Can you really be addicted to food?
This concept of food addiction is everywhere. I hear it from clients, I read about it in friends’ social posts, and I see it as topics of advertisements for products or diets that propose to help you overcome it. Here’s a challenge…type “food addiction” into your google search bar and see all the things that pop up. Okay maybe you shouldn’t do that, for sure not if you’re likely to be triggered by anything diet culture related.
My point is that it’s everywhere.
And I hate it.
My son loves to correct me. One thing I keep messing up is when I use the term theory and hypothesis. A theory is a way to explain research data and can be proven true or false. A hypothesis is a guess about what will happen and is usually based on an as of yet unproven theory. Usually you run experiments to answer the hypothesis and come to a conclusion which then proves the theory true or false.
And I always mess up the difference (can you see why?). For example I might say to him, “In theory you will get sick if you eat the rest of the ice cream.” To which he would reply, “That’s a hypothesis.” And proceed with his experiment of eating the of the ice cream to see if I’m right. Sometimes he’s right. Sometimes I’m right. My theory has yet to be proven because the data sometimes supports it and sometimes doesn’t.
Back to Why I Hate the Idea of Food Addiction
Food addiction theory has the same problem. It’s still in the hypothesis phase. There have been studies. Some results support it and others don’t. On a deeper level, there’s also a problem with most of studies. They are mostly done on rats in cages, not humans in the real world. Those results cannot be extrapolated to the human experience. Humans don’t live in a vacuum.
And the small number of studies that have been done on humans have mixed results with some showing support for the idea of food addiction and others showing no support for it. It’s also hard to study something that doesn’t have a formal definition either. Do you study specific ingredients in foods or do you study whole foods or all foods? What are we talking about? What are we thinking people are addicted to?
Deprivation Drives Desire
Our brains need pleasure and dopamine is what gives us that pleasure. We know there are lots of ways to trigger dopamine in our brains. Anything from listening to music to a mom holding her child to eating food can do this for us. And when we restrict these things, our dopamine goes down. Have low dopamine? The brain knows how to fix it. It will draw you to do the things that raise it. Food just might be the thing your brain calls on to get it’s fix of dopamine. And that gets termed pathological or problematic. But it’s not. It’s healthy and normal.
We Want What We Can’t Have
The ideas of novelty and restriction play a role here too but often are not considered in the debate about whether or not you can be addicted to food. Have you ever bought a new car or pair of shoes and it felt really good at first? And then after a while that newness and excitement and good feeling seemed to wear away and diminish? It’s actually the idea of novelty at play here. When we experience something new, dopamine, also known as the happiness chemical, is released in the brain. Novelty fires our pleasure centers.
So when you restrict a food from yourself, after a while, it’s like a new food and your brain knows that having it will likely feel like novelty and fire off those pleasure chemicals. This is supported by brain research. That research shows foods that we often restrict light up the pleasure centers of the brain more than commonly consumed foods and foods we know we don’t enjoy.
These studies often get misused to represent sugary foods as being as “addicting” as cocaine or heroin…but they don’t take into account the fact that the foods they look at also are associated with pleasurable times like birthday parties, aka the human experience). That need for novelty, as well as the need for adequate dopamine for emotional stability, is a big draw and can feel overpowering…aka a lot like being out of control, wanting or strongly desiring food, and we often define those feelings as addiction.
Pavlovian Conditioning in Food Addiction
Have you heard of this? It’s the concept of when you anticipate something to happen you are more likely to see it happen. Pavlolv was a scientist who did an experiment where he measured saliva production when dogs were fed. He discovered the dogs would produce more saliva (indicating they anticipated food) when they would hear the footsteps of the assistant who was bringing the food. It’s called conditioning.
And it can happen to us with food (or anything really) too. You didn’t start out your very first time eating ice cream thinking you were addicted to it. You probably enjoyed it the first few times (hopefully many times actually). But now think about the experiences you have had when you ate ice cream over the years.
Restriction Complicates So-Called Food Addiction
Now enter the restriction piece. At some point you began restricting ice cream because “it’s not healthy” or you were afraid it would make you gain weight, whatever. But as we know with restriction, there always comes the binge. You run out of willpower (eye roll) or you lose control because of strong emotions or you get fed up and eat it because you feel you “deserve” it. For example, let’s say you were incredibly emotional because your boyfriend broke up with you, you were passed over for a promotion, you spilled coffee on yourself, and you got a parking ticket…yes all in the same day.
So now you’re eating the ice cream. This is just one of many past experiences where you’ve eaten the ice cream in a setting where you felt out of control. Here’s where Pavlov comes in. You have essentially conditioned yourself to eat the ice cream in an out of control manner. Whether it’s after a long restrictive period because of a weight loss diet or because of massive emotions or whatever, these reactions of eating the ice cream in this manner has taught you that you cannot be trusted around ice cream.
Rewards Without Addiction
In determining if you can be addicted to food, you cannot forget to look at foods intention and the body’s need for food. Addiction studies point to brain research that shows your dopamine or reward centers in your brain lighting up from a substance. Guess what? Food does this. But guess what else? Food is supposed to do this. It’s an inherent survival mechanism that keeps you going back for more food…because your body needs food to survive. Basically anything that we do that supports human survival will light up those same pleasure sensors in the brain.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) is a measure of addiction to food in humans. Here is what I have learned from the intuitive eating community about the flaws of this tool:
The Yale Food Addiction Scale problems:
- The YFAS does not differentiate food ingredients from whole or combination foods
- It has not been studied in the eating disorder community.
- YFAS also does not take into account food restrictions
- It does not account for conditioning
- It does not account for emotional eating (that out of control feeling we often identify as addiction)
- YFAS does not account for our own history with that food or our cultural and ethical beliefs about that food
- It does not account for the fact that food is SUPPOSED to be rewarding
And THOSE my friends are some major flaws.
The Take Away Message
Food addiction, theory or hypothesis, has numerous flaws. It begs of further study and pleads with you to consider alternative views.
So I guess my answer is no, you cannot be addicted to food. But maybe that isn’t the thing that really matters. Maybe what matters most is the fact that you feel addicted to food. That feeling of being addicted is definitely real and you deserve to have those feelings validated. You deserve to find help for those feelings.
Instead, use of intuitive eating (IE) principles can help you learn to allow and honor all of the feelings and emotions and experiences of eating the food. IE helps you bring about peace with the food and the experience in a way that respects and honors your out of control feelings. Reintroducing foods you currently believe to be an addiction of yours takes time. It requires you to be willing to be vulnerable but open to exploring the experience, the physical experience as well as the emotions and thoughts. It also requires a commitment to learning new skills, improving your relationship with food, and a strong desire to take back your life. Intuitive Eating helps you do this.
Need help weeding through a “food addiction” mindset? Book a free strategy session with me!