Are You “Addicted” to Food?
Do you feel an out of control pull towards your favorite foods? Perhaps these are sugary processed foods and you feel you have no willpower when they are near you. You may even feel compelled to purchase them when you’re not hungry or eat them in lieu of “healthier” options. You may have read or heard about food addiction and thought, “that’s me! I’m addicted to sugar!” You may think the solution then, is to abstain from sugary foods just as an alcoholic might abstain from alcohol. That makes sense right? Control the uncontrollable.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it renders you powerless over food either way. You’re either feeling powerless and out of control or powerless and thus having to exert a HUGE amount of control to steer clear. Then, when that doesn’t work long-term, it can lead to shame, feelings of failure and inadequacy and bingeing. Avoiding a substance may work for drugs and alcohol, but you can’t avoid food. The drive for food, including sugars and fats, is necessary for survival unlike the drive for cocaine or alcohol.
Food/Sugar Addiction or Process Addiction?
Addiction, in the context of alcohol or drugs, implies a physical dependence on a substance. This includes withdrawal symptoms, tolerance and intense cravings. Medically, there is a difference between physical dependence (withdrawal) and psychological dependence (compulsive use). With food addiction, many programs are comparing food and sugar addiction to drug addiction, drawing biological parallels since similar areas in the brain respond to sugar, drugs, or alcohol. This disease model then suggests that you are powerless and can no longer eat the addicting foods.
However, research does not consistently support the notion that food or sugar addiction is the same as drug addiction. We all experience cravings (the most commonly craved foods in women is chocolate and in men is pizza), yet they generally occur later in the day vs earlier as they would in a drug addiction withdrawal (smokers don’t usually experience their first craving after dinner while watching TV!). Children like intensely sweet tastes, which generally declines in adolescence, which is the opposite of tolerance. Binge eaters who restrict foods often experience a reduction in cravings after a period of time of allowing those “forbidden foods.”
Food Addiction & Sugar Exposure
We can however, increase our expectations for taste if we are continually exposed to highly palatable foods. We can also experience the physical imbalances and cravings that result from imbalanced eating. We may also feel the drug-like impact that sugar has on our mood. It provides quick energy, numbs or soothes, and creates pleasurable feelings in that moment. Food temporarily relieves stress. This is normal and we all can experience these symptoms. On the other hand, we can also shift our taste buds over time as well as change our habits and our neural pathways. We’re not powerless, but this also doesn’t mean that you need more willpower. It’s a matter of identifying the factors that aren’t working for you and leading you to feel “food addicted” and finding new solutions.
What studies have demonstrated is that a particular style of eating develops in response to social (culture/media/peer influences) or psychological (criticism, low self-esteem, uncomfortable emotions) factors. Ultimately this process, which attempts to “solve” the initial problem (pain), becomes a compulsive or habitual process (like overworking or gambling). We become “addicted” to the process of feeling bad, using highly palatable foods, then feeling good. From this perspective, we can think of food addiction as a process addiction vs. a substance addiction (sugar addiction).
This clarification is important for several reasons: if you falsely believe you are addicted to sugar and powerless over sugar, then the solution to overcome this (avoiding sugar completely) is likely to lead to more problematic behaviors such as bingeing, and emotions such as shame, hopelessness, and powerlessness. The “cure” actually makes the problem much worse. Being prohibited to eat the things you enjoy promotes obsession and feelings of deprivation, which ultimately can lead to binge eating.
This type of thinking also promotes black and white thinking (good/bad), which is one of the most destructive aspects in your relationship with food and strengthens the inner critic. Rigidity can be part of the problem, creating feelings of deprivation and guilt. The solution, restriction, can become addictive in and of itself, simply replacing overeating. It renders you powerless and dependent on external control vs. empowered, capable of change, aware, and connected to your self and your unique inner needs. Further, you may be less likely to pursue strategies that could be more helpful in overcoming the root of problematic eating.
Food Addiction & Brain Chemistry
Studies have shown that people who were more impulsive tended to develop binge eating symptoms when exposed to a diet high in sugar. They also tended to show heightened cravings and loss of control over junk food. Conversely, participants shown to be less impulsive demonstrated the ability to appropriately control impulsive behavior and did not show abnormal eating behavior when exposed to the sugary diet.
Study authors also found that the “impulsive participants showed increased expression of a transcription factor called Delta-FosB in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain involved in reward evaluation and impulsive behavior, indicating a potential biological component to this behavior.”
Another study showed how consuming rapidly digesting carbs led to an initial surge in blood sugar levels, followed by sharp crash four hours later. This decrease in blood glucose was associated with excessive hunger and intense activation of the nucleus accumbens, a critical brain region involved in addictive behaviors.
Research on the effects of sugar demonstrate a reduction in stress-induced cortisol levels. What that indicates is that we can become “addicted” to the process of using sugar to reduce stress. The more we do that, the more we teach our brain that sugar is the stress-reduction solution. By finding alternatives to stress-reduction, we can break this cycle.
For a percentage of people food addiction can be a true behavioral addiction or at least a more severe form of binge eating disorder. Genetics and brain chemistry may make some people more susceptible to developing food addiction behaviors.
Am I A Food Addict?
For a very small percentage of the population, genetics and lifestyle factors may indicate something more akin to food addiction. True food addiction can be defined as, “clinically significant physical and psychological dependence on high fat, high sugar, and highly palatable foods.” This means addictive eating behavior. This is not the same as binge eating or binge eating disorder though it shares some similarities and may be a more extreme form of binge eating disorder.
Here are criteria that may indicate food addiction. At least three factors must be present to indicate food addiction.
- Craving (all food issues have this symptom)
- Failure to fulfill major role obligations – i.e., leaving infant or young child at home alone to go out and seek food; having to quit job due to eating all day long including eating food out of the trash;
- Social or interpersonal problems – i.e., stopped connecting with people you care about;
- Use in physically hazardous conditions/failure to “cut back” – i.e., eating out of the trash;
When a person struggles with food addiction, there is significant impulsivity and compulsivity. For example, having difficulty thinking through long-term decisions; once focused on a thought, it becomes obsessive and intrusive and can only think about food. Those coping with food addiction also have less preoccupation with shape and weight unlike most other food issues including binge eating.
Research on food addiction has also found that those meeting criteria have significantly higher levels of body fat. In certain individuals with increased body fat and unique neurological and biological systems, the body fat actually works as a communicator to the brain and gut. In obesity, ghrelin (an appetite stimulating hormone) does not decrease with food intake. Typically, ghrelin decreases after eating, which lets your body know you’ve eaten and are now satisfied. Similarly, obese individuals have decreased leptin receptors and thus, chronically elevated leptin levels. Leptin is the satiety hormone. A lack of leptin sensitivity means it takes more food to feel satiated, which also increases cravings. This makes it extremely difficult to eat when hungry and stop when full as the body cues aren’t working properly.
It’s important to differentiate what your unique struggle is because if food addiction is truly a concern for you, it is more effective to start out with an intensive residential treatment option. We are happy to provide referrals and recommendations if this sounds like you. If some feels familiar, but not all, it is likely you may be struggling with compulsive eating, binge eating or other form of disordered eating. We can provide an assessment and help you determine the most effective treatment option, which is most
Overcoming Food & Sugar Addiction
Our approach to “food addiction recovery” is to get to the root of the issue, help you balance what is out of balance, and focus on strategies to help you regain your power and feel in charge. The goal is ultimately to be able to enjoy foods without feeling addicted or out of control. Rather than referring to the process as food addiction, we refer to it as compulsive overeating.
In reality, there is not really one cause for compulsive overeating nor is there one solution. A combination of factors are more likely to help you overcome compulsive overeating:
- increasing pleasure
- identifying physical, mental, and emotional triggers and underlying needs
- coping with emotions
- reducing and responding effectively to stress
- mindfulness vs numbing or distracting
- compassion vs judgment and fear
- balanced eating behaviors vs restrict-binge
- increasing confidence and trust in self
- reducing black and white thinking
- balancing hormones, blood sugar, and vitamin/nutrient deficiencies
- learning to set healthy boundaries
At the heart of recovery is self-acceptance. That is, truly knowing your worth, adequacy, deservedness, belonging and lovableness as human being. Willingness is another key component. That is, the willingness to experience (and cope effectively with) painful feelings in service of a bigger life for yourself.
Increasing Pleasure in “Food Addiction Recovery”
One of the most important factors to address in compulsive overeating is that of pleasure. The reality is that highly processed foods are easy to overindulge in for anyone. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful and to savor these foods when eating them. Highly palatable foods do increase the amount of dopamine in the brain, which is highly rewarding and pleasurable and perpetuates the cycle. This process can become compulsive when this is the only source of pleasure in one’s life. Further, as the behavior increases, the actual number of dopamine receptors in the brain may decrease, which can lead to more frequent seeking out highly rewarding foods.
Other activities such as socializing, playing games, exercising, sex, discovering new things, finishing tasks and accomplishing goals (yes, write down your tasks and check them off for a dopamine boost!), creativity, meditation, and listening to music also increase dopamine in the brain. When there is a deficit in naturally pleasurable activities, the balance gets tipped over to food. Food is comforting, accessible and quick.
Excessive stress, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, lack of sleep, vitamin and mineral deficiency and more, can all lead to dopamine depletion. To overcome sugar addiction or compulsive eating, avoiding foods isn’t the answer, but rather, increase other rewards in your life. Meaning, the most effective protection against food and sugar addiction is working towards rewarding actions, activities, and ultimately, a lifestyle of fulfillment.
As you can imagine, issues such as anxiety, depression and trauma can make it difficult to pursue dopamine boosting activities. Thus, addressing these factors and healing from trauma in particular, is an essential component of recovery.
Contact a Counselor to Start Healing
If you’re tired of feeling out of control or compulsive with food, it may be time to seek help! Our counselors understand how frustrating, exhausting and shame-inducing the struggle with food can be. Over time, you can learn to trust your body and have a healthier relationship with food. Most importantly, you can learn to heal the deeper imbalances contributing to compulsive eating and emerge more whole, confident, and deeply connected to yourself. You deserve nothing less! Contact us for more information about how we can help or participate in one of our group programs.