Can’t put down that Snickers bar even though you swore you’d only have one bite? Do you find yourself scrounging around for more snacks after inhaling a bag of potato chips?
Hey, we’ve all been there, but if this happens on a regular basis, and you find that you’re constantly stressing about your increased food intake and those negative feelings get in the way of your work or quality time with loved ones, you might have a real-deal food addiction.
What’s the Deal?
You’ve probably heard the following phrase: “I’m addicted to [fill in your favorite salty/sugary/fatty food],” but the idea that food might be an actual addiction is a controversial topic. Food addiction is not currently recognized in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association and the gold standard for classifying and identifying mental disorders.
Some experts believe that a person can’t be addicted to something the body naturally needs for survival. But others, like Mark Gold, M.D., chair of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine and a leading addiction expert, are working to prove that food addiction is real, and most likely due to the prevalence of highly processed or refined foods in our diets. (Have you ever heard someone say they’re addicted to steamed broccoli? Probably not.)
“For the most part, food addiction is widely accepted as a concept, even though it’s not officially recognized as an addiction,” says Gold. Take gambling for example, which recently earned addiction status in the DSM. “The medical profession recognized gambling as an addiction before the DSM did, and evidence for food addiction is as strong, if not stronger,” says Gold.
Animal studies have found that overconsumption of certain foods can cause addiction-like responses in brain circuits and spurs the development of compulsive eating. Gold has shown in his research that taking animals off sugar after they’re used to regular consumption can cause a drug-like withdrawal (similar to that of opiates or narcotics) as well as physical changes to the brain.
Ok, animals are one thing, but what about humans? A recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that women who tended to be compulsive eaters had more activity in parts of the brain associated with addiction when viewing or tasting chocolate milkshakes, lending credence to the idea that food can trigger similar responses in the brain as drugs and other addictive substances. “We were able to match the behavioral indicators of food addiction to the brain indicators as well,” says Ashley Gearhardt, lead study author and clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University. Earlier imaging studies also found that food and drug cues activate the same regions of the brain.
Another sign that certain foods might affect people like a drug: “We’re learning that if someone abuses food, they’ll start to cause anatomical changes in brain receptors for substances that mediate moods (like dopamine and serotonin),” says Marty Lerner, Ph.D., Clinical Director of Milestones in Recovery, an eating disorder treatment center. More specifically, these receptors are damaged with the continued consumption of certain foods (like high sugar products), causing what’s known in the addiction world as tolerance (you need to consume more and more to get the same effect).
Is Anyone Doing Anything About it?
Experts in the field are hard at work on exciting and promising research to bolster the notion that food can be an addiction. But, they’re still trying to figure out the best and most effective treatment, and until that happens, some feel that it’s unlikely that it will be recognized as a “true” addiction.
Gold and his principal collaborator, Nicole Avena, Ph.D., are looking into the similarities of sugar and alcohol withdrawal, as well as potential pharmacological treatments that might interfere with the development of food addiction. “If you’re diagnosed with strep throat, you get penicillin; if you’re bipolar, you get medication,” says Gold. “We need to find the answer to what works to combat food addiction before it will be viewed as a disease.”
How to Help Yourself
And now, the good news! Even though the best treatment hasn’t been identified (yet!), there are a variety of things you can do to avoid this problem and minimize potential triggers:
Stave off hunger at all costs. “Hunger loads the gun, and seeing the food pulls the trigger,” says Gearhardt. Eat three square meals and a few smaller snacks throughout the day. Don’t let yourself get to a point where you’re so ravenous that just seeing a vending machine can set off a binge.
Go for quality. Avoid foods that often cause an addictive response, like processed/refined/packaged goods. “Try to stick to whole and minimally processed foods as much as possible,” says Gearhardt. Added bonus: whole foods are typically the most beautifying since they’re packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants!
Figure out your cues. Certain triggers (like seeing your favorite fast food sign) can highjack your system. Keep a journal and note both external (places you go, things you pass, etc.) and emotional cues (stress, boredom, etc.) so you know what to avoid.
Get support. Overeaters Anonymous offers a free compulsive overeating recovery program using the 12-step method. Meetings are held all over the world and you can find one here.
Try SERF-ing. At Lerner’s clinic, they use a four-pronged approach to help patients recover from an abusive relationship with food: Spirituality, which means cultivating some sort of belief or sense of purpose other than yourself. Exercise, which means moving your body in the interest of health, not weight loss. Rest, which means you aim to find a balance between work and play. Food plan, which does not mean a rigid diet, but instead simply focuses on whole foods that are controlled for portions. “These four elements go a long way to help you retool your perception of and relationship with food,” says Lerner.
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