Exploring Food Addiction


exploring food addiction donutsDoes food addiction really exist?

This question was a big subject of controversy at the 2013 conferences of the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) and the International Association of Eating  Disorder Professionals (IAEDP).

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Of those who have strong opinions about the subject, there are probably two sides whose opinions vary the greatest — researchers who study the issue, most recently via brain scans of larger-bodied folks who fall into the “obese” range of the BMI. These professionals tend to support the idea of food addiction.

Then there are the dietitians and therapists who use mindful eating (or attuned eating or intuitive eating — all variations on the same theme of normal eating) to help people who struggle with eating and weight. They tend to question whether food addiction really exists, at least beyond the fact that we’re all dependent on food.

Researchers: Brain Activity Supports Food Addiction Argument

Donuts, Ding Dongs and Doritos

The position of the researchers is that they see regions of the brain “light up” when people are exposed to highly-palatable foods, which generally translates to those foods that most people think they shouldn’t eat but do so anyway. You know the foods — the donuts, Ding Dongs and Doritos of the world.

People With Fewer D2 Receptors Eat More For The Same Degree of Pleasure

And they’ve got brain studies to show that larger-bodied folks tend to have fewer D2 receptors in the brain that are involved in signaling pleasure, so that these folks need to eat more to get the same degree of pleasure from foods as people (usually thinner folks) with more D2 receptors.

They also use the Yale Food Addiction Scale as the tool to measure people’s attitudes about food and determine whether they rank as food-addicted.

Counselors: Other Factors Affect Food And Behavior

binge eating on ice cream

The position of the counselors is that other pleasurable things light up those same brain centers. Enjoyable things like music. Are we going to say people are addicted to music because they feel pleasure when they hear it?

Researchers Don’t Seem to Factor In The Impact Of Restricted Eating

What’s more — and this is something I discovered as I prepared to give a talk at IAEDP on how to help binge eaters become attuned eaters — researchers don’t appear to be taking into consideration AT ALL the impact of dieting and the other restricted eating behaviors on the “weight of the nation” or the number of D2 receptors they’re seeing in larger folks.

Brain Receptors Are Reduced In Number And Desensitized By Dieting

Studies clearly show that restricted eating behaviors, such as dieting and plain old worry that food is going to make you fat, cause people to gain weight and also can diminish the number and sensitivity of the receptors. It’s as if the last 50+ years of calorie and weight obsession didn’t happen.

Food Addiction or Restricted Eating Behaviors

The Yale Food Addiction Scale: What Does It Actually Measure?

Finally, if you compare the Yale scale to questionnaires that measure restricted eating attitudes and behaviors, lo and behold, you see very similar questions. Questions like “I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than planned” or “I find myself continuing to consume certain foods even though I am no longer hungry” or “Not eating certain types of food or cutting down on certain types of food is something I worry about.”  Which makes me question just what is the scale really measuring — food addiction behaviors or restricted eating behaviors?

As I said at BEDA where I chaired a panel discussing how to effectively treat binge eating disorder, one thing I have learned in the last thirty years of working with women who struggle with eating and weight, is to listen to what they have to say.

I am not going to tell someone that a certain food or ingredient such as sugar can’t drive her to eat out of control. I tend to not believe in absolutes — we need to leave room for individual differences.

Science Needs To Account For All The Variables

yogi-berra-quote-on-over-eatingBut I will say it’s not fair to make pronouncements based on faulty data. And that’s what I fear is going on with the current research. If we don’t take into account all the variables, we aren’t going to get clear answers.

I also encourage us all to start at the same place so we can compare apples to apples. That is, if people aren’t eating regular, well-balanced meals that include plenty of whole foods, and aren’t viewing all foods from a neutral place — not labeling them as good or bad or fattening or “I shouldn’t eat” or “I can’t eat without going out of control” — more variables that can muddy the answers come into play.

I daresay that many of the larger-bodied folks who turn up as study subjects are people who have struggled for years with on-again, off-again dieting and worry about food and weight. Their bodies are likely malnourished and out of balance, and they’ve likely got lots of anxieties about food. That must be taken into account when conducting the studies and analyzing their results.

What We Have Seen Repeatedly In Our Program At Green Mountain

Once women get their bodies into balance physically and become curious about how food affects them, rather than pre-judging how they are going to feel when they eat it, and often, getting more in their lives than worry about food and weight, the vast majority find it doesn’t have the power over them they thought it did. So I will admit my bias on the subject, but, again, I always leave the door open for the real expert to weigh in. That expert is the individual with her own experience in her own body.

Still, I always say, why restrict something if you don’t have to?

Learn More About Our Binge Eating Program

11 responses to “Exploring Food Addiction”

  1. Jules Joyce says:

    thank you for opening this subject…..my own take with regards to addiction….not just all but food….often we only touch the surface of the addiction by addressing the substance….the true addiction is the feelings and behavioral response connected to the substance…..When we focus on addressing the behaviors and the reactions rather than just the substances is when healing and recovery can occur. It’s like the phrase dry drunk….they don’t drink the alcohol anymore but all the behaviors and feelings have not been addressed and sometimes just switch the addiction….that is how I view *dieting* and food restrictions. sometimes we just switch the *diet*

    • Marsha Hudnall says:

      So agree with you, Jules. These struggles are often about so much more than food. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Jean says:

    Thanks Marsha for this excellent article. I have had a couple family members recently giving me articles on this topic from the NY Times etc with the comment of “see it is all the food industry’s conspiracy – it is SCIENCE that tells us all is hopeless unless we go on a very specific diet”. And while I know better from my time at Green Mtn than to fall into a mindset and over focus on very specific eating “rules” your article does a great job of putting those initial exploratory studies into their proper place.

  3. kellyhindsrd says:

    Great post Marsha. I, too, was at the IAEDP conference & felt like there was “just enough” information presented to leave people who haven’t studied the issue with “just enough” understanding of the subject to make it dangerous. It also didn’t take into account the nature of eating disorders or look at how, once a body is functioning properly, many of the “addictive” type behaviors naturally resolve. But, I don’t think we can totally rule out the idea of addiction for all clients. Thanks for posting!

    • Marsha Hudnall says:

      I love your comment about how types of behaviors can naturally resolve when a body is functioning properly, Kelly. That’s what I was getting at with my encouragement for a person to eat well before deciding she is addicted to food. But I agree with you re not being able to rule out the existence of food addiction — we just don’t know enough at this point to be able to say that. Thanks for commenting!

  4. debbiew48 says:

    Great post and thanks to discuss this point in this blog.

  5. Audrey says:

    I know that since returning from GM I eat and think differently. But I have not (yet) seen my addictive behaviors resolve. In fact before GM I would not have accepted calling myself an “addict” to food, but having witnessed myself in the middle of a binge this weekend I wonder how far off from say a heroin addict my behavior was. I knew what I was going out of my house to buy was abusive to my body (no one gets nutrition from fudge brownie ice cream and Lay’s potato chips!!!) but I did it anyway. It was as if I was watching myself from outside and could not stop myself. Weak willed? Possibly. Self-abuse? Certainly! If doctors can use MRI’s and physical evidence to craft something to help me short circuit that willful beast that stomped all over my GM defenses (cookie jar, call or text a friend, go for a walk…) I am all in. In the meantime, I will just pick up the pieces and start again.

    • Marsha says:


      My question is whether you thought you “shouldn’t” be eating ice cream and potato chips at all. Your comment suggests that. That belief can be a major contributor to binge behavior. Do you think the experience might have been different if you gave yourself permission to enjoy these foods without worry about their nutritional value (or impact on weight management)? ~Marsha

    • Robyn Priebe says:

      Hi Audrey, Robyn here…. I’m sorry you ran into a lapse this past weekend, although I don’t see lapses back into old behaviors as an indication of being weak willed, I just think they are a normal part of the process of making change and a testament to how very strong the power of habit is. No matter how many GM defenses you leave here with, we expect people to periodically pop back into old habits and routines. The difference is being able to evaluate that lapse, figure out the trigger/purpose, and keep moving forward armed with the info you learned from that process.

      Agreed, we probably don’t get tons of vitamins from ice cream and chips, but we get SOMETHING out of eating them (or even over-eating or bingeing on them). Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. I think that if you can even learn a little from a binge, then it moves you forward, not backwards in your quest to better health. Whether stress triggered, prompted by under-eating/deprivation, a tool for numbing out, and yes, even a means of self-punishment (aka vengeful bingeing), a binge accomplishes something. It in the discovery of that need/trigger that we can then begin to plan alternatives to serve that purpose or identify techniques to address the thinking error (need for self punishment) that was the prompt.

      After a lapse, the BEST thing to do is to get right back on your regular routine for eating, exercising, etc… and not compensate. Get right back into the swing of your normal routine. No need to feel badly, we just learn from it and move on. I know you can do that.

  6. […] sugar addiction or food addiction one might think they cannot have cake; however, research on managing cravings has demonstrated that […]

  7. Harriet Krivit says:

    Thank you Marsha and EVERYONE who responded here. AND if more women posted the dynamics of their personal experiences re: eating food, experiences would probably be as varied as much as their own life experiences and their size or weight issues are. Years ago when very few programs agreed, I knew I had to incorporate ALL foods with what I ate. And here I see: “Doritos, Donuts & Ding-Dongs
    Food Addiction: Does It Even Exist?You know the foods… the ones where you just can’t stop”. I eat the foods I desire…ALL(including those above if I want to)…for if I didn’t, that food became so special, with such ecstatic pleasure promise I dove into it voraciously overeating when I did. BUT, always speaking just for me…what have I found? It’s helped me from becoming a very large person. That’s why I’m writing here…for if I didn’t truly talk about it I probably would have. The 2nd tool of equal importance is a total lack of guilt regarding my overeating disorder. Talking about this helped me as well, for I never chose to find eating food a place of magic for me.Therapy has never changed the “magic”,,,but it helped with insight and having compassion for myself and… to never stop trying to find sources of help to be physically and emotionally as comfortable as possible.

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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