Is This Food Addiction?

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Oreo Food Addiction

You tell yourself you will have just one. Well, maybe two. Before you know it, half the sleeve has disappeared before your eyes. How did that happen? You decide you can never be around these delicious creamy cookies ever again, at least unsupervised…could this be food addiction?

 

FOOD ADDICTION.

It’s a powerful concept, and one that has gained traction in recent years. I mean, who hasn’t been so HANGRY that you snap at your loved ones or push a friend out of your way to be first in line at a buffet? (ok, maybe the latter example is extreme, but you get it).

We need food to survive; we think about it often, we crave it. The more we try to control our intake, the harder it becomes. This certainly resembles other addictive behaviors, right?

Many people agree. You will find thousands of articles, both academic and not, legitimizing food addiction as a contributor to the obesity epidemic.

BUT I’M NOT DRINKING THE KOOL-AIDat least not yet.

Here’s why:

  • Experimental food addiction studies are conducted on rodents. Results cannot simply be extrapolated to humans, most especially because we do not eat in controlled environments, like a laboratory.
  • In these food addiction studies, animals are usually starved or restricted beforehand. It is important to acknowledge this, because as I noted above, when one gets hangry things go haywire. This is not unique to humans. 
  • Studies suggest that high-sugar, high-fat foods contain addictive compounds; however, the specific compounds have not been identified.Even if they were, humans eat whole foods and meals all mixed together, making it challenging to place blame on a singular substance. It is also unclear if everyone is susceptible to these addictive compounds, or just certain people.
  • Researchers of substance addiction studies have used Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI) to identify neuropathways of addiction in humans. This has been adapted in food addiction studies and has shown brain engagement in similar areas as drug addiction. But, even if participants are randomly assigned to a food deprived versus an unrestricted state beforehand (supposedly further legitimizing results) the general public will never be able to fully remove the deep-seeded thoughts that high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar foods should be restricted in some way. So research in this area becomes flawed from the start. 
  • The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) is a validated questionnaire developed to identify signs of food addiction in humans. However, it does not account for dieting, food restrictions, or disordered eating patterns.This may seem benign, but it is actually a very important confounder. For example, in a study using the YFAS, 72% of participants who were determined to have “Food Addiction” also happened to have a diagnosed Binge Eating Disorder.

So, if it’s not addiction, why do some people feel out of control around food? There could be other explanations.

Stay with me here.

THE PROBLEM WITH RESTRICTIONS

If you’ve ever been around a child (in real life or TV, it doesn’t matter) you know that if you tell them NOT to do something they will want to do it MORE. Like when I told my 2-year-old not to color on the walls and, the next thing I knew, our whole bathroom was pink.

Are adults much different? Especially when it comes to food? Restricting things often makes us want them more…

My opinion, backed by research and shared by many others in my profession, is that perhaps food addiction stems from our own deprivation.

If something is off limits, forbidden, we sometimes rebel by doing or having that very thing. Counterintuitively, restricting ourselves makes us think about and want the restricted thing even more.

The best way to avoid feelings of food addiction may actually be to reject the avoidance in the first place.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

I recognize that this write-up may seem off-putting to those who believe, or have been told, they have an addiction to food. Your feelings are valid, and it is not my intention to invalidate them.  You know best how to care for you.

I’m highlighting the holes in food addiction research that sometimes gets overlooked, because I think they are worth considering.

Addressing those “out of control” feelings around food are more complicated than simply re-engaging in food exposures; however, I think it’s plausible that rejecting avoidance may be part of the process.

SOMETHING TO TRY!

You come to this site, and perhaps you have for years, to be inspired by Ann’s breadth of recipes and food knowledge. Her index has a variety of foods from all different food groups, both sweet and savory.

There’s a reason for this. Nothing is off the table, so to speak. Medical conditions aside, we give you permission to try it all. In that spirit, here’s a recipe for Ann’s M&M Pretzel Bark.

It is rich and delicious, and a few small bites will likely satisfy you. To avoid overeating, listen to your hunger cues, and honor them throughout the day so you don’t come to the table ravenous and out of control – this way, you can truly savor it.

REFERENCES

Carter A, Hendrikes J, Lee N, Yucel M, Verdejo-Garcia A, Andrews Z, et al. (2016). The Neurobiology of “food addiction” and its Implications for Obesity Treatment and Philosophy. Annu Rev Nutr. 36:105-128. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-nutr-071715-050909

Gearhardt A & Hebebrand J. (2021). The concept of “food addiction” helps inform the understanding of overeating and obesity: Debate Consensus. Amer J Clin Nutr. 2(113): 274-276. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa345

Markus CR, Rogers P, Brouns F, Schepers R. (2017). Eating dependence and weight gain; no human evidence for a ‘sugar- addiction’ model of overweight. Appetite. 114:64-72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.03.024

Ruddock HK & Hardman C. (2017). Food Addiction Beliefs Amongst the Lay Public: What Are the Consequences for Eating Behaviour? Curr Addict Rep. 4:110–115. DOI 10.1007/s40429-017-0136-

Stice E, Burger K, Yokum S. (2013). Caloric deprivation increases responsivity of attention and reward brain regions to intake, anticipated intake, and images of palatable foods. NeuroImage. 67: 322–330. 

Westwater M, Fletcher P, Ziauddee H. (2016). Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr 55 (Suppl 2):55–69. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27372453/

Ziaudeen H & Fletcher PC. (2013). Is food addiction a valid and useful concept? Obesity Reviews. 14:19-28. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2012.01046.x

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