What is Food Addiction and How Does One Overcome It?

Isaac K

Food Addiction

As unpopular as it may sound, food addiction is real. It is very common among most of the population, and the idea that it only applies to children is not true. Even adults get addicted to food.

Food is not just a necessity for life. People get together to eat, have fun, socialize, and revel in the simple pleasures it provides. It is a source of comfort and a way of celebrating special events and rewarding loved ones.

However, the thrill and the desire to eat, for some people can grow into an uncontrollable and compulsive habit. They become obsessed with food and cannot stop eating certain types of meals. This is where food addiction sets in.

Before we look at ways of overcoming it, let’s learn more about what it means and how to know whether you are addicted to food or not.

What is food addiction?

Food addiction, in a nutshell, refers to a constant obsession with what to eat, when to eat, and how to obtain more food; overeating behaviors; hiding or hoarding foods, secretive behaviors, and inability to stop overeating or continued eating.

It can also be said to be a psychological and emotional addiction to specific foods and substances.

Although it doesn’t share similar characteristics to substance and drug addiction, food addiction activates the taste-reward and pleasurable regions of the brain.

People, therefore, continue eating even when there are no pangs of hunger biting. More often, the addiction is to processed foods such as sugary beverages, ice cream, foods high in fat, chips and fries, and burgers, to name a few.

Addiction to these foods results from individuals having no control over their eating behavior. Thus, they find themselves spending too much time around food and overeating, or anticipating the emotional effects of compulsive overeating.

They will, as a result, continue eating regardless of the negative consequences such as weight gain or damaged relationships. And like drug addicts, people who are addicted to food will have trouble stopping, even when they want to, or have tried several times to minimize the food intake.

Causes Of Food Addiction

Food addiction has many suspected causes. Research has shown that addiction has a genetic component, but other factors may also be associated with it.

  1. Emotions and stress. Food addiction here is classic addictive thinking where one may, for example, eat pizza to reward themselves for an accomplishment. But then again, they can eat pizza just because they are sad. In a nutshell, some people eat to enhance positive emotions and or minimize negative emotions.
  2. Brain chemistry. Some studies have shown that sugar might have a stronger effect on the brain’s reward system than drugs and alcohol. Foods rich in fat and sugar can alter the reward centers of the brain in the same way as drugs and alcohol.
  3. Genetics. Genetics may be another cause of food addiction, in 2002, a study found out that women with a family history of alcoholism had a 49% higher chance of obesity than those without a family history. It is, however, worth pointing out that not everyone with obesity has a food addiction. But it is only right to deduce that there may be a relationship between alcohol addiction and food addiction.
  4. Trauma. It has also been established that women who have several symptoms of PTSD symptoms are twice likely to have food addiction as those with no PTSD symptoms or no history of trauma. This was an observation made by a 2014 study on posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and food addiction in women by timing and type of trauma exposure.

Symptoms Of Food Addiction

There is a set of questionnaires developed by researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy that helps in identifying people with food addiction.  

Among the set of actions that characterize food addiction, according to the questionnaire include:

  • Obsession with food, lunch, breakfast, and dinner times, and the amount of food available
  • Constant eating or snacking
  • Eating in the middle of the night
  • Hiding food or eating in secret
  • Eating when full
  • Feeling guilty after binge eating
  • Failed attempts to control eating
  • Ending up eating a lot more than anticipated when one starts to consume certain foods
  • Eating certain foods even if you’re no longer hungry
  • Eating to the point of feeling ill
  • Worrying about not eating certain types of foods or about cutting down on certain types of foods
  • Going out of your way to obtain certain foods that aren’t easily available

How to Know If You Have Food addiction

The set of questions presented, also asks about the impact of one’s relationship with food on their life.

The questions state that if you are consuming certain foods more often and in large quantities, and valuing them more than getting certain tasks done, then you might have a food addiction.

The same is also true if you avoid professional or social situations where certain foods are available because of fear of overeating.

If you can’t function properly at school or work because you are obsessing about food, then you have the addiction.

A person can also be said to have food addiction based on the impact of food on their emotions? Check out these and see if they apply to you.

  1. Do you have feelings of depression, is anxious, self-loathing, or guilty after eating certain types of food?
  2. Are you eating more food to deal with negative emotions or increase pleasure?
  3. Do you find that eating the same amount of food doesn’t reduce negative emotions or increase pleasure the way it used to?

If the answer to the above three questions is positive, then you are addicted to food.

Effects of Food Addiction

a) Short-Term Food Addiction Effects

Anyone who has binged on food knows the physical short-term effects of food addiction. These can be very uncomfortable and can include:

  • Upset stomach.
  • Heartburn.
  • Extreme nausea.
  • Vomiting.

b) Long-Term Food Addiction Effects

When you consistently eat far more than intended, you are likely to gain weight. It’s the long-term effects of food addiction and obesity that can be especially dangerous and costly. They include:

  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Coronary heart disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Stroke.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Depression.
  • Osteoarthritis.
  • Cancer.
  • Reproductive problems.
  • Gallstones.

The Human Brain And Food Addiction

Several publications have highlighted those palatable foods — or even foods in general — stimulate the same parts of the brain and share the same neuronal activities as illicit substances.

Three regions of the brain, including the hippocampus, caudate, and insula have been pinpointed as being implicated in this relationship.

It is not the lack of willpower that causes food addiction, but it is believed to be a result of dopamine signals that affect the biochemistry of the brain.

Other studies suggest that the addiction to food and negative emotional states such as depression and anxiety are related.

For example, adults and adolescents with binge eating behaviors have a high prevalence of major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse than individuals without an eating disorder.

Moreover, there is a relationship between having suicidal thoughts and binge eating. In the same study, findings showed that more than half of teenage bulimics and a third of those with binge eating disorder report suicidal ideation.

This suggests that binge eating, as people often do when they are addicted to food, may be related to extreme emotional distress.

Overcoming Food Addiction

Food addiction may be a term thrown about carelessly, but its effects are far-reaching. It is a serious condition that requires treatment for it to be gone.

It does not go away on its own unless someone makes a conscious decision to deal with it. Otherwise, it often worsens over time.

Its symptoms are similar to those of drug abuse the only difference being the substances are not the same. Also, the social consequences may be less severe.

Food addiction, apart from its capability to cause harm, can lead to chronic health conditions such as obesity as mentioned earlier.

Having a diet that mostly comes with whole, single-ingredient foods can help reduce the likelihood of developing a food addiction.

Steps In Overcoming Food Addiction

Transitioning from this unhealthy habit follows a few steps which include:

  • List down all the trigger foods, those that cause cravings and or binges. These are the foods you should avoid.
  • Listing all the fast-food joints serving healthy choices and noting their healthy opinions. This may help you prevent relapse when you are hungry or when you are not in the mood to cook.
  • Always having healthy choices to eat. Think about the foods to eat, those that don’t worsen your cravings but are healthier and regularly consumed.
  • Having a list of pros and cons, several copies, and keeping them where you mostly frequent – on the fridge, the glove compartment, your home office, your desk at work, or your car, to name a few. This way, you are constantly reminded of why you should avoid food addiction at all costs.

Whenever you are craving a particular meal, look at the above lists. Look at all the available healthier choices and the healthy restaurants you can easily access. Make this a habit. Don’t stray from your goals.

Other tips for overcoming food addiction include:

  1. Avoid alcoholic drinks and caffeine (coffee, hot chocolate, or soda and caffeine). These foods trigger poor eating choices. Soda is addictive because of its high sugar content.
  2. Be conscious of everything that you eat. Be mindful and always consider the amounts of sugar or calories in every meal choice.
  3. Eating healthy also goes a long in helping you deal with food addiction. This is especially so since a balanced diet gets rid of most junk and processed foods which includes sugary drinks and other unhealthy choices. Trying meal choices such as fresh fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats, and some organic foods.
  4. Always exercise. This is a great way of complementing a balanced diet. While struggling to give up, that will perhaps remind you of the effort you have to put in to burn those calories and avoid unhealthy weight gain.
  5. Most importantly, seek help. Just like any other form of addiction, a professional can help you while dealing with food addiction. You can also join groups of other people with a similar problem. It’s easier to talk to these people since they can relate. Eventually, you might find a solution to your problem.

Bottom Line:

Food addiction is a menace, a problem that doesn’t fade on its own. One must treat it, but it all begins with you. Choose healthier food choices, seek help, love yourself, and always be mindful when eating. Because if not, it may worsen over time. Consider seeking support from a mental health professional.

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