Can Food Be Addictive?

The “jury is still out”, as they say. But more and more research is emerging about the effects of what are known as “highly palatable foods”. These are foods with added (or un-natural) dietary fat or sugar and processed foods.

Dr. Nicole Avena says, “When rats have been offered sugary drinks, they show self-administration, escalation of dosage, evidence of cravings, and increasing tolerance – meaning they have to take more and more to achieve that euphoric response,”. Dr. Nicole Avena is a member of RiverMend Health’s Scientific Advisory Board, a research neuroscientist/psychologist and author studying food addiction, obesity and eating disorders. “This suggests there are overlaps not only in behavior, but in brain response between sugar and drugs of abuse.”

These same tests also show a release of dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, similar to that of drug usage when sugar is over-consumed. And when that overconsumption of sugar is taken away, researchers have seen signs of withdrawal similar to that found in recovering drug addicts, including signs of depression and anxiety.

Dr. Eric Stice, a member of RiverMend Health’s Scientific Advisory Board and a Senior Research Scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, was involved in tests in which adolescents were put in a brain imaging scanner, then offered a chocolate milkshake. He found that individuals who scored high on the Yale Food Addiction Scale showed reduced activation in the control region of the brain and greater activation in the reward circuitry when they anticipated receiving the milkshake.

“When compared with lean individuals, obese people show a hyper-response in their brains to food,” said Dr. Stice. “It’s the same thing we see for substance-abusing individuals.”

Defining Food Addiction

Despite the fact that treatment providers report seeing more and more cases of what they deem to be food addiction, there is no official definition in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Without this definition, it’s harder for providers to make a diagnosis and harder for patients to get treatment and get coverage from their insurance providers.

Yet, defining food addiction is extremely challenging, as there are no clear metrics. Because you can’t abstain from food the way you can with alcohol, it’s impossible to set up a control group as to how the body would function without it. In addition, the effect of food on the body is diffuse and takes time to measure. A breathalyzer can quickly show the impact that six drinks have on a person. There’s no similar test to show what happens when you eat six slices of pizza in one sitting.

While abstinence from certain kinds of food is possible, it rarely works. Studies show that when people try to abstain from the food groups most likely to trigger addiction, such as flour or sugar, it can trigger more binging. In addition, flour and sugar are so prevalent in today’s foods that abstaining from them leads to an extremely limited diet, which can backfire when a person is trying to master weight management. Read on to learn more about how Wellspring tackles food addiction.

Am I Addicted To Food?

The following are some signs that you might be struggling with a food addiction. Keep in mind, there is no actual diagnostic criteria for food addiction, as it is not yet currently recognized as a disorder. The following are not meant to be a diagnosis, but more a context for understanding your patterns of behavior.

Do you find yourself:

  • Eating significantly more than you had planned when it comes to certain foods?
  • Thinking about the consumption of certain foods more often than what seems “normal”?
  • Emotionally distressed when you don’t have access to certain foods?
  • Eating certain foods as a way to cope with negative emotions of stress?
  • Needing to eat more of certain foods than you recall having to eat in the past in order to make you feel better?

These are just a few of the symptoms people express when talking about a food addiction.

Getting Help

It is difficult to get help specifically for food addiction, as it is not yet recognized as a disorder, therefore making it difficult to get help from insurance. However, Wellspring still addresses the symptoms of food addiction in our clinical programming. We come from a place of Harm Reduction. Simply put, this means we know that the ultimate goal might be to not eat any added dietary sugar or processed foods in your diet. But instead of coming from a place of abstinence (you will never eat this again), we approach it from a place of acceptance and change. We work on reducing the number of harmful behaviors you engage in, with the ultimate goal of not engaging in any, but also accepting you might not be there yet. Acceptance within change. For example, if you currently drink a soft drink and eat a bag of chips every day after school or work, we would work on moving you to crystal light with a bag of pretzels, with the goal of eventually moving towards water with lemon and a piece of fruit.

It takes a team of professionals to understand each individual’s unique set of goals and concerns, and Wellspring has the right professionals to help. Our team of doctors, counselors, and nutrition experts will work together to understand you as an individual and design a treatment program that’s right for you.

Part of learning to manage your weight is learning how to have a healthy relationship with food. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been widely touted for helping people understand their patterns that get in the way of success. Wellspring’s trained coaches will help you learn healthy ways of coping with emotions, thoughts, stress, and other things that might contribute to food addiction.

Some of the key principles you will work on at Wellspring are:

  • Body Acceptance
  • Stress Coping Skills
  • Assertiveness Training
  • Mindful Eating
  • Binge Analysis Training