Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction?

By Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN. Gans is a registered dietitian, past spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans has a private practice in New York City where she specializes in weight management.

Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction?

Can a person be addicted to food? Does our body go through physiological withdrawal the same as it would for drugs and alcohol when a person stops eating a particular food item? In order to answer these questions, I exhaustively searched for conclusive science-based evidence, but unfortunately wound up pretty much empty-handed. So, I am going with my opinion here, basing it on my over 12 years of experience in private practice, working with hundreds and hundreds of people.

I claim that – no – you cannot be addicted to food, but you can have behavioral and emotional reasons that cause you to overeat. Our body needs food for survival, which is definitely not the case for drugs and alcohol. I think claiming you are addicted in some instances is taking the easy way out, basically saying that it is beyond your control. Are there really certain foods that a person really cannot stop eating from the moment they are born? Or for some reason did this develop over time? What came first the chicken or the egg?

For example, a patient of mine who came to see me for “food addiction” reported that she grew up in a household with foods labeled as “good” or “bad.” No cookies, cakes or candy were ever allowed in her home. As she got older, she found that whenever she ate cookies or cake, she couldn’t have just one piece. Is she truly addicted or simply never learned to incorporate these foods in a healthy manner into her diet? We worked together so she could learn a new behavior, giving herself permission to eat these so-called “bad foods” – instead of feeling guilty. Once she stopped totally depriving herself, she was able to start enjoying the food in a healthy manner. Now, if she had been an alcoholic or drug addict, there is no way possible she could start enjoying just a little amount. With a true addiction, abstinence is almost always the only answer.

Our emotions and the effect they have on us are a very important part of this issue and cannot be overlooked. At a very young age, our intake of food and our emotions start becoming intertwined. How many small children are given ice cream as comfort when they are crying or a cupcake because they were “good” and deserve a reward? Then, when you get older and you are feeling sad, stressed or angry, would it not make sense that you would reach for these same foods? They are familiar to you; the problem is that you might actually use these foods to cover up your actual feelings. Instead of focusing on what is bothering you, you hide behind a couple of cookies and then some.

A technique I like to use with my patients that is very appropriate here is "HALT": Ask yourself, am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? Determining what is really going on in your mind will help you to determine if food is really what you want. Learning new skills on how to deal with these emotions without using food can be really rewarding.

Another interesting factor, as it relates to food and addiction, is that many of the patients that come to my office claiming food addiction do not have overall healthy habits. They skip meals, engage in little physical activity, and do not get enough sleep. The longer we work together, incorporating small changes weekly to improve their behaviors, the less they complain of food addiction.

The following are 10 tips that my patients have found to be very helpful in controlling their overeating: 

  1. Do not skip meals. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Include snacks if going more than 4-5 hours without a meal.
  2. All meals and snacks should include adequate protein.
  3. Choose whole grains (i.e. oats, barley, quinoa, 100% whole wheat, buckwheat) instead of white flour.
  4. Make sure to include fruit and/or veggies with all meals.
  5. Plan ahead for the week. Go food shopping regularly and stock your home with healthy food options.
  6. Start a food journal. Record meal times and all food/beverages consumed.
  7. Get moving. Join a gym, try a Zumba class, roll out a yoga mat, or simply walk more.
  8. Go to bed earlier and get those zzz’s.
  9. Stop categorizing foods into “good” or “bad.” Just focus on making better choices.
  10. Don’t think of food as a reward or treat. Reward yourself with a massage, manicure, a movie with a friend, a new pair of shoes, or simply a pat on the back.

Regardless of whether we can all agree on food addiction being fact or fiction, in the end, it is not the main issue. What is important is that we can agree that obesity and overeating are a problem in our country and that we all should do our part in eating better and maintaining a healthy body weight.

For some of you, every tip in the book might not help you stop overeating a certain food. My advice: Don’t buy that food to begin with – you can’t overeat something that is not in front of you.

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