Treating a Food Addiction as an Addiction

Differences Exist Between Food Addiction and Binge-eating Disorder

Most of us understand the temptation to eat more chocolate cake than we know is good for us, right?  What is it about chocolate that often results in a total hijacking of the will, an unchecked hand-to-mouth response that usually doesn’t cease until every morsel of said chocolate has been consumed?

It isn’t only chocolate that inspires such a visceral “gotta have” reflex.  Any yummy treat or fat or salt-laden munchie can drive us to compulsion now and then.  For most people these lapses in dietary control are just sprinkled sporadically through our eating histories, but for some the over-whelming urge to eat copious amounts of highly palatable low-nutrition foods has all the trappings of an addiction.

What is a Food Addiction?

A food addiction is just what it says…a person has acquired a dopamine-driven, neural-pathway rerouted addiction to food, the substance-brain response that is the same as in an alcoholic or drug addict.  An important distinction between those addicted to drugs and someone with a food addiction is in the labeling of the person.  You are not a “food addict” if you have a food addiction—why?  Because human beings are ALL food addicts, in that they must indulge in eating food in order to sustain life, unlike a drug addict or alcoholic who absolutely do not require their drug of choice to continue to live.  Quite the contrary.

Food addiction occurs when the food itself elicits such a powerful pull that the person struggling with the addiction feels a compulsive urge to continually over-indulge in whatever food(s) triggers this response.   It is a chemical dependence on food, no different that the drug that triggers the drug addict’s knee-jerk response to use their drug of choice.

Brain imaging in recent years has shown the clear effect that compulsive over-eating has on the pleasure centers of the brain.  The very same reward response is activated in the brain by foods rich in sugar, salt, and fat that is triggered by drugs such as cocaine and heroin.  Once the feel-good chemical, dopamine, is released in the brain’s reward pathway a new response-reward behavior takes root, and the need to eat those specific foods again continues the vicious cycle.

A man or woman addicted to certain foods can build up tolerance, just like someone addicted to drugs.  They may eventually need to eat these highly palatable foods more often and in greater quantity, only to find that eating them satisfies them less as time goes on.  Negative consequences, such as weight gain, poor body image, low self-esteem, avoidance of social situations, begin to pile up, exacerbating the effects of the food addiction.

The criteria for determining a food addiction are remarkably similar to those that define a drug or alcohol addiction.  These symptoms and characteristics include:

  • Eating specific foods to the point of feeling ill
  • Going out of your way to obtain specific foods
  • Continuing to eat certain foods even if no longer hungry
  • Avoiding social interactions and relationships to spend more time eating certain foods
  • Eating in secret
  • Continuing to overeat unhealthy foods despite knowing the negative consequences
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disorders
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty functioning at school or on the job
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Digestive disorders
  • Weight gain
  • Emotional detachment
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feelings of despair and hopelessness

Causes of a Food Addiction

Many factors can contribute to a food addiction, making it difficult to identify a single cause.  Just as in other types of addictions, a food addiction can develop as a result of biological, social, or psychological factors.  Biological factors may include hormone imbalances, abnormal brain structures, family members with food addictions, or side effects from medication.  Some people are simply born with big appetites and no sense of being full, no shut-off mechanism.  Social factors might include dysfunctional family situations or divorce, social anxiety, or stressful life events.  Psychological issues possibly involve emotional or sexual abuse, experiencing trauma or loss, poorly developed coping skills, or chronic low self-esteem.

Over-consumption of the foods that trigger the feel-good response becomes a sort of self-medicating to help alleviate difficult emotional states.  Adding to the problem of self-control is that manufacturers continually tweak the highly palatable foods to produce what they call the “bliss point” by engineering them to stimulate our taste receptors and trigger the reward center in our brains.  Artificial sweeteners, chemicals, and food colorings are shown to have brain-altering effects.

Casa Serena Treats Food Addiction

Once aware that an unhealthy food addiction is negatively impacting your life, seeking professional help for the condition is crucial.  Again, like breaking a drug or alcohol addiction, it is imperative that the problem foods or food types are identified and eliminated from the diet.  This is difficult to undertake alone, as certain foods have been used to soothe emotional pain.  Once chemical dependency has taken root in the brain, removing those foods from the diet can cause distressing emotional symptoms.

The compassionate staff at Casa Serena can help you with the process of weaning off the food addiction while seeking to uncover the biological, social, or psychological factor (s) that lie at the center of the food addiction.  The destructive cycle of a food addiction takes time to resolve, and along the way Casa Serena will provide the help and tools you need in a caring and supportive environment.  Call us today at (925) 682-8252.


Binge Eating Disorder Linked to Social Anxiety

The Vicious Cycle of Binge Eating and Social Isolation

The connection between negative body image and anxiety around social interactions is extremely common, and often has its origins in the pre-teens.  The usual pattern follows a predictable path:  Adolescent is bullied about their appearance, size, or weight which ultimately causes the victim to seek solace in the safety of their home.  When other kids are out attending dances or football games, someone with a negative body image sits in their bedroom, saving the world from having to even look at them.

Self-disgust over perceived flaws become unreasonably magnified, causing anxiety, which in time can lead to a desire to quell these negative emotions.  Many times the individual being teased about their weight or appearance buys into the cruel criticism about their looks, and begins to believe they are so unappealing to look at that they might as well save others from having to look at them.  This results in a social phobia or social anxiety, where intense fear becomes associated with being in a social setting where one can be judged.

To manage this anxiety, some young people resort to substance abuse—drugs and/or alcohol to ease the emotional pain caused by the bullying and self-disgust.  For some, the substance abused is food.  The repetitive cycle that emerges is very similar to a substance addiction, with many of the same characteristics present.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is exactly what its name implies:  Recurrent episodes (versus occasional overeating) of eating large amounts of food in a subconsciously attempt to numb negative emotions, such as a deep sense of worthlessness, shame, and self-loathing related to a negative body image.  The consuming of excessive amounts of food has become a BED when the following criteria are present, as defined by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5):

  1. Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
    • Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than what most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances.
    • A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
  2. The binge eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
    • Eating much more rapidly than normal.
    • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
    • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
    • Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
    • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward.
  3. Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
  4. The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for 3 months.

The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate    compensatory behaviors (e.g., purging) as in bulimia nervosa and does not occur exclusively during the course of bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.

BED is the most common of all the eating disorders, with about 3.5% of women, 2% of men, and 1.6% of teens suffering from it.  It can lead to various debilitating health risks, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, heart disease, and gallbladder disease.  Just as devastating, living with a BED can severely curtail one’s ability to function socially, at school, or at work.

A study out of Yale University in 2012 examined the link between social anxiety and the eating disorder psychopathology in BED.  By studying 113 participants with BED who were administered a battery of tests and participated in various clinical interviews they were able to conclude that there was higher levels of social anxiety were associated with binge eating frequency in patients with BED.

What does BED Look Like?

There are certain characteristics common among those who suffer from BED.  Like a drug or alcohol addiction, people suffering from a BED obsess about their next binge episode, planning for it and going to great lengths to hide it from others.  Also, like with a drug addiction, there is an inability to cease using the food in a self-abusive manner, even though the negative consequences are beginning to cause them great distress, such as weight gain and social isolation.

Signs that a loved one may have a BED include:

  • Finding empty food wrappers hidden under beds, in closets, drawers, etc.
  • Secretive food behaviors, like stealing, hiding or hoarding food, and insisting on eating alone
  • Unusual eating patterns develop, such as not eating at the usual mealtimes, eating all day long, skipping meals, developing food rituals, engaging in fasting or repetitive dieting

In addition to the tendency to avoid social situations where they feel they will be ridiculed and teased, other co-occurring mental conditions may be present, such as depression.  The vicious cycle of shame and self-disgust over their negative body image leads to the use of food as a form of temporary comfort, which then leads to self-loathing and depression after they have binged—just entrenching the problem further.

Casa Serena can Help

At Casa Serena, we understand that one of the first steps in treating an individual with BED is to identify the source of the emotional pain that has led to the disorder.  Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered the most effective treatment modality for identifying the triggers and thought patterns, and replacing them with healthy thought and behavioral responses.  The compassionate staff at Casa Serena helps to navigate those with a BED towards the healthy, productive life that they deserve.  Contact us today at (925) 682-8252.