Drugs and alcohol are most commonly referenced when discussing addiction.
Most people are aware of addiction to these substances and acknowledge the need for education and treatment in addressing it. More recently, the topic of food addiction has become widely discussed and debated, and many question whether or not it is possible to be addicted to food. Food is essential to survival; it impacts our overall health, provides sustenance, and gratifies our senses. It can produce feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction. For some, the pleasurable feelings associated with eating specific types of food can become as addictive as drugs or alcohol to a substance abuser.
Food addiction often develops with foods that are high in fat, sugar, and/or salt. These ingredients trigger reactions in the brain that cause feelings of satisfaction, much like drugs and alcohol. Since they act on the brain’s reward system, those with food addiction may become dependent on certain types of food in order to feel good. These ingredients can even cause a person to feel the need to continue to eat, even if they are no longer hungry. These behaviors often lead to the development of a food addiction as food addicts may gorge themselves, eating more than they need to feel full and meet nutritional needs.
Food Addiction, Bulimia, and Anorexia
There are various ways in which food addiction can manifest. The two most common forms of food addiction are bulimia and anorexia. While the two present differently, they both relate to a person’s relationship with food and their desire to exercise control over their diets, either to manage weight or to cope with a separate trauma. Both eating disorders can become addictive in nature and may overwhelm a person’s ability to have a healthy relationship with food.
Bulimia: Bulimia is a psychological illness that often manifests from an unresolved trauma. It is characterized by the act of binging and purging. Bulimics may make themselves physically vomit after eating even if they are not sick, or they may use pills, laxatives, and other medications to control their weight. They may also repeatedly develop restrictive diets for themselves. In some cases, a person may develop an addiction to food prior to engaging in binge-eating and purging behaviors. Not all bulimics are addicted to food, but in many cases, a person can identify whether or not they struggle with the disorder through several behaviors, including premeditating a purge before they binge-eat.
Anorexia: Although not commonly associated with food addiction, anorexia is another psychological illness related to food control. In some cases, a person may have a history controlling their food addiction through fasting. A food addict may restrict their food intake in order to compensate for binging and regularly fast to lose weight. They may want to eat more than they actually consume, but their strong desire to control their weight and body size overpowers it. They often obsess over their bodies and fear getting fat. They will obsess over food, counting calories and refusing to eat an extensive list of foods.
Food addiction can be present in those who struggle with bulimia and anorexia. While many associate food addiction with obesity, some food addicts maintain a normal weight. Those who do may still struggle with bulimia, exercise to compensate for overeating, or simply have a metabolism that allows them to appear “normal” even if they overeating. Many people overindulge in food from time to time, but food addicts do so on an almost daily basis. They struggle with their ability to control eating even while wishing they could stop.
Identifying Food Addiction
Food addiction can be hard to identify because everyone must eat; however, food addicts often have other signs and symptoms that indicate there is a larger problem at hand. In many cases, food addicts struggle with co-occurring disorders such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and like many other forms of addiction, they will hide their behaviors. This is accomplished by eating in private or hiding food.
Food addiction can develop as a result of biological, psychological, or social factors. A person may have hormonal imbalances, suffer from abnormalities in brain structure, have family members with food addiction, or experience it as a side effect from taking specific medications. Food may also be used as a coping mechanism for psychological issues. These can include emotional or sexual abuse, surviving a traumatic event, an inability healthily cope with stressors, low self-esteem, or grieving. Lastly, food addiction may also be caused by social factors such as stressful life events, a lack of social support, isolation, pressure from peers, or family disturbances.
Signs of food addiction include:
- Constant snacking
- Eating even when full
- Eating at strange times, such as in the middle of the night
- Obsession over what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat
- Hiding eating habits from friends and family
- Eating in secret
- Associating food with rewards and punishments
- Feeling shame or guilt after binging
- Binging and purging, over-exercising, or taking laxatives
A 2010 study published in Current Opinion in Gastroenterology showed that food addiction develops as a result of changes in the brain caused by overconsumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods. This was further supported by another 2010 study in which lab rats were given access to foods containing high levels of these ingredients. The rats’ behavior quickly began to resemble that of rats who were given drugs. Although not an exact parallel, the study did find that there are similarities between drug abuse and food addiction, and that eating lots of “bad” foods can increase the risk for addiction to develop.
Food addiction can lead to many negative consequences. In some cases, food addicts may develop obesity, and poor nutrition can lead to increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health complications. If the food addict engages in vomiting after eating, it can cause damage to the esophagus, tooth decay, dehydration, and even heart failure.
Other effects of food addiction include:
- Digestive problems
- Sleep disorders
- Chronic pain
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Emotional detachment
- Panic attacks
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
Food addiction can also negatively impact relationships. It may cause a person to isolate themselves from loved ones, avoid social events, decrease performance at work or school, and possibly jeopardize finances and employment.
Treating Food Addiction
Food addiction is often treated in the same manner as other forms of addiction. This is because many believe that addiction causes the brain to work in the same way, regardless of the substance or sensation to which the patient is addicted. When treating food addiction, the most critical step is to change the client’s behaviors. A person cannot simply abstain from consuming food; he or she must learn to develop a healthy relationship with it. Treatment for food addiction requires a person to change their behaviors in addition to managing physical cravings. The following treatment options are effective in addressing food addiction:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): One of the most critical elements in treating food addiction is teaching a person how to manage their triggers. CBT focuses on helping the individual identify the negative thoughts and behaviors that influence addictive behaviors. Once these are identified, they must learn how to appropriately respond to the challenges and stressors they face. They must unlearn the negative thought patterns that lead to addictive behaviors, and learn a new, healthy, and positive way to cope.
- Psychotherapy: In cases where food addiction has developed as a result of trauma, co-occurring disorders, and/or other complex emotional issues, therapy can identify the root cause of addiction and help the person heal in a positive way. Rather than using food to suppress painful feelings and avoid dealing with other stressors, therapy can help a person process emotions in a healthy way. Many food addicts struggle with shame, guilt, and poor body image as a result of their behaviors. Therapy can help a person overcome these issues with active support.
- Nutritional Therapy: Food addiction can lead to nutritional deficiencies, chemical imbalances, and other negative health consequences. Cravings can be managed or eliminated through the development of a personalized nutrition plan. With the assistance of medical professionals, a person can ensure they have a healthy, balanced diet while managing their urge to overeat.
- Group Therapy: Groups such as Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA) and Overeaters Anonymous (OA) implement a 12-step recovery program based on the model used by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). These groups create a support network of individuals who can readily relate to others who share similar experiences. The supportive, encouraging environment built in these meetings allows individuals to develop positive friendships with others, allowing recovering addicts to support and empower one another in recovery.
- Medications: In some cases, food addiction is propelled by deeper problems, such as a co-occurring mental health disorder. It may be necessary to use medications as a method of providing stability and improved mood. If the root cause of food addiction is related to a mental health disorder, medications may address this effectively.