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Living to Eat: Do You Have a Food Addiction?
By Meghan Vivo

Jane sneaks out of the house at midnight and drives six miles to the local 7-Eleven to get a chocolate bar. This has become a nightly ritual. She’s gaining weight and feels profoundly ashamed of her lack of self-control. Though she vows to stop this behavior, she can’t seem to shake the craving night after night.

Jane is a food addict.

In many ways, food can closely resemble a drug – caffeine and sugar offer a quick pick-me-up while carbohydrates and comfort foods can help soothe and relax the mind. Some people use food, like drugs, to feel at ease in social situations or to unwind after a long day. If you think about food constantly throughout the day, have compulsive cravings for certain types of foods, or waste more than half of your daily calories binging on unhealthy snacks, you may be one of the 18 million Americans who suffer from food addiction.

What Is Food Addiction?
Food addiction, like any other addiction, is a loss of control. Food addicts are preoccupied with thoughts of food, body weight, and body image, and compulsively consume abnormally large amounts of food. Even though they understand the harm caused by their behavior, they just can’t stop. Food addicts tend to crave and eat foods that are harmful to their bodies. For example, people with food allergies may crave the foods they are allergic to, while diabetics may crave and overindulge in sugar, despite the adverse effects.

Food-aholics generally gorge on fat, salt, and sugar in the form of junk food and sweets. If they are feeling depressed, lonely, or disappointed, they consume large amounts of chips, chocolate, or other comfort foods for a “high.” As with most addictions, the high wears off, leaving the person feeling sick, guilty, and even more depressed. Because the addict is out of control, she will repeat the same eating patterns over and over again in an effort to feel better.

Compulsive overeaters often eat much more rapidly than normal and hide their shame by eating in secret. Most overeaters are moderately to severely obese, with an average binge eater being 60% overweight. Individuals with binge eating disorders often find that their eating or weight interferes with their relationships, their work, and their self-esteem. Although compulsive overeaters or binge dieters often struggle with food addiction, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are also considered types of food addictions.

Addiction or Bad Habit?
Unlike drug and alcohol addiction, which have been recognized by the medical profession for years, addiction specialists still question whether food can be genuinely addictive. Is the obsession with eating a true addiction, or just a bad habit?

Some experts are quite skeptical of putting food in the same category as drugs or alcohol. They argue that people like junk food because it tastes good, not because they are physically incapable of controlling their behavior. Others contend that individuals who abuse substances in excess of need, despite the harm it can cause, are addicts, whether the substance is alcohol, drugs, or food.

In some cases, food addicts trying to break the habit claim to experience both physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, mood changes, tremors, cramps, and depression. In an animal study at Princeton University, researchers found that after rats binged on sugar, they showed classic signs of withdrawal when the sweets were removed from their diet, which suggests foods like sugar can be addictive.

Brain imaging studies conducted by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have found that food affects the brain’s dopamine systems in much the same way as drugs and alcohol. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. When psychiatrist Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her colleagues compared brain images of methamphetamine users with obese people, they found both groups had significantly fewer dopamine receptors than healthy people. Moreover, the higher the body mass index, the fewer the dopamine receptors, which may explain why it is so difficult for some people to lose weight and keep it off.

Are You a Food Addict?
Whether the obsession with food is a true addiction or simply a bad habit, one thing is clear: Your health is on the line. Obesity, psychological disorders, and diabetes are just a few of the health risks associated with compulsive eating.

If you’re worried that you may have a food addiction, FoodAddicts.org recommends that you answer the following questions:

  1. Have you ever wanted to stop eating and found you just couldn’t?
  2. Do you think about food or your weight constantly?
  3. Do you find yourself attempting one diet or food plan after another, with no lasting success?
  4. Do you binge and then “get rid of the binge” through vomiting, exercise, laxatives, or other forms of purging?
  5. Do you eat differently in private than you do in front of other people?
  6. Has a doctor or family member ever approached you with concern about your eating habits or weight?
  7. Do you eat large quantities of food at one time?
  8. Is your weight problem due to your “nibbling” all day long?
  9. Do you eat to escape from your feelings?
  10. Do you eat when you’re not hungry?
  11. Have you ever discarded food, only to retrieve it and eat it later?
  12. Do you eat in secret?
  13. Do you fast or severely restrict your food intake?
  14. Have you ever stolen other people’s food?
  15. Have you ever hidden food to make sure you have “enough?”
  16. Do you feel driven to exercise excessively to control your weight?
  17. Do you obsessively calculate the calories you’ve burned against the calories you’ve eaten?
  18. Do you frequently feel guilty or ashamed about what you’ve eaten?
  19. Are you waiting for your life to begin “when you lose the weight?”
  20. Do you feel hopeless about your relationship with food?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have, or be in danger of developing, a food addiction or eating disorder. Although food addiction is not nearly as intense as alcohol and drug addictions, you may need help regaining control of your life.

Treating Food Addiction
Change is never easy, and overcoming food addiction is no exception. It will require a combination of discipline, healthy eating habits, and exercise. In many ways, treatment of food addiction is similar to drug and alcohol addiction. The first step to recovery is recognizing and accepting the problem, and identifying which foods cause allergic symptoms and cravings. However, unlike drug and alcohol addiction, food addicts can’t quit cold turkey. Everyone has to eat. Instead of taking drastic measures, make the following changes gradually, one small step at a time.

Reprogram your taste buds. If you eat tons of sugar-laden foods, your taste buds get used to the flavor and you will start craving sweeter and sweeter foods. When buying foods that aren’t supposed to be sweet, like pasta sauce, bread, and crackers, make sure they don’t have added sweeteners like fructose, dextrose, and corn syrup. Slowly try to limit sweet or salty foods in favor of fruits and vegetables to restore the sensitivity in your taste buds.

Plan your meals. Food addicts often hide food or binge when they are alone. One way around this is to avoid hiding a stash of food in your car, desk, or nightstand. Also, plan out healthy meals in advance, portion out single servings on smaller plates, and eat scheduled meals at the dinner table. If you eat in front of the TV or while talking on the phone, you’re more likely to eat large amounts of food without realizing it. Though it may take a few weeks to change your eating patterns, your brain will eventually get used to smaller portions of healthy foods and generate fewer snack-food cravings.

Moderate your hunger. People with food addiction tend to take an all-or-nothing approach to dieting, bouncing from ravenous to overstuffed. A useful tool to moderate food consumption is to rate your hunger on a scale of zero to ten, zero being starving and ten being overstuffed, then try to stay between three and five. If you wait until you hit zero, you may not stop eating until you reach ten.

Know your weaknesses. Everyone has a list of foods that are hard to turn down. If you can’t resist a fine loaf of bread at a restaurant, ask the waiter not to bring the bread basket to your table. If you can’t walk past an ice cream parlor without stopping for a scoop or two, take a different route. If you have a habit of eating cookies or popcorn while watching TV at night, read a book or walk the dog instead. If these tricks don’t work, stop buying unhealthy foods at the grocery store. If it’s in your kitchen, you’re probably going to eat it.

Deal with the real issues. Typically a food addict will numb unpleasant feelings with food. If you stop relying on food, you can learn to tackle problems head-on and let yourself feel the sadness, anger, or boredom without using food as a crutch.

Find healthy ways to cope. For food addicts, the next salt or sugar fix becomes the dominating force in their life. The best treatment is to find other ways to fill the void, like working out, hiking, going out with friends, or talking to a therapist. Exercise sparks the same pleasure centers of the brain as food, and offers a similar high without the guilt. If you’re not physically hungry but you’re struggling to resist a craving, brush your teeth, drink water, leave the house for a few minutes, or choose a healthy substitute like yogurt instead of ice cream or baked chips instead of potato chips.

Give yourself a break. The guilt people feel after overeating perpetuates the addiction. They’re sad because they ate too much, so they turn to food for solace. Learn to forgive yourself and don’t get discouraged by minor setbacks.

Food addiction can be a serious problem. Just ask the people who habitually visit the drive-thru at midnight or load up on candy bars on a daily basis. To beat the addiction, sometimes all you need is motivation to change and a few lifestyle modifications. In more severe cases, you may need to seek help from a food addiction group like Overeaters Anonymous, a mental health professional, or an addiction treatment center. In either case, a shift in outlook must occur: Eat to live, don’t live to eat.