You’ll find it much harder to be satisfied with one slice if you have an addiction to food. It’s always all or nothing, and moderation never works for you.

You feel guilty after overeating but do it again during your next meal: You feel bad when you do something that is against your values. A guilty conscience is common because it means you care. If your desire to exert willpower over your eating habits is not working, you feel undisciplined and weak, and repeat the behaviour to cope with the negative feelings.

The causes of food addiction

There is no single factor that directly leads to food addiction. It’s usually a culmination of various factors, some of which include:

Biological factors: Biological factors that might influence food addiction include reactions to some medications, hormonal imbalances, brain structures that aren’t functioning properly and family members, such as parents, who have dealt with a similar addiction. Women whose parents have a history of alcohol use disorder have a 49% increased risk of dealing with obesity.

Coping with past traumas: Individuals who experienced trauma or emotional and sexual abuse might use food to cope with grief, loss, and low self-esteem. A study of women who have PTSD found that most of them were dealing with food addiction. The relationship was stronger when trauma happened at a young age.

Low serotonin levels in the brain: Serotonin is associated with feelings of relaxation and pleasure. Low levels of these neurotransmitters lead to cravings for more carbohydrates.

Emotional stress: Eating might be a way for you to reward yourself for an accomplishment or comfort yourself when something bad happens. You might start overeating when dealing with loss or when you’re feeling anxious. Others might celebrate with a huge serving of cake when they get a promotion at their job.

The dangers of food addiction

For many people, the motivation to lose weight is to fit into that lovely dress in their closet, have a great beach body they can show off, and boost self-confidence. However, the major consideration should be the risk of chronic diseases originating from obesity and other health dangers associated with food addiction.

All addictions are progressive and could become chronic if you don’t seek help in time. As time passes, the impact on your physical/mental health worsens, leading to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that eating a large amount of carbohydrates raises cholesterol levels and increases levels of insulin and blood sugar.

Higher insulin levels increase the risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Processed fat is a major culprit in worsening health. Large amounts of cooking oil and fast food can cause oxidative damage and inflammation, and release toxic carcinogens in the body.

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The challenges of defining food addiction

There is a lot of confusion when defining certain behaviours as an addiction. Addiction often relates to reward, liking, craving and wanting. The reward is synonymous with pleasure and reinforces thoughts of pleasure or conscious awareness of addictive behaviour.

Wanting is a desire for an object, and craving is a strong desire to possess or, in the case of food addiction, eat high-calorie meals that trigger the reward centre of the brain and reinforce the desire to repeat the behaviour even when you know it’s bad for your health.

Researchers agree that food addiction shares many similarities with substance addiction rather than behavioural addiction, because there is a clear addictive agent that triggers chemicals in the reward centre of the brain. However, research hasn’t clarified what the exact addictive elements are or which element drives the addiction.

Activating the brain’s reward system and releasing dopamine is not enough to call overeating an addiction. More research is needed to identify addictive elements and how they interact with cell receptors in the brain.

The challenges of defining food addiction

There is a lot of confusion when defining certain behaviours as an addiction. Addiction often relates to reward, liking, craving and wanting. The reward is synonymous with pleasure and reinforces thoughts of pleasure or conscious awareness of addictive behaviour.

Wanting is a desire for an object, and craving is a strong desire to possess or, in the case of food addiction, eat high-calorie meals that trigger the reward centre of the brain and reinforce the desire to repeat the behaviour even when you know it’s bad for your health.

Researchers agree that food addiction shares many similarities with substance addiction rather than behavioural addiction, because there is a clear addictive agent that triggers chemicals in the reward centre of the brain. However, research hasn’t clarified what the exact addictive elements are or which element drives the addiction.

Activating the brain’s reward system and releasing dopamine is not enough to call overeating an addiction. More research is needed to identify addictive elements and how they interact with cell receptors in the brain.

Steps to take control of food addiction

Portion sizes: Rhiannon Lambert, a Harley Street nutritionist, states that eating certain portion sizes is important to reduce overeating. The quantity of each food group should be properly managed to help weight loss.

Address psychological issues that led to food addiction: For many people with eating disorders, the problem started in childhood. You might have grown up poor without enough food to eat, or had parents who used food to replace love. A psychologist can help you understand and treat the issues that led to overeating.

Set boundaries with unhealthy food: You need to remove all unsafe food that triggers overeating from your diet. This helps you relearn how to love healthy food and gradually work towards reducing your craving for large meals.

Be conscious of emotional eating: It’s always a good idea to ask yourself why you want to eat a meal. Boredom, stress and sadness are common triggers. Note down what you want to avoid eating in a food diary. Don’t eat in front of the TV or in the lounge. Be conscious of the amount of food you eat and remove yourself from activities or places that trigger emotional eating.

Follow a structured meal plan and learn coping strategies to stay focused: The best way to diet is to follow a meal plan. This helps you set safe boundaries with food. Identify healthy coping strategies that can help you cope with triggers and stressful situations that might cause a relapse.

Food addiction vs. eating addiction

Scientists Mark Gold and Daniel Blumenthal found similarities between substance addiction and eating certain foods. It was termed as food addiction. A group of 12 scientists posited that it’s not the food itself, but rather a person’s relationship with food, that causes overeating. They called it eating addiction.

Unlike food addiction, eating addiction focuses on the individual, not the substance (food). Food addiction places emphasis on the food as the specific cause of addiction. These scientists advocate for a shift in focus from food to an individual’s behaviour and relationship towards food. Eating addiction is still in its infancy but has the potential to influence public health regarding treatment and the prevention of food addiction.

Types of Food Addiction

Binge eating or compulsive overeating: A person suffering from compulsive overeating has no control over their food intake. They try to diet but fail, and instead pile on more weight. It’s a cycle of consuming large portions of food followed by guilt, depression and more food. Some scientists expound that binge eating is a symptom of an underlying mental disorder that should be addressed in treatment.

Anorexia Nervosa: This is a potentially fatal illness in which a person is obsessed with eating unhealthily small portions to get thinner. If you suffer from Anorexia Nervosa, you will have body image issues and a distorted view of your body. You will appear emaciated but see yourself as fat. You feel disgust towards food and don’t eat in public.

Bulimia Nervosa: This is a life-threatening disorder when you overindulge in food and induce vomiting to purge the content from your stomach. You’re obsessed with weight and body shape; you’re withdrawn, secretive, depressed and irritable and experience mood swings and depression.

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Similarities between being addicted to a drug and food addiction

The brain’s reward centre: According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, all substances and behaviours that trigger the release of dopamine in the reward centre of the brain are defined as an addiction. Some food such as food heavy in sugar and fat, along with junk food, pasta and bread flood the brain with feel-good neurotransmitters.

Cravings: Addiction is characterised by a craving for the substance. For some individuals, cravings are their undoing and the major reason they can’t sustain healthy eating habits. You’ll most likely crave foods high in salt and fat and high-calorie processed food and beverages like coffee, soda and energy drinks.

Developing a tolerance and experiencing withdrawal: Two major symptoms that you’re addicted to a substance are developing a tolerance (needing larger doses to feel the original effects), and physical and psychological symptoms when you stop taking the substance. This explains why you eat a lot of chips, cookies and other processed food.

Unsuccessful attempts to quit: Compulsive eaters and individuals with substance use disorder struggle with quitting addictive behaviour. 95% of those who lose weight gain it back because they haven’t changed their lifestyle habits or aren’t practising their coping skills.

Stigma: Many compulsive eaters who are overweight or obese deal with public stigma towards plus-sized people. This leads to self-loathing and shame. You might also withdraw from loved ones, hide poor eating habits and stop participating in social activities because you’re ashamed of your weight.

Food addiction and mental health disorders

Almost everyone who has a food addiction problem requires treatment for co-occurring disorders. Roughly 50% are dealing with substance use disorder, depression and anxiety. You’ll need professional treatment from a team of mental health and addiction specialists who will create an individualised treatment plan that caters to all your addiction needs. Common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Anxiety
  • Trauma-related to attachment difficulties and sexual abuse
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Body Dysmorphic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Substance abuse and alcohol abuse

The physical effects of food addiction

There are many negative consequences that might occur from eating an excess amount of food. They include:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep disorders
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Arthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Low sex drive
  • Stroke
  • Lethargy
  • Headaches
  • Liver and kidney disease

The psychological effects of food addiction

Food addiction worsens existing mental health issues, and leads to the development of mental conditions like depression and anxiety. Other psychological effects can include:

  • Self-loathing
  • Low self-esteem
  • Panic disorder
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feelings of despair, sadness and hopelessness
  • Irritability when the food you want is inaccessible
  • Emotional detachment

Effects of food addiction on the brain

Cutting back on junk food is perhaps easier said than done. When your brain gets cravings for high-calorie food that is unhealthy for you, it’s almost impossible as a food addict to exhibit any control over the amount of food you’ll consume. This occurs because junk food stimulates the reward centre of your brain, just like cocaine and other addictive substances.

The release of dopamine in the brain reinforces the desire to repeat the same behaviour that triggered dopamine release. When dopamine neurotransmitters are triggered by overeating, it’s hard to shake the feeling. A research by associate professor Paul Kenny from the Scripps Research Institute, and his colleague Paul Johnson, shows that overeating might be triggered by irregular chemical levels in the brain and the changes that occur in the biochemical makeup of the brain when you overeat.

Food addiction myths and facts

  • Addiction is a real mental health condition affecting millions of people around the world, especially in developed countries where processed food is popular.
  • Food addiction is not the same as loving food. A food addict cannot eat small portions or stop eating when they are comfortably full.
  • Food addiction and emotional eating are not the same. You can’t be a food addict if the treatment for emotional eating worked.
  • Food addiction is not limited to obese people.
  • Junk food is not the only food group that fuels addiction.

Food Addiction Statistics

  • Women aged 45-62 have an 8.4% prevalence rate.
  • Rough 7% of women and 3% of men are dealing with food addiction.
  • One in two people who seek help for eating disorders have a compulsive eating problem.
  • One in four adults trying to control their weight have full-blown binge eating disorder.
  • 8% of obese people and 2% of underweight people have a food addiction.

Withdrawal symptoms of food addiction

Hypoglycemia: This is a condition where your body isn’t getting enough food, causing your pancreases to secrete excess insulin, leading to low blood sugar levels. At this stage, you crave food high in carbohydrates or sugar.

Highs: You chase the high or pleasure derived from eating food that changes serotonin levels in the brain. A food binge is preceded by anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

These are the major withdrawal symptoms that you experience when you go for a short while without eating junk food.

Cravings: This is perhaps the undoing of most food addicts. Even if you’re not hungry, you might experience an urge to consume flour-based foods, sweeteners and processed food. Eating these foods temporarily reduces the need for more dopamine in the brain, holding you in the vicious cycle of addiction.

Food addiction treatment

Treatment focuses on your physical, psychological and emotional needs. The goal is to break bad eating habits, understand your addiction and learn to replace negative habits with positive ones that improve health. Your therapist will use cognitive behavioural therapy to help identify triggers and learn coping skills for dealing with temptation.

You’ll also meet with a trauma therapist to work through past events associated with food addiction and a nutrition therapist to develop healthy meal planning and food choices. Support groups such as Overeaters Anonymous and Food Addicts Anonymous provide a judgement-free zone where you’ll meet people with similar problems and learn practical coping skills.

To remove temptation and focus on your recovery, there are inpatient rehabilitation centres that provide a therapeutic environment free of triggers for you to lose weight, address all mental health issues and build communication skills with other recovering food addicts.


FAQS

What is food addiction?

Closely related to bulimia, obesity and binge eating disorder, food addiction is a condition where you’re addicted to food the same way a recreational user might be addicted to illicit substances such as cocaine or crystal meth. Addiction develops from dopamine chemicals that release feel-good hormones in your brain, reinforcing the desire to eat the same foods again.

What are the foods that might lead to food addiction?

The Yale Food Addiction Scale identifies the following problematic foods:

  • Fries
  • Chips
  • White bread
  • Candy
  • Ice cream
  • Pasta
  • Chocolate
  • Cookies

What causes food addiction?

Food addiction is caused by a combination of several factors, such as low serotonin levels in the brain, experiencing trauma as a child, emotional distress and having parents who struggled with alcoholism.

Am I a food addict?

If you eat when you’re full, lack energy to participate in activities you enjoy, lack control over your food intake, experience withdrawal symptoms when you go a short time without addictive foodsand eat several servings when your intention was to eat only one portion, these are signs you might be a food addict.

Is food addiction real?

Food addiction shares many similarities with substance addiction. It triggers the same neurotransmitters, you can build up a tolerance and dependence and experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit.

Are support groups available for food addicts?

Support groups include Food Addicts Anonymous and Overeating Anonymous.

What are the types of food addiction?

Types of food addiction include Anorexia Nervosa, binge eating disorder, and Bulimia Nervosa.

What are the risk factors for food addiction?

Risk factors include trauma, poor diet, experiencing violence, impulsivity and stress.  Women are more likely to become food addicts. Other risk factors include a history of mental health issues and exposure to processed food. Women also have a higher risk of developing food addiction than men.

What are food addiction symptoms and signs?

Signs of food addiction include using food to cope with negative feelings, worrying about the effect of food, experiencing medical issues and mental health problems, such as depression from food addiction. Other signs include eating when you’re full, feeling guilty when you eat or experiencing cravings for unhealthy meals after eating a nutritious meal.

How is food addiction diagnosed?

The Yale Food Addiction Scale was developed to diagnose food addiction. It lists 27 questions that assess your eating habits and the relationship with the official DSM criteria for diagnosing an addiction.

What is the treatment for food addiction?

Food addiction is one of the hardest addictions to overcome or treat. This is because food is an essential part of life. A nutritionist can help you develop a food plan and teach you skills to maintain healthy eating habits. A psychotherapist will help to identify the underlying causes of food addiction and address them in treatment.

Can food addiction be prevented?

A few tips to prevent food addiction include:

  • Learn to eat smaller portions
  • Exercise regularly to burn calories
  • Reduce sugar intake
  • Avoid foods that have hidden sugar and corn/fructose syrup such as crackers, dressings, snacks, bread and sauces

Sources

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