Too often we relegate the term “addiction” to the usual suspects. Drugs, alcohol, gambling. Those are the addictions we talk about, because those are addictions to things that are generally recognized as harmful on some level.
What we ignore is addictions to things that are healthy, or even necessary. Exercise addictions are real. So is sex addiction. And food addiction.
“Food addiction?” someone will say. “How hard is it to put down the donut?”
This is a common sentiment with any kind of addiction – indeed, with many mental health issues in general. People who don’t understand the affliction believe that the solution is just to show some willpower, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make better decisions.
To show how wrong this thinking is, we have to go back to the definition of addiction.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, whose entire existence as an organization is geared to understanding addiction, the short definition of addiction is:
“A primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”
Addiction isn’t just drugs and alcohol. Addiction isn’t even really about any particular substance. It’s about someone pursuing any sort of behavior or object that creates a certain stimulus in the brain. That stimulus is rewarding, and so they pursue it again and again, looking to re-activate that same reward circuit.
Addiction is a disease that affects the brain. And so yes, while food is necessary to sustain life and alcohol isn’t, food addiction is still a very serious problem.
What is Food Addiction?
Food addiction tends to follow many of the same criteria as drug addiction. Foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt trigger many of the same dopamine “reward” centers as cocaine and heroin.
As a result, food addicts feel an intense satisfaction from eating certain foods, and thus they quickly feel the need to eat again. The pleasure signals associated with eating these foods can override feelings of fullness, compelling people to continue eating despite not being hungry.
At this point, people are not eating to satisfy hunger, but rather to satisfy an addiction to that food. People may joke about being a “chocoholic,” but the reality is, that is much closer to a real affliction than most people realize. It’s not wrong to classify sugar addiction as a real problem.
Food addiction is related to compulsive eating disorders like bulimia and binge eating, but those forms of disordered eating are a bit different. Addiction is addiction.
People who suffer from food addiction even build up tolerance in the same way drug addicts do. They can, over time, handle more and more of the food that brings them that dopamine rush. You’re probably picturing someone morbidly obese who simply continues to gain weight as they eat, but that’s not really accurate. Many people in a medically normal weight range have this type of eating disorder and simply compensate for the extra calories with exercise or high metabolisms.
Put simply, food addiction is an eating disorder in which people get the same rush from certain types of foods as drug addicts get from drugs. And indeed, the same pleasure centers are tripped, symptoms are almost identical, and the effects on health are similarly harmful.
Like drug or alcohol addiction, food addiction is often associated with a lack of control. People who try to cut back on certain foods find themselves eating them again mere hours later, without even thinking about it. They find themselves eating more of certain kinds of foods than they intended, eating in private to hide their consumption, and making excuses to justify eating more.
If these symptoms don’t sound familiar to you, here is some information about drug and alcohol addiction. You’ll likely find a lot of overlap, and if it sounds like you or someone you know might be addicted, especially to drugs or alcohol, here are some local resources that may be able to help.
Sugar Addiction and What Causes the Most Food Addiction Problems
While it isn’t technically impossible to develop an addiction to, say, vegetables, it’s a lot more common to hear about someone eating an entire tray of Oreos than someone binge eating a bag of carrots.
The reality is, sugar is a bigger problem than anyone in the food industry wants to admit. Sugar addiction is real and is realistically one of the main culprits of food addiction. “Junk food” in general tends to trip these addictions most often. Many of these foods have similar features:
- high sugar content
- high fat content
- lots of salt/sodium
- low in vitamins, minerals and other nutritional values
The low nutritional value causes the body to absorb that sugar faster than usual, causing a rush to the brain and a spike of glucose – a simple carbohydrate that can be used for energy – in the bloodstream.
Put in simpler terms, eating junk food makes you feel good. It sets off your brain’s reward circuit that makes you feel like you’re doing a good thing for it – even when you’re not. Again, this is very similar to how drugs activate your brain, just in a slightly less-invasive way. Sugar also activates the cells in your brain, which makes it hard to ignore when it’s also sending you positive reinforcement for your consumption of junk foods.
The Trouble With Treating Food Addiction
Food addiction is a relatively new term and concept. So new, in fact, that it’s still a somewhat controversial idea. But there’s no denying the fact that people suffering from food addiction exhibit the same symptoms as those suffering addiction of any other kind.
With that in mind, you’d think that since the nature of food addiction is the same as drug addiction, treatment could also be the same, right?
Well, no. See, drugs and alcohol aren’t necessary to living a healthy life. Neither are compulsive behaviors like gambling. Therapy for those types of disorders focus on convincing patients that they don’t need those things in their lives, even though their bodies is sending signals that suggest otherwise.
But in this case, we’re talking about food. The human body actually does need food to subsist. It may not need the kinds of sugary foods that are the main catalyst of food addiction and other eating disorders, but ultimately the act of eating food is unavoidable. There is no way to promote an evidence-based recovery plan for a food addict, because that’s simply condemning them to die of malnutrition. You can’t detox people from food the way you can drugs and alcohol. It doesn’t work that way.
It is possible, of course, to promote a healthier diet, free of fatty and sugar foods. But so much of overcoming addiction has to do with overcoming the triggers of harmful behaviors. And for food addicts, simply eating anything is likely to trigger the desire for those compulsive foods. Many of those suffering from sugar addiction will seek their sugary foods immediately after a healthy, nutritious meal, so it isn’t as though eating healthy itself dampens those cravings.
It’s a complicated issue, and one that has only recently begun getting the attention it deserves. Treating food addiction may well force us to re-examine the way we look at addiction in general.
What are your thoughts on food addiction? This is still a brand new area of study, and scientists are still in disagreement about whether “food addiction” is the correct way to classify this type of disordered eating. Tell us what you think in the comments below.