Six Symptoms of Food Addiction and 8 Ways to Overcome It
Do you think you may have a food addiction? Consider the following symptoms and how you can overcome food addiction.
It is strange to think of being addicted to food because unlike other substances, we need food to survive. However, because we need food to survive, our brain is wired to experience pleasure from eating which is what motivates us to get the amount of energy our body needs - clearly a survival instinct. Like any substance that taps the pleasure centers in the brain, food then has the ability to over-tap those pleasure centers, creating a level of motivation to eat that is not normal.
Recent research has shown that unusually high consumption of certain foods can induce an “addictive” drive to eat in laboratory rats (Avena et al 2012). Processed foods have been implicated, including sugar, flour, some fats, and even salt. The simple act of overconsuming these types of foods may have the potential to develop into an eating habit that looks a lot like a drug habit. Our consumption of processed foods as a nation has increased over the last few decades, which is likely why we are seeing more and more cases of food addiction (Gearhardt et al 2011).
Symptoms of Food Addiction
1. Increased Consumption Over Time. Have you been steadily increasing your food intake over time? For example, do you eat significantly more on a daily basis now than you did 1 year ago? Did you eat more 1 year ago than you did the year before? A food addict will have gradually increased their intake over time, particularly of the refined foods that I mentioned above.
2. Tolerance is a key symptom of addiction. Tolerance is when you need more and more of a substance to achieve a desired effect. Often the desired effect in food addiction is an emotional state, such as calm or the removal of a negative emotional state such as anxiety or agitation. A sign of tolerance is when you begin to notice that you can consume amounts of food that are much larger than most other people can. Think of an alcoholic who seems unfazed after consuming 12 beers in an evening where the average person might have a hard time doing so without terrible effects. If you can consume very large amounts of calories and barely feel any negative effect, you are likely building a tolerance to food, which is a sign of addiction.
3. Withdrawal, also a sign of addiction, is experienced as negative symptoms at times when you are unable to eat. The difficulty in determining whether you are truly in withdrawal is that we all feel uncomfortable when we are hungry (e.g., light headed, stomach growling). The difference with food addiction is that you may experience symptoms of anxiety or panic which is not a typical symptom of hunger.
4. Preoccupation. Another sign of addiction is that the addict will spend more and more time obtaining and using the substance, to the point of spending less time in usual activities including social, work and recreational activities. Their world gradually becomes more and more consumed by the addiction.
5. Unsuccessful Attempts to Cut Down. Addiction is also characterized by unsuccessful efforts to cut down. A food addict will have had a long series of short-lived diet attempts often resulting in periods of binge eating. However, just because you were unable to lose weight on a diet does not mean you are a food addict, the key here is that dieting attempts don’t last long and end in binge eating episodes.
6. Continue Despite Consequences. Related to unsuccessful attempts to cut back, the food addict will often continue the eating pattern in spite of the development of physical, psychological and/or relationship problems. This is often a sign of a more longstanding addiction. For example, one might develop type 2 diabetes or gain a large amount of weight in a short period of time (e.g., 50 pounds in a year) but still persist with their eating habits. Eventually the individual may even refuse to change their eating habits or may seem unaware of or very resistant to acknowledging health problems or their weight gain. They may avoid confronting evidence of problems by not weighing themselves or looking in mirrors, or wearing loose clothes that make it difficult to detect a weight gain.
Addiction hijacks your brain. Areas of your brain that regulate decision making, motivation and memory become controlled by the substance. This is why addicts will do things that are seemingly irrational or out of character. They are not in control of their choices. The object of treatment is to regain control.
If you think you might have a food addiction, you should seek help from an experienced professional in food or other addictions. This type of expert will likely be a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed professional counselor, or other licensed mental health professional. Food addiction is not hopeless. Overcoming an addiction is work, but very possible. Effective treatment involves much more than just talking about the problem, but will require you to work through the following steps.
1. Detox. Creating a bland diet is the first and most important step of recovery. Eliminating refined foods from the diet including simple sugars, flours, many fats, and even salt will be necessary, at least for a while. A new diet must be created that will only minimally include such foods, but in the meantime these foods need to be completely eliminated so that these substances stop hijacking your brain, giving you a chance to regain control.
2. Remove Cues. It is also essential to remove any and all foods from the home that the addict has a tendency to overeat, even if not a refined food. These foods may cue binges and threaten the addicts success so best not to store them in arms reach. Other household members will need to cooperate with this measure in order for it to be successful.
3. Develop Regular Pattern of Eating. Food addicts have very irregular eating patterns, sometimes skipping meals, and then eating large amounts at times that are unusual. A focus of treatment is developing a regular pattern of eating which includes 3 meals and 2 small snacks. Often the use of alarms to remind the individual to eat at scheduled times is necessary to “reset” their dietary clock to a normal pattern.
4. Peer Support. Connecting with others who have the same problem is very important when overcoming an addiction. While family and friends can try to understand, it is helpful to have a peer group who understands with whom you can vent and discuss the challenges.
5. Journaling. Stress and other negative moods are triggers for relapse in any addiction. Keeping a journal of one’s eating and moods is a helpful step to gaining an understanding of how different moods affect consumption.
6. Stress Management. Once stress-induced eating is identified it is helpful to begin developing new more effective stress reduction strategies, and which work will be up to you. Relaxation exercises, meditation, music, and exercise are a few of many examples.
7. Exercise. Developing a regular program of exercise is a particularly effective component of treatment because it is not only a stress reduction strategy and will reduce weight, but it has also been shown to reduce food cravings, increase eating self-control, and reduce addictive behaviors (Fontes-Riberio et al 2011).
8. Get Back to Living. Finally, counseling involves helping the patient create a more values-driven life. Addictive behavior makes the immediate moment more tolerable, but over time slowly steers you away from the things that you want in your life. Counseling involves identifying and planning activities that are consistent with your values and goals in life in order to create forward momentum towards a life that is meaningful and not dictated by food.
Important to note is that weight loss is not the focus of treatment for food addiction, but rather it is to regain control over your eating behavior. Weight loss may happen in the process and can become the focus of treatment once control of eating is achieved for some period of time.
Avena, NM, Bocarsly,ME & Hoebel, B.G. (2012). Animal models of sugar and fat binging: Relationship to food addiction and increased body weight. Methods of Molecular Biology, 829, 351-265.
Gearhardt, AN, Davis, C, Kuschner, R, Brownell, KD. (2011). The addiction potential of hyperpalatable foods. Curr Drug Abuse Reviews, 4(3), 140-145.
Fontes-Ribeiro et al (2011). May exercise prevent addiction? Curr Neuropharmacol, 9(1): 45-48.
By Dr. Sherry Pagoto, a licensed clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Pagoto blogs at FU Diet If you are battling or have overcome a food addiction, I would love to hear your story.