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Food Addiction

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Food is essential for survival, provides sustenance, it adds enjoyment to our lives. It comes with flavours, textures and smells. There is a cultural aspect to food where use food to celebrate, show how we care, it can be seasonal, with the best foods eaten at the most optimum time of year. Eating is something we have done since birth, and something we continue to do three to six times per day. Yet for some, food has become an obsession, as powerful as any drug to the food addict.

The substance of choice

Highly palatable foods (foods high in fats/sugars/salts- such as processed fast foods) trigger the same dopamine receptors in the brain that drugs like cocaine trigger. When these foods activate dopamine receptors, the addict gets the “pleasure response”6, which encourages more consumption, more frequently with greater amounts. They eat beyond what is the recommended volume of food and volume of substance for normal nutrition.

Over time these individuals can experience obesity, which can have social consequences, self-esteem plummets, there can be acts of bullying adding more emotional turmoil. They have physical restrictions the larger they get just to get around and function. Physically they develop a host or diseases: heart disease, digestive disorders, cancer, diabetes, and immunosuppressive disorders, sleeping issues, arthritis, kidney or liver diseases (NAFLD) just to name a few. Nothing, absolutely nothing, overrides the feelings of pleasure they receive when they eat their substance of choice.

Causes for Food Addiction

The DSM does not have any classification for “Food Addiction”. Probably due to the face there are many co-morbid issues associated with Food Addiction.

There are many physical aspects that lead someone to food addiction: thyroid issues, hormonal imbalance of Ghrelin (increases appetite) and Leptin (appetite suppressor), sex hormone imbalances, abnormalities in brain structure and chemicals, inability to feel satiation, side effects from certain medications (SSRI’s, Anti-rejection and AEDs) or the lack of satiation chemicals in the stomach to cease eating.

Some individuals will eat based on past physical or sexual abuse, if they eat and become obese, this leads to them feeling unattractive, if they are unattractive no one will approach them for abuse again: Victim Survivor Traumatic event. If they experienced emotional abuse or depression, they would eat to experience joy or “eat their feelings”. Sugar hits the same receptor on the brain as cocaine, as soon as it hits the tongue, giving the person the same kind of ‘food high’ one would get from cocaine.3,6

Prolonged exposure to a high fat diet is correlated with changes in the brain chemical dopamine within the striatum, a critical component of the brain's reward system according to new research.4

There is binge eating — where the individual cannot get enough of their substance of choice and gorge uncontrollably without any satiation of appetite. Addiction-like eating behaviour strongly overlaps with binge eating as displayed by individuals with bulimia nervosa (BN) and binge eating disorder (BED)2.

There are those affected who do not meet the criteria for BED. Which implies that there may be a subgroup of overweight and obese individuals that display disordered eating behaviour, but do not receive an “eating disorder” diagnosis and may not be recognized for treatment.

Addictive substances have not been identified in foods, since there is no clear addictive agent (unlike THC in marijuana, ethanol in alcohol, nicotine in tobacco) eating addiction represents a “a non-substance-related, behavioural addiction”2.

All of these factors lead people to use food as a coping mechanism. It’s readily available, legal and something we already do frequently throughout the day. There are families that enable this behaviour by supplying them with the substances of their choice. And there are families that divide themselves from the person adding to the emotional damage experienced, adding to the waist-lines of those afflicted.

Who’s affected?

One in twenty Canadians are classified as a “Food Addict”, where they eat until they feel physically ill. If they are not able to attain the food of their choice, they will go out of their way to obtain their Substance of choice.5

A recent study using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, found the following:

  • Women were twice as likely to be diagnosed with food addiction than men (6.7 per cent versus 3 per cent)

  • The prevalence of food addiction significantly increased with obesity status, regardless of how body fat was measured

  • Food-addicted participants weighed 11.7 kilograms more than non-food addicted participants, had 8.2 per cent greater body fat and carried 4.6 higher BMI5

Around 35% of adults in the United States have obesity. However, people with obesity equate to only about one-third of those who compulsively eat, even though food addiction has some associations with weight gain.6

What is the choice?

Not unlike alcoholics who cannot control themselves with any amount of alcohol, Food Addicts cannot control themselves when it comes to grain or sugar based foods. They are unable to control the qualities of food of choice they chose to eat.

Abstinence of trigger foods is key, not only is flour and sugar but any sugar natural or otherwise can trigger binging. Alcohol also must be avoided because of its sugar content and poses any threat to someone who is an addict.7

What can a person do?

Integrated treatment plans with doctors that specialize in Obesity & Addictions, Nutritionists with Addictive & Obesity experience, Individual therapy for anyone who is looking to work through past traumas that are keeping the individual in their addictive state. Coaches, fitness trainers can be part of the solution post-traumatic treatment.

There is a host of support groups that can be added to any treatment plan as additional support, such as: Food Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous. These peer groups are similar to other 12 step programs and successfully address the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects, offering much-needed support to individuals seeking to heal from their addiction to food.

For those interested in psychoeducation, there are many books about the individual style of eating: Food Eaters Anonymous, No More Binge Eating, Food Is Love, Emotional Eating, just to name a few. 1





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