The term food addiction conjures up a variety of different images in people’s minds. Take a moment to consider what it means to you. What types of pictures come into your head? The most common thing that people think of when they imagine food addiction is someone that is overweight or obese. Often people consider the act of bingeing on certain types of foods or purging to rid themselves of excess calories to be behaviors that are required for food addiction. While it is true that some individuals exhibit these types of behaviors surrounding food, they are certainly not required for someone to suffer from food addiction. In fact, it is quite possible for a person to exhibit symptoms of food addiction without being overweight at all. Food addiction can be very mild and very subtle, and can manifest in the form of a picky eater who only eats the certain foods they “like.”
What Types of Food are Addictive?
When we discuss food addiction, it is important to distinguish the differences between the types of choices in our food supply. Highly processed foods, fast food, and items that are high in sugar, salt, and fat are the main culprits. Flavors (such as the “cool ranch” in the Dorito) is also an important consideration. It is these types of food that hijack the brain and cause individuals the most problems. Foods that are closest to their natural state such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lean protein do not have the same impact on the body as processed foods, and do not possess the same addictive potential. You would be hard pressed to find an individual that has any negative consequences because of their intake of kale and chia seeds, but it is easy to find an endless number of people that are struggling due to their consumption of processed junk food and sugar sweetened beverages. The food industry does not want us to believe food is addictive, just like the tobacco industry did not want us to believe cigarettes were addictive.
Junk food and highly processed food act on the same part of the brain that addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin do. These types of foods impact the reward centers and hijack the biochemistry of the human brain. Much like telling a meth addict to just stop using drugs would not work, expecting that sheer willpower can keep people from these types of foods is unrealistic. The ingredients that are in processed foods and the chemical reactions that they cause in the brain are incredibly powerful. Have you ever tried quitting soda or your favorite junk food cold turkey? It is not easy!
How To End Food Addiction
The fact that we now know that some foods have the same addictive potential as drugs and that it is not just a matter of willpower is actually a very positive thing. A person that struggles with these types of foods no longer has to bear the entire weight and believe that it is a matter of their strength of character. Food addiction is a real thing and it can now be treated in a similar fashion to other addictions. However, you do not have to become “abstinent” to recovery from food addiction, you can simply work towards minimizing your exposure to addictive foods as you get into recovery, which is an inside job.
One of the most important things to remember is that there will be a transitional period as a person starts to remove processed foods. Just like drug addiction, there is a withdrawal period for food as well. It is crucial to allow for some time to pass and understand that there will be some discomfort as the body adjusts to life without these types of food. Some people even have dreams about food much like drug addicts dream about using in early sobriety.
It is also essential to allow for taste preferences to change over several weeks or months. Highly processed junk foods alter the body’s taste mechanisms, and it takes a few months for it to return to normal. Allowing a window for this to happen and being open minded to the process is a large step in the right direction.
Finally, it is a great idea to have a support group to lean on. It is important to have someone to share successes and troubles with as they occur, and having a friend or family member available is priceless. The time to make a change is now! We can totally help.
What are some Good Resources to Learn More?
Blum, K., Sheridan, P. J., Wood, R. C., Braverman, E. R., Chen, T. J. H., Cull, J. G., & Comings, D. E. (1996). The D2 dopamine receptor gene as a determinant of reward deficiency syndrome. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 89, 396-400.
Brownell, K. D., & Gold, M. S. (2012). Food and addiction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Burger, K. S., & Stice, G. (2012). Frequent ice cream consumption is associated with reduced striatal response to receipt of an ice-cream based milkshake.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95(4). doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.027003
Davis, C., Curtis, C., Levitan, R. D., Carter, J. C., Kaplan, A. S., & Kennedy, J. L. (2011). Evidence that ‘food addiction’ is a valid phenotype of obesity. Appetite, 57, 711-717
Food Addiction Institute: http://foodaddictioninstitute.org/
Food Addiction Research Foundation: http://foodaddictionresearch.org/
Gearhardt, A. N., Roberto, C. A., Seamans, M. J., Corbin, W. R., & Brownell, K. D. (2013). Preliminary validation of the Yale Food Addiction Scale for children. Eating Behaviors, 14, 508-512. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2013.07.002
Gearhardt, A. N., White, M. A., Masheb, R. M., Morgan, P. T., Crosby, R. D., & Grilo, C. M. (2012). An examination of the food addiction construct in obese patients with binge eating disorder. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45, 657-663.
Gearhardt, A. N., Corbin, W. R., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Preliminary validation of the Yale food addiction scale. Appetite, 52, 430-436
Kessler, D. A. (2009). The end of overeating. New York, NY: Rodale Inc.
Moss, M. (2013). Salt, sugar, fat. New York: Random House
Peeke, P. (2012). The hunger fix. New York, NY: Rodale.
Schulte, E. M., Avena, N. M., & Gearhardt, A. N. (2015). Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS ONE, 10(2).
Volkow, N. D., & Wise, R. A. (2005). How can drug addiction help us to understand obesity? Nature Neuroscience, 8(5), 555-560.
Volkow, N. D., Fowler, J. S., & Wang, G. J. (2003). The addicted human brain: insights from imaging studies. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 111, 1444-1451.