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.