Food Addiction- Is It a Real Thing?

food_addicationJacquieIconBy Jacquie Eubanks

The scientific community has yet to reach a consensus on whether food addition is or is not an eating disorder. Many studies suggest that food and drug addictions have much in common, particularly in the way they affect the pleasure and control centers of the brain. In 2009, Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity developed a twenty-five point questionnaire designed to assess food addiction and identify those at high risk of substance dependence on highly processed, high fat and high sugar foods. Food addiction symptoms include loss of control, increased tolerance, and withdrawal, along with the presence of clinically significant impairment or distress. If you are wondering whether your pizza, chocolate and ice cream cravings are signs of addictive behavior, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I continue to eat certain foods even though I am no longer hungry?
  • Am I aware of significant emotional connections to the food I am craving?
  • Do I continue to increase the amount of certain foods I am eating to receive the same pleasurable effects?
  • Does my behavior with respect to food cause me significant distress, guilt or self-loathing?
  • Does my desire for certain foods increase when I cut down or stop eating them?
  • When I eat certain foods, do I consume more than I planned?
  • Do I feel sluggish and fatigued as a result of overeating?

In this case, “certain” foods refers to these and any other similar foods:

  • Sweets, including candy, cookies, ice cream, chocolate or artificial sweeteners
  • Starches, and refined carbohydrates including white bread, pasta and white rice
  • Salty snacks, including chips, pretzels and crackers
  • Sugary drinks, including sodas, energy drinks and other sweetened drinks
  • Fats, including bacon, burgers and fries

According to the National Institutes of Health, research has shown that there are neurobiological and behavioral similarities between substance dependence and excess consumption of highly processed foods. These findings suggest that food addiction may play a role in obesity and eating disorders. Certain diets can lead to neurochemical changes within the brain that are similar to changes seen in those with chemically dependent addictions, including alcohol, nicotine and cocaine addiction. Simply put, just as alcoholism is a result of chemical dependency on alcohol, obesity may be a consequence of an underlying chemical dependency on certain foods.

Like other pleasurable behaviors, eating can trigger the release of dopamine, a feel good brain neurotransmitter. This chemical reward increases the likelihood that the associated action will eventually become habitual, as neurochemical patterns can make the behavior hard to ignore. Many studies have shown the connection between excessive food intake and a shortage of dopamine receptors in the brains of obese people. It is unclear whether a dearth of dopamine receptors is the cause or effect of overeating. However, it is clear that similar to other addictions, an increase of dopamine-inducing substances is necessary to reach an equivalent level of neurochemical reward.

A second biological explanation for food addiction may be that beta-endorphins, the brain chemicals that produce a “natural high,” are reported to produce a more intense sense of wellbeing when cravings for sugar, simple carbs and fats come into play. According to Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D., author of the book The Sugar Addict’s Total Recovery Program, when a sugar addict attempts to decrease sugar consumption, they can experience withdrawal symptoms and may feel cranky, irritable and out of sorts. As the beta-endorphin receptors scream for relief, which may be as close as a nearby sugar sweetened beverage, the physical dependence on sugar is reinforced.

In the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous, sugar in the form of candy and chocolate was recommended for sober alcoholics to help stop the physical cravings of substance withdrawal. Many alcoholics soon found themselves binge eating sweets as their sugar cravings spiraled out of control. These sugar cravings or addictions actually led to a higher failure of sobriety. As the medical community now understands, sugar can create a mildly addictive reaction, which can affect brain chemistry in the same way that alcohol does. Statistics show that the success rate for sobriety increases with good nutrition and abstinence from sugar and simple carbohydrates. Actually, when you consider the two primary ingredients of alcohol are sugar and refined grains, these results are not all that surprising.

Not all obesity is caused by food addiction. Although not officially accepted by the medical community, food addiction does appear to be a medical problem fully supported by scientific research. As reported by Cynthia Buffington, Ph.D., many collaborative studies support brain chemistry as a primary factor in the etiology of food addiction. Separating overeaters from their primary binge foods is the first step towards wellness. Eventually cravings are reduced or lessened to the point where they are no longer overpowering. As the body begins to detoxify, emotional support is also necessary to enable long term success and recovery. Like other recovering addicts, food addicts who are actively working on recovery must accept that recovery work will likely be ongoing for life. It appears a case can be made for all of us to eliminate these certain health destructive foods in support of our own overall wellness, longevity and quality of life.

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The role of food addiction in clinical research.
Yale Food Addiction Scale.
Physical Craving and Food Addiction: A Scientific Review.
Food for Thought: Obesity and Addiction.
Science of Food Addiction.

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