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Food addiction is the loss of control over one’s eating behavior. This eating disorder is characterized by the intense urge to consume an unhealthy amount of food in a short period of time.
The alternative name for food addiction is compulsive overeating. A combination of several factors, including genetics, psychological issues, and sociocultural factors all contribute to eating addiction. However, it is considered that emotional issues are often the main reason why people struggle with overeating.
The brain chemistry of compulsive overeaters often tends to show brain changes also seen in drug addicts. This stems from excessive consumption of foods that are high in fat and high in sugar, which activates the pleasure and reward centers in human brains.
Overeating can also be passive. In passive overeating, the level of a person’s energy intake is judged against a person’s level of energy expenditure. For instance, an energy consumption of 3,000 kcal/day may be appropriate for an athlete in training. However, this energy intake may represent severe overeating for a person living a sedentary lifestyle.
The most common food addiction misconception is that food addiction is a myth. The mounting scientific evidence on food addiction debunks this common misconception. A growing body of research indicates that in some people, consuming highly processed foods results in the release of a hormone called dopamine, which is responsible for a feeling of calm.
Food addiction is a form of behavioral addiction that involves the excessive consumption of foods with high levels of fat, sugar, and salt. An individual can become addicted to the chemical reactions produced by the brain following the intake of these foods.
This psychological dependence on food can be likened to what drug addicts experience when these people become hooked to the euphoric mood brought about by abusing a certain substance.
A person who struggles with food addiction has strong cravings for particular foods. As a result, this person may keep eating even without feeling hungry despite the adverse health effects that can result from overeating.
Food addiction is caused by a combination of several factors. These food addiction causes are listed below.
Effects of the condition can vary from person to person. The most common food addiction effects are listed below.
Food addiction can bring a variety of symptoms, from behavioral to emotional. The most common food addiction symptoms are listed below.
Possible food addiction symptoms include:
There are a couple of ways on how to overcome a food addiction. Some of the top food addiction treatment methods include:
Other possible food addiction treatment methods include:
Yes, food addiction is treated in food rehab centers. These treatment facilities understand the complexity of this behavioral addiction and will provide a supportive environment where one can safely discuss the condition.
These centers also work with experts who can develop a personally tailored treatment plan based on an individual’s unique nature of food addiction. Needless to say, any eating disorder treatment facility knows what is food addiction and dismisses the stigma around the condition.
Inheritance affects food addiction by increasing a person’s risk of developing the condition. Genetic influences may explain eating behaviors, quantity of food intake, and genetics of taste among family members. Evidence also continues to mount that having family members who are addicted to eating may influence the progression of an eating disorder.
For instance, a 2012 study by Eleanor R. Grimm and Nanette I. Steinle concluded that the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and other related complications is heightened due to common genetic variants, many of which are linked to specific eating behaviors.
Moreover, some people may inherit aspects of temperament such as anxiety, fear, or moodiness, which can contribute to the development of eating disorders.
Demographic differences can be observed in food addiction, particularly in gender and racial differences. For instance, in a study published in the Journal of Diabetes and Obesity, food dependence was gauged through the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS).
With respect to gender, the participants were mostly female. Most participants were also either White or African American. These racial categories were therefore included when analyzing the results.
The study revealed that there are distinct gender differences in emotional and social influences on the decision to overeat. According to the results of the study, females were more likely to overeat in an attempt to cope with these stressors than males.
African Americans also had higher food dependence scores compared to Whites. These findings are important because understanding gender, racial, emotional, and social cues that contribute to overeating is crucial in overcoming food addiction through its prevention and treatment.
No, it is not always possible for someone to notice signs of food addiction. After all, the idea of becoming addicted to food only recently gained support. Before the existence of scientific evidence on food addiction, people often asked, “Can you be addicted to food?”
Nowadays, brain imaging and other studies of the effects of compulsive overeating on the reward and pleasure centers in the brain can easily answer that question.
In determining if someone has food addiction, some medical experts have developed questionnaires that can help identify people with the condition. For instance, researchers from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy have formulated a questionnaire consisting of actions that apply to a food addict and asking the respondent if the situation applies to them.
In the case of treatment facilities, in-house addiction experts often offer a free initial addiction assessment. This will help dictate the course of treatment for someone’s unique case of food addiction.
Food addiction is diagnosed through a series of assessments or tests that can be provided by a medical professional or a mental health expert. A food addiction diagnosis can be obtained through the procedure listed below.
Getting a food addiction diagnosed is important for prompt treatment. Through the novel Requiem for a Dream by American writer Hubert Selby Jr., people can get a glimpse of what might happen if an individual does not overcome addiction. The book shows how addiction completely engulfs an individual to the point of being unrecognizable.
The most important thing in overcoming food addiction is coming up with a concrete plan. A concrete plan is realistic, detailed, and includes specific ideas on what could make the transition to sobriety easier.
Food addictions have striking similarities with drug addictions. In that sense, both addictions can also be challenging to break and the process is going to be different for everybody. However, having the willpower and the willingness to sacrifice to overcome food addiction is a great way to start the journey.
In coming up with a concrete plan, one can start by creating a list of everything. From desired weight to trigger foods to avoid and healthy foods to eat, an individual can list down these things to help in the preparation for giving up unhealthy eating habits.
Despite these measures, however, a backslide is still possible. As with an alcoholic, the likelihood of relapse is still high before making the break permanently. But while it is possible to overcome food addiction without help – even if it means falling off the wagon several times – it can also be beneficial to consider seeking help.
Several medical professionals, mental health experts, and support groups can offer significant help in overcoming food addiction.
Yes, depression can cause food addiction. A reciprocal relationship between depression and food addiction exists. A person suffering from depression may use compulsive overeating as a coping mechanism. Similarly, overeating that leads to excessive weight gain may result in depression.
Evidence also exists that the brain chemicals activated when binge eating may also affect depression. Furthermore, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, individuals with obesity who suffer from binge eating disorders also tend to struggle with a form of mental health problem, including anxiety or depression.
Food addiction works by activating a system in the brain called the reward system. This system is a channel through which the brain can reward an individual for engaging in basic life-sustaining behaviors. One example of this is eating.
Eating triggers the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, including the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates emotion and motivation. However, the dopamine reward center in the brain can also be activated even when people do pleasurable things with adverse consequences.
For instance, in people who use alcohol or abuse certain substances, it is dopamine that causes the high that makes these people come back for more. The same can also be said with food addicts.
Certain foods with high fat, sugar, or starch content can trigger food addiction. These are known as hyperpalatable foods. Although not inherently addictive, these foods are pleasing to the taste buds and can override the ability to control the amount one eats.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) is a tool used in assessing food addiction in individuals. Doctors use this questionnaire to provide an answer to the question, “Do I have a food addiction?” The 25-point questionnaire also identified certain foods that have close associations with food addiction.
Some of the potential trigger foods included in the YFAS list are chips, fries, ice cream, and chocolate, among several others.
It is worth noting, however, that any food that brings comfort to a person has the potential to be a food trigger for food addiction.
Symptoms of food addiction withdrawal include tiredness, increased irritability, sadness, and a craving for highly processed foods. Some of these withdrawal symptoms are likened to what drug addicts experience when trying to cut down on substance use.
Individuals who often eat highly processed foods more than intended are at a higher risk of experiencing addictive-like symptoms like withdrawal.
A recent research conducted by the University of Michigan is thought to be the first study of its kind that examines highly processed food withdrawal symptoms. The study authors asked 231 participants to report any physical or psychological withdrawal symptoms after cutting down on junk foods in the last year.
People involved in the study reported symptoms such as sadness, tiredness, increased irritability, and a craving for highly processed foods in the first two to five days after removing such foods from their regular diet.
These results aligned with the time course of withdrawal symptoms in all forms of drug abuse. In general, the highest intensity of symptoms is experienced by drug addicts between two to five days of an attempt to cut down on substance use.
Food addiction and binge eating are two terms that are often used interchangeably. However, the discussion on food addiction vs. binge eating and the distinct differences of the two disorders can help individuals distinguish one from the other.
Food addiction refers to a form of behavioral addiction that develops as a result of a person’s biochemical dependency on foods that have highly addictive properties, including foods that are high in fat and sugar.
This biochemical nature creates a dependency on the physical reaction that an individual experiences following consumption of such foods. On the other hand, binge eating disorder (BED) is a formally classified and diagnosable mental health condition. BED often results from a complex combination of biological, environmental, emotional, and psychosocial influences.
It is easy to confuse the two food-related issues as they can appear to be similar on the surface. For instance, just like binge eaters, people with food addiction can also engage in frequent episodes of uncontrolled eating.
Furthermore, during the absence of highly palatable foods, food addicts may experience withdrawal symptoms similar to what substance abusers go through when attempting to quit. In this case, food addiction therapy is necessary for intervention and help.
Food and addiction have a causal relationship, which means that one thing is responsible for causing the other. In this case, however, food alone does not cause addiction, but rather its excessive consumption.
Evidence exists that food addiction is a disease that causes loss of control over the ability to stop consuming certain foods. Similarly, the consumption of high glycemic foods also causes a release of “feel good” brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.
Food addiction affects the brain and its reward system in a way that an individual’s motivations can be altered, leading to an involvement in addictive behaviors. The intense stimulation of the brain’s reward system causes people to lose control of their impulses and crave the reward that comes with food consumption.
The major brain chemical involved in this process is dopamine. As with addictive drugs, highly processed foods can also enable increased dopamine transmission in the reward pathway of the brain. As a result, people experience pleasure from eating such foods and ultimately feel the need to eat again.
When the brain rewards a pleasurable yet harmful behavior like compulsive overeating, it encourages the act and keeps the individual in a cycle of highs and lows. This may explain the feelings of guilt, shame, and depression that a food addict goes through.
There is currently no FDA-approved food addiction OTC medication. What exists in the market are medicines that help decrease episodes of binge eating.
One of these prescription medications is Lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse). It is the first drug approved by the FDA to treat binge eating disorder in adults. It is, however, mainly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in patients 6 years and above.
At times, doctors may also recommend a drug for binge eating even though it is not approved to treat the condition. This is called the off-label use of a medication. This practice is legal and common.
Some off-label prescription drugs that can help some people stop bingeing include antidepressants. Because of its roots in mental health, binge eating disorder often responds positively to antidepressant medications.
Because some people overeat to cope with depressive mood, antidepressants help increase levels of feel good chemicals in the brain. This may help control binge eating. The types of antidepressant medications used to help against binges are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants.