Are You Addicted to Food? Maybe It Deserves a Second Look


I had the pleasure of attending the annual conference of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics this past week where, among other things, I took a workshop on food photography.  Now if I can only find the time to focus (bad pun intended) on that.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about today.

Rather, I wanted to share my thoughts about a session on food addiction.  One of the presenters gave an overview of his research, which suggests that people who struggle with eating palatable foods, e.g., those rich in sugar, fat, salt, have fewer receptors for dopamine.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s involved in producing the pleasure we feel when we eat tasty foods.

Studies suggest that binge eaters and compulsive overeaters have fewer dopamine receptors, meaning they need to eat more of the palatable foods to get the same level of pleasure that a person with more receptors.  The takeaway is that such folks are thus driven to eat more of these foods.

But is that the basic reason many people become compulsive eaters, or binge eaters?  It may be for some.  But our experience at Green Mountain is there’s often something perhaps even more basic at play.  And that is the impact of the diet mentality on the drive to eat.

We know that deprivation creates desire.  One example presented in the session was of a night eater who was worried about his weight and hence ate very little during the day.  A record of his meals for one day showed he ate very little, and almost no carbohydrate.  Yet when nighttime rolled around, he was drawn to sweets and plenty of them.

We’ve seen this very thing at Green Mountain for years — women who come to us with a long-standing pattern of restricting calories during the day, restricting foods they love, until they can no longer restrict.  Then giving in to eating what and as much as they want, then feeling guilty and starting the pattern all over again.

All the restricting leaves them physiologically and psychologically unable of be a good judge of what they really want.

So I’ll leave you with our first line of exploring when someone believes they are addicted to food, which can leave them feeling helpless and hopeless:  Think twice before labeling your struggles as such.

  • Are you eating regular, balanced meals?
  • Do you truly believe you can eat what you want?
  • Do you worry if foods will make you fat?

These are fundamental questions that get to behaviors and attitudes that can create major problems with our eating.

With that, go out and have a great weekend!  Feed yourself well, enjoy what you eat, have fun doing things that do and don’t involve food.

Do you think there’s danger in rushing too quickly to the “diagnosis” of food addiction?  Why or why not?

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

Marsha has been a guiding force at Green Mountain at Fox Run since 1986. In addition to overseeing a professional program that helps women establish sustainable approaches to healthy living, she is a respected thought leader when it comes to managing eating, emotions and weight. She has been a voice of reason for the last three decades in helping people move away from diets, an area in which she is personally as well as professionally versed. An accomplished writer and speaker, Marsha is the author of six books, including the online course Disordered Eating in Active and Sedentary Individuals (co-authored by Karin Kratina, PhD, RD, Human Kinetics), What You Need to Know about Carbohydrates (Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics [The Academy]), What You Need to Know about Vitamin and Mineral Supplements (The Academy), and The Pregnancy Cookbook (co-authored by Donna Shields, RD, Berkeley Publishing). She has worked extensively on a national basis to educate the public about nutrition and the impact of dieting on eating behaviors, including binge eating and emotional eating. Active in many organizations helping to further the cause of health and wellness, Marsha currently serves as vice chair of the Binge Eating Disorder Association and vice president of The Center for Mindful Eating and has been active in the Association for Size Diversity and Health in support of Health at Every Size(R) principles.

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