• Letisha Hodges

How Can I Overcome Food Addiction and Is It Real?

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There's been a lot of talk lately about food addiction – some people say it's real, and others wrongly claim that it's nothing more than an excuse to overeat. So, what's the truth? Is food addiction a legitimate phenomenon, or is it just a way to shirk responsibility for our calorie intake?

In this post, we'll take a closer look at the evidence for and against food addiction, and we'll explore the possible causes of overeating.

Stay tuned – by the end of this post, you'll have a better understanding of whether or not food addiction is real.

What is food addiction?

Food addiction is not a defined clinical, psychological or medical term. Most descriptions of food addiction include trigger foods causing a physiological change in the brain that produces pleasure which causes a reliance on eating junk food. People who believe in food addictions will compare it to the physiological response similar to drug addiction.

Symptoms of food addiction

People who believe in food addictions will describe the symptoms of food addiction as:

- food craving despite being full

- struggle to control yourself around certain foods, especially "junk foods"

- eating past the point of comfortable fullness

- eating large quantities of food

- eating differently alone than when around others

- feeling guilt and shame after eating

- struggling to stop the behaviours despite wanting to change or struggling with physical issues like weight gain

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To be honest, those are symptoms of an unhealthy relationship with food.

These symptoms could be related to eating disorders such as binge eating disorder or just a consequence of living with diet culture.

If you have ever wondered if you have a food addiction, I don’t blame you. The headlines on this topic are comparing food & people in larger bodies to something like the opioid crisis.

There are so many factors at play here, and you are not alone; I have worked with many people who feel out of control around food. Your feelings of being addicted are valid, and I am not here to dispute that.

I am writing this to help you reconnect with how capable and powerful you are.

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The Science Behind Food Addiction

Shout out to the most beautiful meta-analysis, Sugar Addiction: The State of the Science, the source of this information.

1) Just because an activity or substance releases dopamine, it does not mean you’re addicted.

- Yes, sugar and cocaine both cause dopamine release in your brain.

- Dopamine is a chemical in our brain in our reward & pleasure pathways. Your brain is designed to seek out pleasurable activities and repeat them.

- Some of the activities or substances which stimulate dopamine release are important for our survival as a species, such as drinking water, food, having sex, moving our bodies, and mothers looking at their babies.

Nobody is going to shame a mother for looking at her baby too often.
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2) Headlines leave out critical pieces of information from those studies

- The rats within the studies have only showed addiction-like behaviours after a 12-16 hour fast or intermittent feeding schedules. Rats will binge continuously on cocaine or heroin with free access to drugs, but rats will only binge early in the feeding period with dextrose. Not unlike us, when we are ravenous.

- Rats used in the study have a preference for sugar, so theoretically, if food addiction is real, then the experiment preselects the rats most likely to develop food addiction.

- Fasted rats ate more sugar but ate less chow, which decreased their total calorie intake, and this may highlight why food addiction may not be a cause of obesity.

- Studies using rat models are not directly transferable to humans.

Why You May Feel Like You’re Addicted to Food or Sugar

1. You’re incredibly busy all day or trying to lose weight and may not take the time to eat, but once you get home and relax, you are STARVING. When we are at that level of hunger, we choose high fat, salt & high sugar foods, eat very quickly, overeat or snack a lot at night.

It will feel like you have no control, and you cannot progress with your goals.

2. If you were to overeat, it is often high fat, high sugar, or high salt, processed foods or highly palatable foods because they taste amazing and are easier to overeat.

When was the last time you felt out of control with a bean salad?

3. You have black and white thinking patterns or habits surrounding food where the morality of “good” or “bad” foods or thoughts like “I failed my diet by having one piece of cake, may as well finish the whole thing” or “Diet starts Monday." Which implies you will never have those foods again, and the Last Meal Mentality creeps in. Granted, there are eating patterns that have a positive, neutral or negative impact on our health over time, but nuance matters.

4. You may use food as a coping mechanism with strong emotions, which could be boredom, anger, sadness, happiness etc. If you are unaware of this attachment to food or have a hard time changing this pattern, it could feel like you have a compulsion that you can’t control.

Read more about emotional eating and coping mechanisms in my previous blog posts here and here.

5. You may have a harder time connecting to your hunger and fullness cues due to a history of dieting, mental health concerns, eating disorders or health conditions.

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What is the root cause of food addiction?

My argument for causes of food addiction include:

- A culture that prioritizes thinness over wellness.

- A culture that prioritizes achievement, hard-work, and status over nourishing ourselves physically, socially, and emotionally. Our Western culture tends to "live to work" instead of "working to live". I don't know how many clients of mine have felt guilty for taking a break to eat their lunch or even stretch after working for 5 hours straight.

- A society that both demonizes certain foods causing guilt & shame while also assigning virtuousness to healthy foods.

- A food industry that spends millions on advertising and research to make highly palatable foods even more enticing by hitting the pleasure centers in our brains

Why Food Addiction Is Not Real

I may or may not have went on a tirade and channeled it into a blog after I read the Times article, “Food Addictions Are Real Addictions—And More and More People Are Getting Hooked.”

1. It’s sensationalized reporting because some journalists may not be well-versed in research, and some scientists may not appreciate the nuances of working with people outside of the lab. For example, one key argument in the article uses a study that found Oreos lit up the pleasure center of a rat's brain more than cocaine. Of course, it was not made clear that these rats were fasted.

2. A common argument for food addiction is that we are at a higher risk because food is easily accessible and we need it to survive. We cannot just cut it out like alcohol or drugs. We are between a rock and a hard place! Not only do we make over 200 food decisions IN A DAY, we aren’t even aware of most of them, which can make a person feel powerless and erode self-confidence. Here’s yet another reason why they can’t lose weight, improve blood sugar levels, and progress with their goals.

3. It further reinforces black and white thinking patterns around food. Not only are there “good” and “bad” foods, now there are good and “OMFG you’re eating crack” foods. According to the Times article, “Some numbers suggest that food may be as addictive as drugs, and in some cases more so. About 30% of people who try heroin become addicts; the same goes for about 16% of cocaine users.”

How can anyone find balance and sustainable healthy habits if one “mistake” puts them at risk for addiction?

How do I overcome my eating addiction?

1. Eat more regularly throughout the day and avoid skipping meals which lead us you overeating unhealthy foods as soon as you can get your hands on some!

2. Meal planning so you can have healthy meals more readily accessible for you to eat and make better food choices when you are busy or tired.

3. Eating balanced meals with sources of lean protein, vegetables, and high fibre carbs to prevent swings in your blood sugar levels which can increase food cravings and bad eating habits.

4. Learn more about your relationship with food, your trigger foods, and how to build other coping mechanism other than using food.

5. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional or support groups for emotional eating, eating disorders, and compulsive overeating.

6. You may want to put weight loss goals on the back-burner for a while. Sometimes we

So, what do we make of food addiction?

There is very little evidence from high quality studies to support it in humans. The animal studies suggests that addiction-like eating habits only occur in the context of intermittent access to sugar, not the neurochemical effects of sugar itself. This means that any claims of food addiction, advertisements of help for food addiction or nutrition programs to overcome food addiction should be met with skepticism.

If you’re struggling with symptoms of food addiction, food craving or binge eating, please reach out for a clarity call! We would be happy to get to know your story and learn how we can help you improve your relationship with food and take control of your health.

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