Do you ever wonder if there is something in the food you eat that makes it irresistible? A certain chemical compound that keeps you wanting and going back for more? Or maybe it’s the fact that you have two fast food restaurants within a half-mile of your home which beckon you. What is it that makes you want that food so badly? And do you wish you didn’t have to struggle with being overweight or obese?
Maybe you blame yourself. “Oh I’m so weak, I can’t even hold back once I think of those fries.” Perhaps you notice that you can’t stop yourself once you start to eat. Maybe you try to blame it on how marketers advertise food in such a sumptuous way. Still, you blame yourself because of course you need to eat, though not so much, and you feel guilty afterwards. If you could only control your intake, you could lose extra weight or prevent your doctor from making comments. If only.
Well, unfortunately, I can’t give you a clear answer as to whether something in your food is so “addictive.” There is much controversy about the concept called “food addiction.” What I have for you below is not a complete review of all of the research out there on this concept, but a glimpse at some of the recent research, revealing how not everyone agrees on this “food addiction” concept. That, in turn, affects how people perceive whether it’s your fault that you are overweight, your environment’s fault or both.
The research in support of the term “food addiction” has primarily looked at studies of animals. It presumes that because their brain activity is similar whether they process sugary, fatty foods or drugs, that there is some addictive quality about or substance within the food itself. But who is to say that the same brain activity is not a result of thoughts about delicious food rather than the food substance itself? Does it have to be a substance within the food that is addictive?
This is where the waters get murky. We have easy access to lots of cheap, highly enticing food in this country. Our environment is set up so that we overeat; inexpensive food is readily available. Yet we lack research to say that a specific food substance makes it addictive. Furthermore, if we blame the obesity epidemic on “food addiction,” then it can be argued that we can place blame on the substances in the food. Maybe then the food industry would have to take more responsibility for the obesity epidemic. But can you really, honestly compare the addictiveness of chocolate to that of cocaine? Even if you have never used it?
I think before we can argue whether this term “food addiction” is “real,” we have to do a better job at defining food addiction. If we don’t agree on a definition, how can we study it as a concept? As I look at it further, I think we have a problem with definitions here.
Are we only referring to a substance within the food as “addictive?” Or are we confusing this with the process of eating being “addictive?” Disagreement abounds. To set things straight, these are not the same concepts. I think we have to be on the same page; food addiction and eating addiction are two different concepts.
I’m willing to argue that what might be happening is we get “addicted” to the process of eating. Not that one specific food or food substance is addictive, but that we become behaviorally trained to pursue the rewarding experience of eating. If this is so, then instead of blaming people for becoming addicted to food, we can train people to recognize what triggers eating (and overeating) behavior. Behavioral therapies can be of use here, rather than shaming people that they don’t have the willpower to resist. Either way you slice it, the factors that influence when and how much people eat are complicated, as are the problems of obesity and weight gain. Many more people are obese than meet the criteria for a “food addiction,” based on a scale called the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). So go figure.
When a person shows signs of eating a lot more than one typically might eat in a short amount of time and loses control over the eating process, this may be indicative of binge eating disorder, an eating disorder and not a food addiction. If you experience binge eating you may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an effective treatment. There’s help to be found.
American Psychological Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
Fortuna, J.L. (2012). The obesity epidemic and food addiction: Clinical similarities to drug dependence. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44(1), 56-63.
Hebebrand, J., Albayrak, O., Adan, R., Antel, J., Dieguez, C., de Jong J., …Dickson, S.L. (2014). “Eating addiction,” rather “food addiction,” better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 295-306.
Hebebrand, J. (2015). Obesity prevention: Moving beyond the food addiction debate. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 27(9), 737-738.
Wiss, D.A., Criscitelli, K., Gold, M., & Avena, N (in press). Preclinical evidence for the addiction potential of highly palatable foods: Current developments related to maternal influence. Appetite.
About The Author:
Dr. Randi Dublin is a licensed clinical psychologist with specific interests in health psychology, integration of primary care and behavioral health, and destigmatization of mental health and mental illness. She works as the bariatric psychologist within an adult bariatric surgery clinic and promotes the idea that mental health and physical health are inseparable. She uses Twitter to educate the public about psychological science and mental health literacy, among other topics. You can follow her @RandiDublin
Written – 2017