Let's Talk about the Idea of 'Food Addiction'

February 15, 2017

It's a phrase I hear a lot when I speak to people- "I'm addicted to sugar" or "I'm addicted to chocolate." Sometimes people really mean this phrase and sometimes they just mean they eat more of these foods than they think they 'should.' A few years ago, a book came out on the subject called Food Junkies, which after hearing about it I picked up and read right away. I'll admit I was intrigued by the idea- was this what was really going on with so many of my clients? Is the solution to really just cut out any 'trigger foods' like sugar because they cause a reaction in the brain that looks similar to after taking drugs?



For a long time, I really struggled with this as an idea. I read books like The End of Overeating by Dr. David Kessler and thought about the lengths mice will go to for sugar and fat. How could I sit and discuss moderation when there is such a strong reward response in the brain? I learned about the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) and thought about using it in my practice. For a while, I was sold on the idea.


I had heard about the idea of Intuitive Eating at this time and the idea of the addicting nature of food is what really stopped me from buying in. How on earth can our bodies self-regulate our intake if the high-sugar, high-fat foods are making us eat more? Surely the solution must be to cut out those foods since we can't be trusted with them, right?


Turns out, I was wrong.


Then I started learning more about the effects of restriction on our brains. I learned about studies showing the reward pathways in our brain light up MORE in response to highly palatable foods (high sugar, high fat) when we are calorie deprived. Then I heard about the work of an amazing dietitian, Marci Evans RD, who had looked through research on food addition and found that no one had accounted for deprivation when looking at the idea of food addiction. She also pointed out how although the evidence has shown rodents may show addictive behaviours to fat and sugar, this hasn't been shown in humans! I was floored. (If you want to check out Marci's awesome blog, you can check it out here.)


So let's talk about the 'addictive nature' of food. Food gives us pleasure, as it should since we as humans get pleasure from behaviours that are important for our survival! When you think about food in this way, the idea that we would get more pleasure from food if we have been restricting makes even more sense! Since we're programmed for survival, if you're trying to cut back, your body is going to try to protect you from starvation so it's going to react in a way that makes you want to eat those highly palatable foods more than you would if you weren't restricting to get those calories. That's why restricting ends up not working in the end and part of why dieting doesn't work.


When you diet and restrict your intake and part of what your restrict is sugar, you're going to be more drawn to high sugar foods because they're a good source of calories. When you overeat those foods, it certainly may feel like an addiction but is it really that or a mechanism against starvation? Especially when we think about carbs and sugar, they are necessary for brain functioning, red blood cell functioning, and is the primary fuel for your body during activity so of course your body is going to crave them if you restrict! Couple that with how when we tell ourselves we can't have something, it makes us want even more- well I think you can gather where my thoughts are on the subject.


If not cutting out foods, then what?


The more I learn in the area of nutrition and eating behaviour, the more I truly believe in the idea of Intuitive Eating (IE). For those of you who don't know what intuitive eating is, essentially it is a set of principles that help you eat based on your innate eating cues- listening to hunger and fullness, rejecting the diet mentality (so you're no longer depriving your body!), honouring your feelings without food, and respecting your body. It also includes paying attention to how different foods make your body feel. While cutting out sugar isn't sustainable for most people, if you eat a lot of it, you're probably going to feel pretty awful. Intuitive Eating doesn't mean disregarding your health, it means tuning in to you your body instead of eating based on portions and the clock.


I should say right now that learning to eat intuitively is easier said than done and it is a process! It starts with letting go of dieting and restriction since chances are, this restriction is fuelling your feeling out-of-control around food. Paying attention and observing without judgement is the another important step: when you're eating that food you think you're addicted to, what is going on for you? Are you stressed, bored, ore lonely? Have you been deprived? If so, you may feel out of control until your body adjusts to not being deprived. 


What about Binge Eating Disorder?


In the research, there is a lot of discussion around Binge Eating Disorder (BED) along with food addiction. Binge Eating Disorder (BED), which is an eating disorder recognized in the DSM-V, the manual of mental disorders and I am NOT disputing this by any means. What I am saying is that abstinence from trigger foods forever is probably not the best course of treatment of BED.


BED is diagnosed by a registered healthcare practitioner and includes symptoms of repeated eating of large amounts of food in one sitting, feeling out of control while eating, possibly eating alone out of embarrassment, eating rapidly, feeling uncomfortably full, and feeling guilty after eating without compensatory behaviours like purging or excessive exercise. I want to be very clear here that BED is an eating disorder that needs treatment from a multi-disciplinary team. If you think you fit many of these symptoms, speaking to a healthcare practitioner like a medical doctor, psychologist, or registered dietitian is important to help you get the treatment that you need.


I just don't believe that treatment includes complete elimination of foods that are binged- I think they need to be gradually introduced in a safe way to help you to eventually be able to eat that food without feeling out of control. One thing to note is that if you are currently struggling with an eating disorder, normalizing food intake is a crucial step before moving toward intuitive eating.


Want to stop feeling 'addicted' to food?


It isn't an easy process and it involves stopping dieting. Remember how that restriction makes certain foods more appealing to you? If you want that to stop, you need to start fuelling your body properly and that means letting go of dieting and restriction.


I know that seems difficult. It means letting go of all the promises the diet industry makes to us that all of our problems will be solved if we can just lose the weight with their diet. The thing is that dieting doesn't work and there is actually research that it actually increases your risk of weight gain


So if you're ready to stop feeling like food controls you but you need some help, you can find out more information about my services here or book an appointment here. It isn't easy or quick, it takes time and work but if you want to start feeling at peace with food, it is possible.







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