In my last blog titled, “Cravings - Who Hasn’t, “ I mentioned that addiction could be one of the reasons behind the cravings. And because I was only able to briefly touch on the subject I wanted to dedicate this entire blog to address it more fully.
Typically when you hear the word, “addiction,” your thoughts go immediately to substances that are potentially harmful or illegal, such as, alcohol, tobacco, street drugs, or maybe a behavior like gambling. So it might seem strange that you could actually link addiction in the same sentence with food. However, in some cases it’s true. The brain and body can become dependent on a healthy substance like food.
Whereas an individual would have to purposely seek out a source as to where and how to purchase a street drug, food on the other hand is everywhere. We need food to survive, that’s just a fact. It's also used as a source of pleasure and a means of social interaction, holidays, and special events.
We not only use food to comfort ourselves but we also use it as a way to nurture our loved ones. For example, I have many memories of my dear beloved grandma coming over to our house to drop off cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and an eight pack of Coca-cola whenever me or one of my sisters was sick. Of course this was also the same grandma who would let us have ice cream for breakfast because she said there was eggs in it, but I digress. The point I want to make here is that because we have to have food to survive we can’t just abstain from it like we could with any other substance or behavior that is addictive — that’s why it can be difficult to control.
When the need to consume food becomes compulsive and uncontrollable, that, is when you know that food has turned into a source of addiction. Even though the person might try to control the addictive behavior through dieting, they usually will fall back into overeating in response to emotions and stressful life events. However, when they take this course of action, the initial rush of pleasurable sensations or the release from emotional distress will quickly be followed by feelings of shame, guilt, and physical discomfort.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Food addiction can be recognizable by many signs and symptoms. The following are just some of the possible symptoms:
- Obsessive food cravings, going out of the way to obtain and consume certain foods.
- Continuing to eat even though you are no longer hungry.
- Eating to the point of feeling ill.
- Eating in secret, isolation.
- Repeated attempts to stop overeating only to relapse into addictive behaviors.
- Needing to consume more food in order to get the same sense of emotional release or comfort.
- The behavior is having a negative impact on family, work, finances, or social life.
CAUSES OF FOOD ADDICTION
So how does one get to be addicted to food? Well, it’s likely the culmination of several factors that interact in the overall cause of this disorder. It may be the result of biological, psychological, or social reasons.
Emotions and stress - Responding to stress by eating, even when not hungry. Eating to enhance positive emotions and to reduce negative emotions. Often turning to high-calorie or high-carbohydrate foods that have minimal nutritional value as a “reward” for an accomplishment or when something bad happens because the individual feels, “they deserve it.” Emotional eaters often crave “comfort foods or feel good foods” like ice cream, cookies, pizza, french fries and chocolate, etc.
Brain chemistry - Foods that are rich in fat and sugar can change the reward centers of the brain in a similar way as drugs and alcohol. In fact, in some studies it has been shown that sugar might actually have a stronger effect on the brain’s reward system than addictive drugs like cocaine. Eating these kinds of food prompt a part of the brain to make endorphins. These “feel good” chemicals can trigger binge eating. The foods also spark dopamine which motivates feeding behavior and the prefrontal cortex which influences decision making. In some people, the actions of these brain chemicals that regulate the reward systems can overcome hormonal signals and any conscious attempts to stop eating even though they are full. And the strong pull of wanting the high-calorie foods wins out over the knowledge that what they are eating is damaging to their health.
Genetics - According to the National Institutes of Health about 40% to 60% of addiction risk is attributable to genetics. However, a persons DNA is not their destiny. Lifestyle and environment can influence how a gene functions. That means that everything from the food we eat, our activity levels, stress levels, and the pollution we’re exposed to can change a gene’s expression. Dr. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH a science and nutrition expert explains that poor choices, such as eating a lot of sugary snacks, for example, have the potential to “switch on” genes related to obesity and addiction in her book, The Hunger Fix. But she also states that efforts to improve your diet and environment can enhance the functioning of good genes and dampen the bad ones.
Trauma - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious potentially debilitating condition that may occur as a result of experiencing or witnessing events such as a natural disaster, sudden death of a loved one, violent personal assault such as rape or other life-threatening events. PTSD and eating disorders often co-occur. Individuals suffering from an eating disorder usually report a history of trauma. It is suggested that the engaging in the behaviors of an eating disorder may be a way of controlling or coping with the troubling emotions and experiences linked with PTSD.
At first glance, people may think of food addiction as relatively harmless compared to an addiction to alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin. However, compulsive overeating can take a severe toll on physical and emotional health. Professional treatment is often required to break the cycle of addictive overeating and restore a healthy relationship to food. If you recognize that you are dealing with a food addiction, don’t ignore it, please call (616) 516-1570 to make an appointment. I would like to help you break that cycle and help you live a more healthy and fulfilling life!