It happens on a regular basis. I’m sitting in my office with a client who desperately wants to change her eating behaviors. But no matter what she tries she always seems to end up right where she started. She feels helpless and defeated. She says, “I just don’t know what to do.
“I honestly think I’m addicted to [INSERT FOOD].”
When we’re struggling with changing behaviors around specific foods, attributing our challenges to a food addiction seems like a natural fit. After all, the feelings we are experiencing are so strong that it certainly feels like an addiction.
But, while this is a highly controversial topic, evidence to support the food addiction case is lacking1, 2.
Can food be an addictive substance?
At first glance, the challenges we experience with food may seem to fit the within the addictions model quite nicely. However, sufficient scientific evidence to definitively label any particular food item, ingredient, or nutrient as addictive just doesn’t exist1.
Moreover, there’s a critical difference between food and other substances we know to be addictive (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, opioids). Food is essential to survival.
The evolutionary explanation for why the rewards centers in our brain light up when we consume foods that are higher in sugar and fat is that they increase our motivation to seek out foods to fuel our bodies adequately1.
When food was scarce, and potato chips and peanut butter cups didn’t yet exist, this was a survival mechanism – but not anymore. So, perhaps having easy access to many highly palatable foods does increase our desire to consume them.
But the factors that influence our decisions about what, when, and how much we eat go far beyond our brain chemistry.
Restriction, deprivation & the self-fulfilling prophecy
Additionally, the traditional treatment model for substance-use disorders – abstinence from the addictive substance – runs counter to everything we know about helping people reduce episodes of overeating.
Restriction fuels feelings of deprivation.
Deprivation intensifies the desire for the restricted food.
Eventually the desire becomes so strong that we “give in,” and the all-or-nothing thinking and feelings of failure that follow suit lead to overeating.
We call this the restrict-binge cycle and it is incredibly common in anyone who has ever tried to eliminate foods perceived to be problems.
Also, the way we describe an experience, such as being addicted to chocolate, can have a real impact on our response.
For many, labeling their struggles with certain foods as an addiction just perpetuates the overeating of those foods. They feel as if they are victim to their addiction, powerless to the foods that control them.
Until they can change this mindset, they probably will be destined to overeat these foods. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – before they’ve even given themselves a chance to respond differently, they’re resigned to the fact that this overeating is just the way it’s going to be.
So, while it is my position that using the phrase “food addiction” does not accurately capture why we overeat or help inform treatment of overeating, what’s more important is how we respond to what we call this experience.
3 ways to help overcome your feelings of food addiction
- Understand WHY you are eating
Many factors influence our desire to eat. Besides hunger, physical discomfort, emotional distress, or simply the power of habit can all contribute. Eating provides us with a temporary distraction from stressful or uncomfortable situations, and provides us with temporary feelings of pleasure. Because food is so easily accessible and such a strong reward, it often becomes our go-to when we are looking for a way to escape the stress or monotony of the everyday. And, if we turn to it often enough, our response eventually becomes almost automatic.
So, the first step in interrupting this behavior is to understand WHY we are turning to food in the first place.
When you find yourself drawn toward those food items you tend to overeat, pause to check in and assess your physical hunger level.
- If you are not physically hungry, assess what else is going on.
- How are you feeling? Bored? Stressed? In physical pain?
- What about your environment might be influencing this desire? Time of day? Sight of food? The people you are with?
- Then, consider what alternatives to eating might work. Experiment with different options.
- Pay attention to HOW you eat
How we eat has a lot to do with how much we eat and how much we enjoy what we eat.
In a culture that is constantly on-the-go, the process of eating takes a backseat to the other priorities. We rely on quick convenience foods to get us through, we eat while multitasking and often in a hurry, and we finish our meals without really even remembering how they tasted.
Eating mindfully helps us to slow down, engage our senses, tune into our hunger and satiety cues. We finish eating feeling satisfied and content – even when we are eating our favorite foods.
Chocolate is a popular example. When people spend time actually tasting the chocolate, letting it melt in their mouths and touch all of their taste buds, closing their eyes and really experiencing the food, and noticing how long that flavor lingers, what they realize is that they can feel more satisfied with less food by simply slowing down.
- Give yourself UNCONDITIONAL PERMISSION to eat
Part of what draws us to some of the foods we struggle with has little to do with the food itself and more to do with the self-imposed notion that we should not be eating it. Creating lists of shoulds and shouldn’ts around foods gives those particular foods power. The more we tell ourselves no, the more we want it. And once we “give in,” the more likely we are to overeat and lose the enjoyment of eating.
Giving ourselves permission to eat what we want in a way that makes the body feel good, allows us to reclaim power over our food decisions.
This is a terrifying thought to many and, like anything, becomes more comfortable with practice. But, we do know that when all foods are allowed, we are better able to recognize our true wants and needs and respond accordingly. It allows us to trust our own internal wisdom about what our bodies need and escape the world of extremes where food is good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable.
Trading ‘no’ for ‘know’
Whether we call it a food addiction or not, it boils down to figuring out why we are eating past the point of comfortable or consistently overeating specific foods, and determining the most effective mechanisms for coping with that.
Understanding why we want to eat, being mindful of how we eat, and giving ourselves permission to trust our bodies and eat what we really want are great places to begin the process of healing our relationship with food and overcoming feelings of food addiction.
- Hebebrand J, et al. “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neurosci Biobehav R. 2014;47:295-306.
- Ziauddeen H, Fletcher PC. Is food addiction a valid and useful concept?. Obes Rev. 2013;14(1):19-28.