This article has been modified on the 20th of July after it was reviewed by a certified dietitian.
You may have heard phrases like “I’m a chocoholic!” or “I’m addicted to cakes” from people who struggle with losing weight. But are they really addicts, just like they say?
Only a decade ago, scientists would say that food addiction is a myth. Fortunately, today we understand that food addiction is a severe eating disorder that looks and feels like substance abuse. As such, it should be treated as a typical addiction.
Find out the symptoms and reasons behind food addiction to see if it’s your case, and, what’s more important, learn the first steps to take if your fight with addiction has just begun.
Food addiction used to be a controversial topic, but nowadays, scientists(1) agree that it is both an eating and addictive disorder that dramatically influence the nation’s health, weight(2), and well-being.
According to some researchers, there is an addiction to some particular food substances, like sugar(3). Other scientists(4) say that “eating addiction” is the term that better reflects the phenomena, as it emphasizes the behavioral-based nature of addiction and not the chemical effect of carbs or fats on our brain.
Whatever definition you chose, you will see that in every case, addiction occurs for particular products rich in fats and carbohydrates. In one study, For example, in one study(5), people were choosing more and less addictive foods according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale. This rating demonstrates the top-10 list of the most addictive foods:
Have another look at this list, and you will see that each of its items is a fat and carbs combo. The thing is, high glycemic carbohydrates and high-calorie fats compose a unique combination that affects the human brain from an evolutionary perspective.
As we’re not used to such high-calorie bombs, when we eat them, they stimulate the centers of pleasure in our brain, influencing our rewards systems and, in some people, triggering an addictive response.
Ashley Gearhardt, in her lecture for University of California Television (UCTV)(6), has given some criteria of substance dependence which are also valid for food addiction. Check out these statements and see if they’re true for you:
For example, you used to have just a slice of pizza once in a while, but now you can eat all of it like a light midnight snack.
You have headaches, stomach aches, depression, anxiety, or agitation when your favorite fast-food restaurant is closed.
You told yourself: “I will have only one scope of ice cream,” but you’ve ended up emptying the whole family-size container in one go.
You understand that a chocolate a day sabotages your weight loss; however, you can’t cut down its consumption no matter how hard you try.
You don’t feel well after cheeseburger dinners. You know that your addiction to sweets and fast food adds pounds to your weight and increases your risks of various diseases. But you continue to eat them regardless of all the adverse side effects.
You can skip a meeting with your friends because you want to gorge on candies. You miss a day in college because you want to stay at home, enjoying your meals. You prefer an evening with a large pack of chips instead of a gym session.
If three or more of these are true for you, the chances are you have an addiction.
Disclaimer: This is only a preliminary analysis. See a certified health adviser who considers your personal traits to get a medical diagnosis.
The problem with food addictions is that you consume certain products not because you’re calorie-deprived but because you need pleasure. These products are coping mechanisms for your emotions, and this explains some of the food addiction symptoms.
You’re obsessed. When craving your favorite food, you feel emotional hunger, not physical. When emotionally hungry, you won’t be satisfied with some other food apart from the product you’re addicted to. If you don’t have the substance you’re addicted to at home, you will ride to another part of the city just to buy it.
An excellent example of this type of behavior is demonstrated in the “Medicinal Fried Chicken” episode of South Park, where love for KFC is described as drug addiction. “Big-bone” Eric Cartman wants nothing except for the KFC wings, and he’s willing to go to another state or commit a crime just to continue his substance abuse.
You hide your “crime.” You might have a special secret drawer for foods you crave the most. You understand that your eating behavior is not normal, so you prefer going shopping or to fast food chains alone. You hide empty packages from foods you’ve consumed. Basically, you behave like an addict who doesn’t want to be caught.
You eat more than needed. You can still crave your “guilty pleasure” even when you’re objectively full. You can eat until feeling sick. You can’t stop eating your favorites even if you understand that you don’t need that much high-calorie food.
You feel guilty. As you use your addiction substances as a coping mechanism for your emotions, you frequently face a withdrawal. After you calm down your anxiety, stress, or grief with the help of food, you feel self-hatred or guilt soon afterward.
You make excuses. It wasn’t you, who bought pizza, so it doesn’t count. You had to eat pie residues after your kids, so it doesn’t count. You’ve been fasting for the whole day to have this chocolate bar, so it doesn’t count. You had a bad day at work and need to relax, so it doesn’t count. If you’re the one who makes this kind of excuse, we’re sorry to say, but in reality, it all counts.
Psychologists explain food addiction the same way as any other substance abuse. These biological, psychological, and sociological reasons can trigger disrupted eating behavior, namely, food addiction.
As well as with any other substance abuse, food addiction can be the result of traumatic experiences, grief, loss, low self-esteem, and other negative emotions you cannot deal with. From the psychological perspective, food addicts use their favorite products as a coping mechanism to calm down their feelings.
We live in a food climate that motivates us to consume more than we need. 25% of obese people show significant signs of food addiction. Among common sociological reasons behind addictions are stress factors, isolation, and lack of support.
The newest approaches to treating food addiction consider these factors. Addiction professionals work on all three axes: biological, psychological, and sociological. Want to do something about your addiction right away before you see your doctor? See some steps you can take right now.
Among primary biological reasons behind addictive behavior are family history and hormonal imbalance.
Think of what you’ve been eating as a child and what eating patterns were in your family. When you’re a child, and your brain is still plastic, your eating habits are just developing. Consuming too many products that trigger your pleasure receptors (the so-called palatable foods rich in calories, sugar, fat, and salt) can cause a food addiction in the future. It’s like with alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs: If you’ve tried them early in life, you have more chances of developing an addiction as an adult.
Dysfunctioning dopamine processing(7) and other hormonal imbalances can also stay behind addictive behaviors. If there is another substance abuse or eating disorder in anamnesis, this can also increase the chances of developing food addiction.
When it comes to treating food addiction, people can face the same physiological difficulties as other addicts. For example, the glycemic load from sugary food induces an insulin spike, and it looks like a true euphoria as after some drug substances. After that, the inevitable throwback happens when you’re in hypoglycemia, and a withdrawal, when you drastically crave another “dose.”
According to dietitians’ statistics, hormonal disruptions are a rare cause of food addiction. Moreover, even when we talk about hormonal disbalance, it develops as the result of constant overeating in most cases. And this is how a circle forms: People use food as a coping mechanism to deal with stress at the first stages. And afterward, physiology joins and blocks a person's endeavor to stop overeating, even if the stress has passed.
There is no absolute consent among nutritionists and psychologists on fighting food addictions.
Some dietitians claim that any drastic restrictions or total control will only lead to severe disruptions of eating behavior. Some methods on dealing with food addictions offer their clients to allow themself eating everything. Some of them even suggest overeating products that their patients crave so that later they finally don't want them at all.
Addiction, including food addiction, is a very individual diagnosis. Some people with other eating disorders like bulimia, orthorexia, or compulsive overeating, can think that they have a food addiction, as some symptoms of these conditions do look alike. However, psychological advice for patients with various eating disorders will be absolutely different. For example, people with orthorexia should not, at any cost, divide foods into permitted and prohibited.
Find out which foods act as psychoactive drugs for you.
When seeing that some food preferences sabotage their weight loss, people can be motivated to avoid these products for several weeks or even months. However, if they see their addiction as lacking willpower and don’t understand that they’re addicted, relapse is highly possible.
The thing is, craving is an obsession. People can be triggered by the image or the smell of their addiction. If someone comes near them and offers them their favorite ice cream (proclaiming that everything is good for their health if consumed in moderation), it’s like offering a heroin addict a dose on Friday nights or a glass of wine for an alcoholic once in a while. It doesn’t work that way.
As Laurel Mellin, the founder of Emotional Brain Training, explains in her lecture(8) for the University of California Television, some addicts can have a product they’re addicted to now and then. But most people with food addiction will have to abstain from substances they’re addicted to completely.
Remember that this method can be applied if you have a clinically proven diagnosis of food addiction only. Stress overeating with one particular product or binge eating should be treated differently. Most patients can’t see the difference between eating disorders and food addiction. Only a certified addiction or eating disorder specialist can help you understand what’s going on with your eating behavior.
You can try this method of dealing with food cravings only if you’re diagnosed as a food addict. Write down the pros and cons of staying sober. Include everything you might think of. For example, by abstaining from pizza, you will lose weight, improve your appearance, spend less money in your favorite pizzeria, increase your energy levels, reduce your risks of cardiovascular disease, etc.
On the other hand, avoiding pizza means no more pizza nights with your pals, no more pleasure from its taste, no more pizza-beer-football combo, the need to explain your food choices to your friends and family, etc.
As food addiction is primarily in the brain, you will have to teach it to produce dopamine without using your favorite food. Try physical activity, for instance! It can also be addictive as it stimulates dopamine release. You will have your pleasure-oriented hormones from much healthier things than overeating and will feel better. What’s more, you won’t provoke depression, anxiety, guilt, and other bad feelings that you would have after binge episodes.
Some people who try dealing with a sugar addiction by themselves end up overeating bread or pasta instead. That is because they got used to getting fast carbs from their sugary snacks, and now their brain tries to get them from other sources.
To understand your addiction, you will have to learn about how food affects your brain. Choosing plain foods with a low glycemic index that have lower chances to affect your hormones will definitely help you deal with the biological reasons behind your addiction. However, this is much easier said than done, and complex therapy will be necessary to make it possible.
Total abstinence is only one of the many methods to deal with foods addiction. Bitten Johnsson, an addiction specialist and a registered nurse, explains that when dealing with a food addiction, you can use the same methods as are applied in cases of other types of substances abuse.
One of the working strategies is making a one-day pledge. Tell yourself, “Only for today, I will stand.” And tomorrow, do exactly the same. Don’t think about what will come in a week or a month. Think of today. That’s what drug or alcohol addicts do to stay sober.
Of course, one of the main reasons why people decide to give up their favorite high-calorie foods is weight loss. However, experts recommend refraining from a strict diet when you’re fighting food addiction. You already face a lot of stress. There is no need to make your path towards sobriety even harder by decreasing your calories or choosing other severe restrictions. Remember that weight loss is not your primary problem at the moment.
Self-discipline doesn’t work with addictions, as addictions are about an imbalance in the brain. If you’re a sugar addict, you’re more prone to binge eating behavior because of insulin spikes and reward system imbalance. Your family history and emotional traumas also matter. In addition to that, fighting an addiction without social support is more complicated than you think.
Another argument that proves the necessity of psychological help for food addicts is a so-called “grazing(9).” This is a phenomenon when obese patients cannot stop their eating behaviors even after bypass surgery. They physically cannot eat in large quantities, so they continue their eating behavior and overeat by consuming food in small portions but during the whole day.
Food addiction experts prescribe a complex treatment. Sometimes it contains 12-step addiction programs. It can include cognitive therapy, emotional brain training, participating in recovery groups, like Overeaters anonymous or Food addicts anonymous for social support, and, occasionally, medicines that suppress hunger and appetite.
Food addiction is a health condition comparable to substance dependence. You will need professional psychological help when dealing with this problem. However, there are some things you can do right away. First of all, you have to accept that your eating patterns are not a lack of willpower but a combination of biological, psychological, and sociological factors resulting in food addiction.
Food addiction is frequently related to binge eating disorders, bulimia, as well as substance abuse. It is a complex condition, and there should be more awareness about this problem in society. Only in this case will there be a chance to change the food climate in our community and make healthy relations with food more accessible.
Remember that psychological health is the primary precursor of a slender figure. If food is your main source of positive emotions, try to find new sources of joy. You will surely find them in talking to people you like, trying out new sports, petting your dog, or watching a comedy.
Please, don’t try to self-diagnose yourself! A healthy person with healthy relations with food can eat anything he or she wants, including sugary snacks and fast food. Otherwise, if trying to divide foods into “good” and “bad,” you can develop orthorexia, which is another eating disorder that drastically affects your life and eating patterns.