Many of us have said at one time or another that we are “addicted” to a certain food such as cheese, ice cream, or chips. The temptation to these foods can feel strong and once we start eating them, it is hard to stop. We may find ourselves using different strategies to keep ourselves from overeating these foods, such as not purchasing them, buying individually packaged portions, or only allowing ourselves to eat them on certain days or occasions. Does it mean we are “addicted” to food if we can’t seem to help ourselves around certain ones? How do you know if you are really experiencing a food addiction or you just really enjoy a certain snack or treat? When does enjoyment and the occasional indulgence become a problem?
In this article, GenoPalate will dive into how food addiction is defined, how to tell if you have a problem, and what steps you can take towards recovering from food addiction.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is a relatively new topic that is still yet to have a universal definition accepted by the health care community. Recent studies have demonstrated a strong link between food addiction behaviors, disordered eating, and the risk of obesity or type 2 diabetes. Food addiction can be viewed as a type of eating disorder. The two main categories of eating disorders that are considered food addictions include binge eating and bulimia. Similar to other addictions, such as drugs, harmful substances, or gambling, individuals who experience food addiction tend to display a strong “seeking and reward” type of behavior. This may lead to compulsive eating behavior in which a person feels a loss of control or is unable to stop eating foods, often foods that are highly flavorful, including those high in fats, refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, or carbohydrates. These foods are also known as highly palatable foods. Consuming these highly palatable foods, which are also often processed foods, can result in the increased release of chemicals within the brain, such as serotonin or dopamine, which activate the brain’s reward system and give an individual a sense of pleasure. Over time, the body adapts to the higher levels of “feel-good” chemicals that these foods release and will need larger quantities in order to achieve the mood boost resulting in cravings. These cravings may also be enhanced by strong pleasure-seeking signals that an individual experiences as a result of guilt or feelings of shame that follow compulsive or binge eating episodes.
The risks of food addiction
Everyone must eat as it is essential to survival. However, the majority of us do not eat just to survive, but we also enjoy food as part of our socialization habits, in response to certain moods, and as a source of pleasure. Because each and every one of us is surrounded by foods, including those types of highly palatable foods mentioned above, there is some risk for every individual to develop a food addiction. Those risks increase based on BMI, with obese individuals having a higher risk than non-obese individuals due to altered brain reward center activity. Exposure from an early age to highly processed foods or a history of using food as a coping mechanism in response to high stress can also increase the risk of developing a food addiction. Research suggests that genetics may also play a role in an individual’s risk. These variants include those in genes that increase an individual’s predisposition to obesity such as the FTO gene, altered dopamine receptor activity such as DRD2, genes that encode for taste receptors which influence the preference for umami or savory flavors, and genes such as MC4R which are involved in the likelihood of overeating in response to emotional stressors. Other genes which influence overall predisposition to addictive behaviors may also play a role.
What are some signs of food addiction?
Individuals who suffer from food addiction often have intense cravings for highly palatable foods in general, not just for one specific food. It is followed by feeling the urge or compulsion to eat until well past full, often to the point of feeling sick. Additionally, individuals with a food addition tend to need a larger quantity of food in order to feel full. Other physical symptoms of food addiction include nausea, headaches, anxiety, or irritability, eating even when full, and constant eating or “grazing”.
Behaviors that can be used to identify a food addiction, or other disordered eating pattern include:
- Hiding food or evidence of food eaten
- Waking up during the night to eat
- Obsession with thoughts about food or preoccupation with when or what the next meal will be
- Extreme guilt or shame after a binge eating episode
- Inability to keep compulsive eating behaviors under control
- Other addictive-related behaviors such as obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Problems at work or school due to preoccupation with food, or missed work due to the need to “make up” for a binging period
- Avoidance of social events or activities due to fear of loss of control, shame, or physical limitations related to food and eating patterns.
How can I overcome a food addiction?
Food addiction cannot be fixed overnight. In fact, it may take a few tries, as well as multiple attempts with some relapses, to break the cycle. That is okay, the important thing to remember is that every step you take to break food addiction is one step closer to a healthier you and every step backward is an opportunity to refine your plan and keep moving forward.
With food addiction, you may be able to employ some coping mechanisms used with more traditional or defined types of addictions, but unlike addictions that involve chemicals or behaviors that are not typically found in the diet, you cannot completely eliminate food. Therefore, a more tailored and customized approach is needed.
Whether you suspect you have an eating disorder or other unhealthy eating disorder, there are different methods to help you manage and improve your overall nutrition.
- Seek help — Similar to other addictions, professional help and resources may be needed in addition to lifestyle and diet changes to truly make impactful and sustainable changes towards recovery.
- Identify your main triggers — While food addiction can have numerous triggers for each individual, attempting to narrow down times, surroundings, or foods that are most likely to provoke overeating or binge eating episodes can help to make plans and refine coping strategies.
- Remove temptation — Try to keep those highly palatable foods, such as packaged or processed foods, as well as fast food outside of the home in order to limit exposure to foods that are highly linked to addictive behaviors. Instead, focus on whole foods, especially non-starchy vegetables, fruit, and whole grains that are high in fiber.
- Find additional support — If family or friends are not available or not enough, consider reaching out to a community that is focused on supporting individuals with emotional eating issues. This could be a local support group or a larger virtual support group.
- Stop being overly restrictive — Whether it is because you are trying to lose weight or another reason, if you are getting too few calories throughout the day, your food cravings may increase, especially in response to emotions. Aim to eat satisfying amounts of healthy foods throughout the day, even enjoying an occasional treat, which can help prevent cravings in the first place.
- Plan ahead — Prepare meals and snacks ahead of time and keep them in an easy to reach location in clear containers.
- Stick to a schedule — Try to eat meals and snacks around the same time every day. Your body will start to adjust when it signals to the body that it is time to eat, which can help you plan and make better food choices. Bonus — eating every 3 or 4 hours can help to keep your body fueled and prevent dips in blood sugar, which could lead to overeating.
- Plan for the occasional relapse — If you have an episode of emotional or binge eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Try focusing on the positive changes that you have been able to make, learn from the experience, and create a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Slip-ups are bound to happen — it is important to take them in stride and keep moving forward.
Want to learn more about how you can modify your eating behaviors to positively impact your health? Read our previous blog “Controlling portion sizes without counting calories”.
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