You might have food addiction if you feel miserable when you don’t get to consume certain types of foods, and also if you feel the irresistible urge to eat them to feel better. Today, we’re going to discuss everything you need to know about this condition and how to make peace with food addiction.
Food addiction refers to the compulsive desire to eat certain types of food. Often these foods are unhealthy, highly processed, and are full of unrefined sugars. Food addiction is compared to substance addiction because the same brain mechanism is involved in both .
For example, if you get tempted to buy a chocolate donut on your way home from work, and you do it occasionally, that’s not food addiction. However, if you feel the need to buy it every day without fail and feel miserable when you don’t have it, that’s a sign of food addiction.
Researchers have found that dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter responsible for essential brain functions such as sleep, memory, and mood is to be blamed for food addiction. It activates the pleasure center of the brain whenever you eat fatty, sweet, and salty foods. Food addiction has also been found to affect the hypothalamus, a part of the brain responsible for regulating eating patterns and satiety.
Below are some factors that can trigger food addiction .
Palatable or hyper-palatable foods are foods that are loaded with salt, sugar, and fat. These types of foods are considered to trigger food addiction because of their high-density nutrients or additives. Hyper-palatable foods usually have a higher glycemic index and are rapidly absorbed.
In one study, 120 undergraduate students completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) and a food choice task to indicate which of the list of foods were most addictive. Their results showed that processed foods and foods high in fat and glycemic load were most associated with addictive behaviors .
Operant conditioning is a behavioral therapy invented by B.F Skinner, an American psychologist. According to this theory, desired behavior can be achieved by positive or negative reinforcement . For example, you might be able to get a child to eat their veggies by telling them they’ll get to have ice cream afterwards (positive reinforcement). Alternatively, you can achieve the same outcome by telling the child that they will not be able to play outside until they eat (negative reinforcement).
Before food addiction manifests itself, you may occasionally eat certain types of foods to feel better. Over time, this type of behavior encourages your brain’s reward center to adapt to it, leading to food addiction. It makes you operate according to operant conditioning by making you feel better temporarily when you eat the palatable foods, and by making you feel depressed, anxious, or irritated when you don't.
Think of how people lived centuries ago when there was no Mcdonald’s, KFC, or Dunkin’ Donuts. They ate a more balanced diet with plenty of healthy carbohydrates, fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
Compare that to everything we have now. The snack counter at your local gym, fast food drive through, cola and popcorn at movie theaters, and the endless street foods. Unhealthy sweet, salty, and fatty foods are readily available everywhere you go, even at the gas station. What’s more? These types of foods are often affordable, making them even harder to resist for those who are at risk of developing a food addiction.
In short, the sight and smell of unhealthy foods present at the right time can trigger food addiction. The right time could be anything from your lunch break at work to when you’re stressed .
Impulsivity is the irresistible urge to act without planning or considerations about any negative consequences. Those who suffer from addictions such as food addiction, alcoholism, and Internet gaming are often found to have impaired impulse control mechanism.
According to a 2016 research paper, chronic stress can increase the desire to eat palatable foods by negatively impacting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functioning. This is why some people feel the need to eat junk food when they feel stressed or depressed. Consuming these types of foods will activate the brain’s reward system that makes them feel better after eating, even though the happy feeling is often short-lived.
Food addiction can sometimes contribute to the risk of obesity. However, not everyone who has a food addiction will become obese and vice versa.
Food addiction has been correlated to the symptoms of eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. However, food addiction symptoms are more severe. Some of those symptoms are depression, distress, adverse effect, and impulsivity [ref 2].
Below are the five defining elements of food addiction, according to a review paper by Sussman and Sussman (2011) .
Behavioral engagement occurs when someone uses food addiction as a pleasure or a solution to different problems such as stress. This type of behavior doesn't develop overnight, but it gradually develops as you resort to eating palatable foods as a solution for everything.
Some people with food addiction may have felt uncomfortable, lonely, restless, or incomplete for some time before they settled on consuming unhealthy foods as a solution. According to these people, food addiction may be perceived as an enjoyable and instant solution that’s worth repeating.
Excessive time and planning occurs when someone spends a lot of time thinking about and planning how to execute food addiction behaviors. For example, you could be thinking about the time left to have your daily bag of chips and soda, and also plan recovery methods in your head. This could be something like “I’ll drink 2 liters of water a day to compromise for the soda, or I’ll be joining the gym soon”.
People with a high level of tolerance are more likely to feel the desire to engage in food addiction behaviors. Research also states that those who experience a higher level of withdrawal symptoms are more likely to perceive going back to the addiction as a solution.
Temporary satiation refers to the feeling of satiation, or relaxation, that people with food addiction often experience immediately after consuming palatable foods to the fullest. There will be a short “shut down” feeling for the cravings, but it’s short-lived and returns soon.
People suffering from food addiction may have the desire to avoid it. However, they feel a strong impulsive need to do it and feel like they don’t have control over when, how, and for how long the behavior will occur.
In other words, you know the bag of chips and soda daily is bad for you, but you feel the desperate need to have it to receive that temporary satisfaction as discussed above.
At some point, people who have food addiction will suffer from adverse effects in various aspects of their lives. For example, they could be wasting a lot of money on buying junk foods, becoming overweight or obese, experiencing low self-esteem and social disapproval, and much more. If someone continues their eating patterns despite facing repetitive negative consequences, that’s another sign of their dependence on food addiction.
A 2014 meta-analysis study found that food addiction was prevalent in 19.9% of adults in the United States, according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS ). They also found that it was more common in females, in adults over the age of 35, and in those who are overweight or obese.
Depending on its severity, food addiction can harm all aspects of your health. For instance, the continuous consumption of unhealthy foods can increase the risk of becoming overweight or obese. The risk is even higher in those who overeat until they think they’re satiated .
Overconsumption of fatty, salty, and sugary foods can cause malabsorption and its related side effects. Also, food addiction can cause financial stress by making you waste money on buying palatable foods. Not to mention that consuming unhealthy foods that contain trans fats can cause other health conditions like metabolic syndrome, inflammation, and heart disease . Food addiction can also lower your self-esteem and negatively impact your social life.
We’re not going to tell you to avoid palatable foods, because your brain’s reward center will look past the negative consequences when you feel the impulsive need to consume certain types of foods.
However, there are some things you can do to minimize the triggers that provoke food addiction and gradually recover from it.
Keeping a food diary is one of the most effective ways to track your eating patterns and things that trigger addictive behaviors. In your diary, write down what foods you crave the most and that you often have the impulsive need to consume. Also, note when you’re tempted to eat them. This will help you identify your trigger foods and situations that cause you to eat them.
If your food diary says you drink a can of cola daily when you’re watching TV, try swapping cola with sparkling water. You can even squeeze some lemon juice into it and enjoy your homemade lemon soda.
If you crave chips, then invest in a small food dehydrator to make your own healthy chips out of fruits and vegetables. You might end up loving it more than the bag of potato chips. Dip your homemade chips in sour cream or mayo, or enjoy it with some cheese. Healthy fat can make you feel fuller for longer and help control your cravings.
Go bunless. Eat burgers without buns and swap the fries for some salad. Ask for some extra cheese or mayo to help balance the fat content and increase satiety. Research about the ingredients, nutritional content, and healthy food options at your favorite fast food restaurants.
Some restaurants offer customizable menus where you can decide what to and what not to add. Knowing these options beforehand will help you make better choices whenever you visit or order your food delivery.
As stated earlier, high glycemic foods such as white bread, cornflakes, and russet potato can trigger food addiction. Consider removing them from your pantry and replacing them with some healthy alternatives like sweet potatoes, oats, beans, and lentils.
Meal prep at home in advance, so your chances of eating unhealthy foods will be less outside of the home. Add plenty of healthy fat and protein sources such as cheese, eggs, avocado, and butter to your meal because it will help you feel satiated for longer. Also keep some snacks such as string cheese and nuts to eat as snacks.
Please see your doctor if you’re experiencing most of the five elements of food addiction discussed in this article as well as any negative consequences. You should seek professional help if you have a hard time making positive changes to recover from food addiction, and if it’s negatively impacting the quality of your life.
Food addiction doesn’t occur overnight, nor can it be cured overnight. However, you can gradually overcome it by implementing the right changes and seeking help from a medical professional.