Ten years ago if you’d asked me “can you be addicted to food” I would have said “absolutely, yes”.
In 2009 I attended my first Overeaters Anonymous (OA) meeting. I started out with phone meetings because I just couldn’t bring myself to walk into an in-person meeting. Shame whispered “what if you see a patient or someone else that you know?”.
Back then I was part of the 90% of people who believe that food can be addictive. I believed with all of my heart that I was an addict – a compulsive overeater. The pattern after all – craving, loss of control, excessive consumption, tolerance, withdrawal and distress.
So I got a sponsor, made my list of ‘trigger’ foods that I would abstain from, and attended my meetings.
As with any diet before, I threw myself into it fully. I read all of the books, did all of the work, and recorded my food intake and weight with the diligence of any ‘good girl’.
But I started to notice something the longer that I stayed in OA: nobody was actually getting food freedom. The lists of trigger foods were getting longer. I thought that was really weird. How could a food that they were eating without issue last month now be a trigger food? Instead of bingeing on junk foods they were bingeing on vegetables and meat. The foods may have changed but the behaviours hadn’t.
That was when I started to question the whole food addiction theory. I started to do a deep dive into the research and I was surprised by what I found.
Food Addiction Research
It’s not very clear cut at all. Consensus isn’t even close to being achieved.
When self-proclaimed addicts were assessed using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, only 12% actually met the criteria. Using the scale assumes that food addiction is real, which is still up for much debate, but even based on that assumption, almost 90% weren’t addicts.
Researchers have not been able to identify the addictive substance. And that’s a problem. Those who are in the food-addiction-is-real camp believe that sugar is the addictive food. But it’s blurry. All sugar? Just some sugar? Foods that converts to sugar?
The other sticky bit is that Food Addiction is eerily similar to Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
Another interesting thing about food addiction studies is that they’re not corrected for restriction (read dieting; read hunger). In animal studies the way that they get the animals to exhibit the food addiction behaviours that I was going through they had to starve them first – or at least restrict them.
In a hungry state our brains create chemicals that lead us to obsess about food. And those chemicals make us vulnerable to hyperpalatable foods (junk food, fast food) because we’re not going to let ourselves starve.
Why does this matter? Because as a society right now, we’re focused on restricting. We’re watching what we eat and trying to eat smaller portions. We’re forever putting ourselves into this vulnerable state.
So, are you addicted to food?
Maybe, but you’re probably not.
More likely, you’re overeating because of one of two things.
- You’re vulnerable due to restriction.
- Food is being used as a distraction.
I’ll dive into using food as a distraction in another blog/video.
For now, let me share a few tips on how you can start to overcome binge eating:
- Stop skimping or skipping. Hunger wins every single time. Shift your attention away from maximum calories and start focusing on minimums. Eat regularly so that your body doesn’t ever think that it’s going to starve. *this step speaks from my privilege; food scarcity is very real for a lot of people, do the best that you can with what you have
- Find a community. Shame kept me from addressing my binge eating disorder. I didn’t dare tell anyone about my binges and nobody asked. Everyone seemed quite content to help me lose weight and restrict but nobody talked about the binges or the emotional side of things. I created a Facebook Group called Applaud Your Bod for this purpose. A safe place to share and feel normal and to feel inspired. Consider this your cordial invitation. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1437974869844063
- Take the Binge Eating Quiz. https://psychology-tools.com/test/binge-eating-scale We don’t know if Food Addiction is real but we do know that Binge Eating Disorder is. Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder is available and effective. If you’d like to talk, you can book a free Food Freedom Discovery Session with me. You don’t have to go it alone.
Dedicated to helping you find peace and power with your body,
Neuropsychopharmacology 2018 Dec; 43(13): 2506–2513