We typically associate addictions with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and gambling, but not with something as mundane as eating food. It’s hard to see such a normal behavior as a problem even when it is. After all, we all eat food, and our existence depends on regular food consumption. This normalization of what can be a compulsive behavior for some makes it harder to recognize the addiction.
What Is Food Addiction And Are You Addicted?
Several foods including sugary or high-sodium foods, artificially flavored foods, carb-rich, and saturated fats-containing foods are known to work in the same way as drugs, activating the same neural pathways. When combined with the right environmental triggers such as stress, some people are more likely to develop food addiction.
Although not officially recognized as a diagnosable disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders there is a growing body of research on food addiction, highlighting the strong similarities between food addiction and clinically classified eating disorders such as binge eating disorder, or bulimia nervosa.
This makes it hard to find specific diagnostic criteria, but warning signs can include:
• Loss of Control: You may find it difficult to control your eating habits, often consuming more food than you originally intended.
• Food Cravings: Intense cravings for specific types of food, especially those high in sugar, fat, or salt, is a common characteristic of food addiction.
• Failed Attempts to Cut Down: Similar to substance use disorders, people with perceived food addiction may repeatedly try and fail to control or cut down on their eating habits despite recognition of the physical and emotional consequences.
• Preoccupation with Food: Constantly thinking about food, planning meals, or feeling preoccupied with the next eating opportunity is a common symptom of food addiction.
• Eating in Secret: Some individuals with a perceived food addiction may eat in private to avoid judgment or criticism from others.
If you’re unsure, you can try the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) and answer its questions to assess your relationship with food, find out if you have a problem, and gauge its severity.
Strategies To Overcome Food Addiction
Once you acknowledge an addiction, you’ve taken the first step towards recovery and you can seek help to deal with it. Treatment for food addiction often involves a combination of psychological, nutritional, and lifestyle interventions. These include:
Therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors related to food, allowing you to develop a healthier relationship with food.
Similarly, the practice of mindfulness and mindful eating will also help you become more aware of your eating habits, making it easier to recognize and address triggers for overeating.
Nutritional Counseling: Working with a registered dietitian can help you develop healthier eating habits, understand nutritional needs, and create balanced meal plans. Dietitians will also be able to recommend natural remedies, dietary changes, or natural supplements that make it easier to control cravings.
Meal Planning: Meal planning or prepping can provide structure and predictability to eating habits, helping you cultivate a healthier relationship with food. By thoughtfully preparing balanced meals in advance, you can reduce impulsive choices, manage portion sizes, and create a more intentional and mindful approach to eating.
Environmental Modifications: This strategy works by minimizing triggers and creating a conducive space for healthier food choices. It may involve removing or reducing the availability of highly processed or triggering foods, organizing the kitchen for easy access to nutritious options, and fostering a positive atmosphere that promotes mindful eating and self-regulation.
Lifestyle Changes: Tackling any addiction requires a change in lifestyle choices, directed towards healthier behaviors including regular physical activity, sufficient sleep, and stress management. These changes contribute to overall well-being and help reduce reliance on food as a coping mechanism. Making such changes can be tough but a therapist can help you get started.
Support Groups: Support groups offer a safe and non-judgmental space for people with addictions to share experiences, challenges, and successes. This not only provides a strong sense of community and understanding but the shared experiences and insights also give you valuable guidance on the most effective coping strategies.
As food addiction is not a clinical condition, there is a possibility that it could oversimplify complex issues related to eating behaviors and may not capture the full range of factors involved in overeating, such as mental illness, trauma, societal factors, culture, and so on.
While you can take the first steps by adopting diet and lifestyle changes gradually, you must seek professional help, especially if you feel like you aren’t making much progress.