Kelly Neilson, MDA RD LD
All I Want to Do Is Eat… Am I Addicted to Food?
Do potato chips, ice cream, or delicious food from restaurants like pasta or burgers ever make you feel not only uncomfortably full from eating everything in sight, but also overwhelmingly defeated?
Are you becoming frustrated and concerned the more you realize you can’t put certain foods down?
What’s wrong with me?
All I want to do is eat, I can’t stop!
Am I addicted to food?
You’re not the first person to be bombarded with these thoughts. “Food addiction” is a hot topic, spreading fast, and generally accepted to be true.
Even some health professionals and treatment centers have gone as far as categorizing food cravings with drug addiction, especially with regard to sweets and “junk food.”
Food Addiction Isn’t Real, Let’s Bust This Myth
*While the purpose of this post is to prove why the food addiction theory is false, it’s crucial to know that feeling like you’re addicted to food is totally real. The experiences we have with food can make us think we’re addicted.
It’s time we dig into the science and literature, because this is an extremely flawed case to make. As we discover the true facts, you’ll find the answer for how to stop feeling addicted to food is made clear!
Is Food Addictive? The Evidence Is Inconclusive and Inconsistent
When looking through the lens of diet culture, the research to conclude and support food being addictive seems convincing at first glance. This podcast does an excellent job breaking this claim down.
Current results have yet to reach an agreement on this theory. Food, or a single ingredient like sugar, has zero proof of being chemically and physiologically addicting.
A specific and formal definition of food addiction doesn’t even exist. This term is up in the air, yet professionals are trying to provide medical advice and reasoning based on their own definition of food addiction. Big problem!
Most studies have been performed on rats, whereas human studies are minimal. Rats are not humans. Rats live, breathe, eat, and sleep. You can’t instantly translate a rat's experience with food to a human's experience. Humans are far more complex!
Food is subjective, it can’t be objectively measured with humans. Many factors affect its place in your life. Environment, current situation, time of day, emotions, and energy levels are only a few elements impacting interactions, choices, and that occasional curve ball we have with food.
It’s very difficult to measure something that’s so unique for each person and each BODY!
Addiction-like Behaviors Only Occur Under Certain Conditions
Sweets and highly palatable foods are seen as the main culprits for feeling addicted to food.
The studies using rats tested their hypothesis with sugar. A feeding schedule was imposed on the rats, forcing them to fast for 12 hours followed by free access to sugar for the next 12 hours.
Over the course of the 4 week study, addiction-like behaviors and signs of food dependency arose only during the feeding schedule with intermittent access to sugar.
Of course the rats compulsively ate the sugar, they were unsure when they’d receive food again!
Hello?!?! This sounds a lot like dieting and restriction leading to rebound overeating and bingeing.
When the sugar was entirely available with no period of fasting the rats did NOT display addiction-like behaviors. Context matters!
The Yale Food Addiction Scale Doesn’t Consider Dieting or Restriction
The Yale Food Addiction Scale is the most popular questionnaire used to identify food addiction and it’s purely based on one’s feelings and experiences with food.
Chronic dieting isn’t taken into account and the questions were written in a way that coincides directly with the classic disordered behaviors that result because of restriction.
The studies using this instrument fail to associate dieting with the “addictive” tendencies. RED FLAG here, why wouldn’t restriction be considered when we know by research (stated above) that restriction creates addiction-like behaviors?!
Food Is Food and Drugs Are Drugs
Brain imaging reveals that sugar lights up the same reward center in the brain as cocaine. We’ve all seen the headlines demanding much attention over this comparison.
Yes, sugar and drugs both release the same reward response in the brain, producing a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us “feel good.”
Food is a NATURAL reward like music, socializing, naps, shopping, and exercise - drugs are not. Drugs hijack the neural system and natural reward pathway, creating a significant overflow of dopamine.
From neuroimaging we can see that a heightened and exaggerated pleasure response to food resembles that of drug addiction only in the context of food restraint or restriction.
Food is more enticing when it’s forbidden (mentally or physically). When food is abundant and there’s no deprivation or the need to eat uncontrollably, the brain response matches that of other natural rewards.
We can’t pathologize food being pleasurable; it gives reward signals to the brain for many reasons:
Food is necessary for survival and we’re driven to eat because it keeps us alive.
Hunger makes food appealing and enhances the pleasure we feel when that need is met.
We’ve conditioned ourselves to receive a greater reward with certain foods. If we expect irresistible urges, then we set ourselves up to repeat those experiences because our brain wants that reward.
Food is more comforting when we’re low on receiving dopamine from other areas in life.
Still, All I Want to Do Is Eat... How Do I Stop Feeling Addicted to Food?
Now that we’ve done a deep dive into the research and this theory, we know the answer and can apply it to our own life!
A lot of people think the quick solution is to stop eating the so-called “trigger foods” causing that loss of control. According to the studies, we know this is counterproductive! Unlike with drug addiction when abstinence from the drug makes dependency go away, "abstinence" (restriction) from food, or certain foods, makes you more drawn to food!
Addiction-like behaviors increased and brain responses were more intense during periods of intermittent access to food A.K.A dieting, restriction, counting calories, subconsciously choosing “healthy” foods, etc.
The more you restrict, the more you’ll crave the very foods you made off-limits.
Incorporating “forbidden foods” into your diet lessens the presence of binge eating. This is exactly why food addiction isn’t real. Think about it… what treatment for addiction would include more of the addictive substance?!
If you want to stop feeling addicted to food you must make ALL foods available. Loosen the reins on yourself, reintroduce “off-limit” foods into your diet, give yourself permission, and nutritionally replenish your body.
At first this might reinforce your beliefs about food and your binge behaviors. “See I told you! All I want to do is eat, I can’t control myself around food!” Over time that feeling of addiction will dissipate. Your body and your mind will start to feel safe (this is called habituation), food isn’t going anywhere!
Virtual Nutrition Counseling Is Available for You!
You CAN feel capable and competent around food! If you don’t know where to start and want to know more about eating with absolute freedom, virtual nutrition counseling is available. As an anti-diet dietitian I’m ready to help you heal!