Is food addiction real?

What another ballsy topic for me to talk about! #bringiton 💃🏼

This episode was inspired by Milja’s question;

“Could you speak to Food Addiction – Is there really such a thing?  aka – what is treated by Over Eaters Anonymous and the 12 steps – removing sugar and flour from the diet.  We know people can be addicted to all sorts of things – sex, shopping, reading, exercise – all things that for others is good for them or healthy – what to do when you have a food addiction – that may or may not look like Binge Eating Disorder?”

Let’s dive in shall we? 🤓

I thought I was addicted to food

It wasn’t so long ago that I thought I was “addicted” to food. I was a self-proclaimed food/sugar/white flour addict. I read all the books about it and agreed with everything they were saying. “That’s me!” I was proclaiming. “I’m addicted to processed food!”

I thought my only hope of living a healthy life was to do everything in my power to stay away from my “addictive” foods and do absolutely everything to abstain from anything I thought could trigger my ‘out-of-control binge-eating episodes.’

As you can imagine— the food always found me, and I was never able to rid myself of my “trigger” foods for any prolonged period before “relapsing” into some of the craziest binges of my life.

Addiction to food is not a recognized medical or psychological disorder

First off, have you ever heard of someone who was addicted to broccoli, chicken, or potatoes?

…Thought so 😆

So, the real question, I believe, is: “Can you be addicted to processed foods and sugar?”

While it’s true that food can be pleasurable and rewarding, addiction to food is not a recognized medical or psychological disorder in the same way that addiction to substances like drugs or alcohol is. There are several reasons why food addiction is not a well-established concept:

  1. Lack of Consensus: Unlike substances such as drugs or alcohol, which have specific chemical properties and physiological effects, food is a diverse and essential part of human life. There is no consensus among experts on what constitutes food addiction, and the criteria for diagnosing it remain unclear.

2. Overlapping Mechanisms: It just doesn’t make sense! We need food to survive and glucose is the preferred brain’s energy source. The brain has natural reward pathways associated with food intake. This makes it difficult to distinguish between normal eating behaviours and those that might be considered addictive.

“You can’t be addicted to something that you need to survive!”

Yes, you can survive without processed food, but we live in a world where these foods are readily accessible to us. Moreover, our brains are wired to seek out sugar, so it can be challenging to go against these biological instincts in the world we live in. If you do manage to do so, you will almost certainly have an eating disorder.

What IS plausible is that dopamine helps our brain to remember things that taste good and give us energy and can motivate us to seek them out when we need a “quick fix” or a moment of pleasure.

When our access is restricted it may further increase our motivation to consume a lot of it when we have the chance.

3. Psychological and Emotional Components: People often turn to food for comfort, stress relief, and emotional reasons. These emotional and psychological factors make it challenging to classify excessive food consumption as an addiction.

After years of frustration, I started to look into the science around this “food addiction” thing, and I came across this book, which cited a key piece of research that would change my understanding of emotional eating forever:

Compulsive feelings around food—whether emotional eating or straight-up binge-eating—almost exclusively occur in “restrained eaters,” that is, people with a history of restrictive thoughts, feelings or behaviours around food.

This suggests that when we apply restraint to emotional or binge eating (through attempts at abstinence or self-control) we may be contributing to its cause, rather than its solution.

Is it beneficial to add in other ways of taking care of our emotional needs? Absolutely yes.

Is it beneficial to stigmatize emotional eating? Absolutely Not.

It also doesn’t “work”…

The more you shame and judge yourself around emotional eating, the more you’ll then binge eat in reaction to that judgement (emotional restriction). The ONLY way is allowance of emotional eating as you apply self-compassion and gentle curiosity with what the root of the emotional need is.

4. Lack of Withdrawal Symptoms: One hallmark of substance addiction is the presence of withdrawal symptoms when the substance is discontinued. While some people may experience cravings or discomfort when trying to change their eating habits, these symptoms are generally not as severe or consistent as those associated with drug or alcohol withdrawal.

I don’t recommend withdrawing from your trigger foods, I recommend the opposite. Crazy I know but trust me on this. How has restraining from these foods been going for you? Are you happy and emotionally free…?

5. Complex Nature of Eating Behaviours: Eating behaviours can be influenced by various factors, including cultural, social, genetic, and environmental influences. These complexities make it difficult to categorize food consumption as an addiction in the same way we classify substance abuse.

We’re not inhaling sugar from the bag, are we…? If we were addicted, we’d go straight to the purest source. Either sugar or flavourings that are put in food.

6. Changing Food Preferences: Food preferences and cravings can change over time, whereas addiction to substances often leads to a consistent preference for the same substance.

I’ve always loved chocolate but I can take or leave desserts AND chocolate if they’re not my favourite ones. I can only do this now because I allow all foods in all amounts and I’ve healed my body image traumas and come back home to self-love.

‘Dependant on’ versus ‘addicted to’

I disagree with the idea that people can genuinely be addicted to sex, shopping, reading, exercise, and FOOD. I prefer to use the term ‘dependent on.’ What is often referred to as ‘addictions’ in these areas stem from codependency, which is often a result of complex childhood trauma.

The term codependency is not typically used to describe one’s relationship with non-human objects like food. However, it’s possible to have a strong preference for or reliance on certain foods, which may resemble an addictive pattern or be associated with emotional comfort.

If we’ve experienced complex childhood trauma, we often turn to various coping mechanisms without even realizing it. Due to a lack of awareness, we may negatively judge our behaviours without connecting them to our attempts to deal with underlying anxiety. For instance, after struggling with eating disorders for 20 years, I didn’t even realize I had anxiety.

I was heavily reliant on restriction to “cope” with something I wasn’t even aware of (the underlying chronic anxiety that stemmed from complex childhood trauma). I believed I was obsessed with dieting and restriction because I wanted to constantly lose weight, which seemed like a normal desire in a society focused on weight management.

It was only after a prolonged period of chronic restriction that I found myself becoming “addicted” to food. I developed a physical and emotional dependency on chocolate because I had either been restricting it or attempting to restrict it for so long.

Certainly, I was still trying to restrict and compensate for the chocolate I was eating, which kept me in a vicious cycle. I’d convince myself that I was addicted to it, attempt to abstain from it, and then eventually, I couldn’t resist anymore, leading to a binge. I’d tell myself, “See, I knew I was addicted to it!” This pattern continued.

What was actually happening was that I was using restriction as a coping mechanism. However, because my body was instinctively fighting for survival, I would ultimately binge-eat. In the process, I could only see my problematic behaviour that needed to be changed. So, telling myself I was a food addict seemed to make sense to me at the time.

Restriction is the cause of the obsession

I’ve never met a person who claims to be addicted to food and who hasn’t experienced prior restrictions. And, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s important to clarify that we cannot be truly addicted to food. What we often feel is an obsession rather than a true addiction.

That obsession often kicks in when we try to control ourselves around food, and it’s like pouring gasoline on the fire of our inner struggle. It drowns out our common sense, willpower, and any better judgment we have, leading us straight to the fridge as if we’re on autopilot, unable to resist for even a moment.

Here’s something interesting: the ‘abstinence’ approach for dealing with food compulsions doesn’t work well in the long run, much like traditional diets. One of my most eye-opening moments about food was realizing that dieting and the ‘abstinence’ method for tackling binge eating are quite similar and tend to yield similar long-term results—failure in sticking to the abstinence model.

Why believing you’re addicted to food is making it worse

Believing that you are addicted to food can be damaging for several reasons, and it’s important to understand why this belief may not accurately reflect the nature of food consumption:

  1. Stigmatization and Guilt: Labeling oneself as “addicted to food” can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and a sense of failure. This can exacerbate negative emotions and potentially lead to further unwanted eating behaviours.
  2. Misunderstanding of Normal Eating: It’s normal to enjoy and find pleasure in food. Eating is a natural and essential part of life. Labelling regular eating habits as an addiction can lead to unnecessary anxiety and distress.
  3. Overlooking Psychological and Emotional Factors: Often, the desire to categorize food consumption as an addiction overlooks the complex interplay of emotional, psychological, and social factors that influence our relationship with food. These factors include stress, boredom, cultural influences, and social gatherings.
  4. Neglecting Nutritional Needs: Believing in food addiction may lead to a focus on restriction or elimination of certain foods, potentially neglecting the importance of balanced and nutritious eating for overall health and well-being.
  5. Promoting Unrealistic Solutions: If someone believes they are addicted to food, they may seek out extreme or unsustainable solutions, such as severe dietary restrictions or fad diets, which can be detrimental to their physical and mental health in the long run.
  6. Undermining Body Trust and Intuition: Trusting one’s body and its signals for hunger and satiety is an important aspect of a healthy relationship with food. Believing in food addiction can lead to a disconnect from these natural cues.
  7. Potential for Disordered Eating: The belief in food addiction can contribute to the development of disordered eating patterns or eating disorders. It may lead to cycles of restriction followed by episodes of binge eating, which can be harmful to mental health.
  8. Lack of Empowerment: Seeing oneself as “addicted” to food may create a sense of powerlessness, making it harder to develop a positive and empowered approach to eating and self-care.

What about the rodent studies?!

The famous rat studies only observed addiction-like behaviours when access to sugar was restricted to limited intervals during the day. When given 24-hour access to sugar, additive behaviour wasn’t seen, even in rats pre-selected to have a sugar preference.

Pleasure is not addiction

Dopamine is just one of the neurotransmitters that are released when we enjoy something. While dopamine is involved in the reward and addiction pathways, it does not mean that you will become addicted to the foods you like!

Pleasure and satisfaction are key components of a healthy relationship with food.

To sum up:

The behaviour (restriction), not the substance (processed food) is driving your cravings.

Find ways to normalise these foods (with help if needed) so that you aren’t creating a scarcity mindset.

Work towards neutrality and get rid of good or bad food labels.

Honour all types of hunger including taste/pleasure hunger with attunement and intuitive eating.

Make peace with food and your body.

Trying to abstain from certain foods creates a feeling of obsession with those foods. The only way to achieve mental and emotional freedom around food and let go of your ‘food addiction’ is to ALLOW all foods. Work on your emotional and physical allowance around food, work with someone who understands complex childhood trauma and practice body image, emotional regulation and self-love work.


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