What is Food Addiction?

Although experts cannot agree whether or not food is “addictive”, the evidence suggests that we do, to a lesser extent than say cocaine or heroin, show similarities in behavior with food. For example, food “addicts” or compulsive overeaters often experience:

  • Obsession or preoccupation with food
  • Compulsive thoughts or behaviors regarding food despite negative consequences
  • Using food as a sense of comfort, pleasure or escape
  • Trying to control eating habits again and again with little success
  • Hiding eating habits
  • Guilt or shame around eating
  • Interference with relationships
  • Need for increased amounts of food for satiety

How many of these symptoms sound like drug or alcohol abuse? Experts continue to debate this topic because biologically, we cannot live without it. Although there is significant evidence supporting claims that certain foods affect the brain like drugs and alcohol creating an incredibly powerful connection. Other medical and psychological professionals aren’t so convinced. Some see it as a cop out for our own choices and looking to addiction to release us of responsibility.

The evidence for food addiction comes out of very reputable research institutions including Yale, Harvard,PennStateand the U.S. Department of Health. Studies include brain scans that show the reward centers in our brains lighting up when subjects ingested substances like cocaine or heroin. The same areas of the brain were affected when subjects ingested high fat and high sugar foods. Using fMRI, CT and PET scans, images show the, so called, pleasure or reward areas of the brain increasing in activity when introduced to sugar and fat or cocaine or heroin.

Other professionals negate this research because it was primarily conducted with rats as the subjects. They also claim that food addiction cannot be proven because the inability to stop eating cannot be differentiated from the lack of willingness to stop and that it is due to a lack of discipline rather than biological compulsion.

Still, other groups like food addicts anonymous, compulsive overeaters anonymous, and compulsive eaters anonymous are comprised of laypeople who through their own journey of self discovery have identified the addictive components of food and eating in their lives. By using the 12-step model created for alcoholics and subsequently drug addiction, they have found strength and hope in their recovery. Utilizing the support and experience of one another along with the help of a higher power, many individuals are able to break their eating cycles.

So, where does that leave us? It seems to me hat at the end of the day, food addiction is a label and necessarily needed to provide the proper treatment. Whether or not food carries truly addictive properties, treatment of the compulsive need to eat despite various consequences can emulate that of the substance abuse treatment modalities we have found so helpful. Using the behavioral modification strategies found in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to identify the thoughts and feelings that contribute to maladaptive behavior along with a plan to prevent relapse into old behaviors can be extremely effective for change. Providing a holistic approach to include physical, spiritual and social needs in addition to the emotional and mental wellbeing are also keys to the solution. When we neglect any one of these areas, we fail to address the full picture.

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Weber State University and a Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Utah. She has been working in the mental health field since 2001.
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