Many people take food for granted, but when consumed in excess or even in cravings, it can have detrimental health consequences.
Understanding what is fact and fiction when it comes to food addiction is the first step in taking control of one’s relationship with food.
This guide will explore the five steps to understanding food addiction, its symptoms and treatments.
What is Food Addiction and How Prevalent is it?
Food addiction is a condition where individuals feel compelled to engage in certain behaviors related to food, such as overeating or binging on certain foods that trigger cravings.
It’s estimated that up to 25% of adults struggle with food addiction, though the exact figures vary due to lack of consistent criteria used in studies.
Certain populations are more susceptible to suffer from food addiction, including those with a history of mental illness and eating disorders.
Is There Evidence to Support Food Addiction?
Many experts agree that there is much evidence to support the notion of food addiction.
Studies on animal models have revealed that processed and high-sugar foods may produce similar neurobiochemical and behavioral responses associated with drug addiction — including cravings, a lack of control over consumption, and even withdrawal symptoms.
Additionally, brain imaging studies have found that overeating of certain foods directly causes changes in the brain’s reward center which can lead to compulsive behavior.
While there is certainly evidence to suggest food addiction exists, the diagnosis itself is contentious. Some argue that overeating may be better classified as a form of eating disorder (e.g., binge-eating disorder) rather than an addiction since the brain-behavioral responses are not as severe or debilitating as those seen in drug addictions.
Furthermore, the science behind food addiction is still developing; more research needs to be done in order to fully understand how and why certain people become addicted consuming unhealthy foods for pleasure rather than sustenance.
Research has long since revealed that the brain-behavioral responses to certain drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, closely resemble those seen in other forms of addiction. The same is true for food, especially high fat or sugary diets.
According to one study published in 2015 that drew on data from rats and humans, there are several ways in which foods can become addictive-like substances, and the body’s physiological response to these substances is similar to drug addictions as well.
For example, when people indulge in highly palatable foods like cakes or cookies, dopamine signals are released in a way that produces short-term pleasure but also leaves most feeling physiologically “hungry” for more—a hallmark symptom of addiction.
Thus, while food addiction remains a controversial diagnosis and requires more research to gain full understanding of its biological basis, the evidence thus far suggests that it does exist.
What Roles Do These Physiological Processes Play?
Neurochemical, endocrine, and metabolic processes can all play a role in the development of food addiction.
Neurochemically, certain food intake can cause dopamine — a hormone responsible for signaling reward — to be released in parts of the brain associated with pleasure. Hormone changes may also occur, including those associated with stress, hunger, and satiety hormones like leptin and ghrelin.
Metabolically, the body’s energy balance is tightly regulated so that when there is an imbalance caused by overeating, it triggers physiological changes that make it difficult to resist cravings.
Food addiction can lead to significant emotional, behavioral and physiological changes. These changes are rooted in behaviors that have become deeply entrenched over time. Thus, it is important for individuals struggling with food addiction to find strategies for breaking the cycle of overeating and binging.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy has shown promise in helping individuals break these patterns by promoting relationship shifts between food and psychological processes.
Additionally, exercise can provide an alternative form of reward, reduce anxiety and stress levels associated with food addiction, as well as help to regulate metabolic hormones related to hunger and satiety.
What Are Some Common Symptoms of Food Addiction?
Food addiction is a complex disorder and can manifest in your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Common symptoms of food addiction include:
- An intense craving for certain foods that cannot be resisted,
- Preoccupation with thoughts of food and eating,
- Compulsive eating behaviors even when full,
- Feeling powerless to control eating habits,
- Guilt or shame about eating habits,
- Feelings of tension or anxiety reducing after the act of consuming food.
Food addiction can be difficult to diagnose due to overlap with other common eating disorders. Feelings of low self-worth, depression, and/or anxiety during periods of eating too much as well as purging behaviors are more typical signs of bulimia.
Food addiction is also often accompanied by physical symptoms such as:
- Digestive issues including heartburn and bloating,
- Frequent hunger or feeling full quickly, and
- Weight gain or loss.
Eating for pleasure rather than for sustenance can leave underlying emotions untreated or neglected which can actually worsen food cravings over time. If these symptoms apply to you, it is important to speak with your doctor about seeking treatment.
What Can We Do to Address Food Addiction?
It is important to be aware of the signs of food addiction so that you can take proactive steps to address it.
Sometimes people may find themselves mindlessly bingeing on unhealthy snacks, not being able to stop until the entire package is gone. Or one might rely heavily on sweets such as cakes or ice cream when feeling stressed out or down in the dumps, in order to feel better.
Irregular eating patterns and diets focused on restriction are also telltale signs of food addiction and need to be addressed head-on.
Taking proactive steps towards addressing food addiction begins by first exploring nutrition science. That is, understanding how different foods affect your body and which ones are the most beneficial in terms of health.
Other practical ways to combat food addiction include controlling cravings with mindful eating techniques, exercising on a regular basis (to keep an eye on body weight), and involving a therapist in order to uncover any underlying stress or anxiety that may be driving an addiction.
Additionally, engaging in self-care activities and developing healthier coping skills are crucial components of treating food addiction. Self-care activities like yoga, meditating, journaling, or taking relaxing walks have been shown to reduce stress levels which has been found to affect overeating behaviors.
Finally, establishing a daily routine and sticking with it can also promote healthier eating habits as well as foster greater self-discipline when it comes to managing cravings and indulging in unhealthy foods.
John Lawe has been with Trendohealthtips.com for Four years and an active contributor for two years now. Lawe is a Professional Pharmacist with excellent understanding of the product formulation, the science behind diet pills and the supplement industry.