July 14, 2016

Food Addictions: It’s Not Just About Food

In part five of this seven-part series on addiction, we discuss food addictions. Is it a real form of addiction? What are the underlying causes? And, can it be overcome?

What are your favorite foods? Probably broccoli, right? Spinach? Kale, even? No? Unless you're a health nut, you probably love french fries, fried chicken, candy, ice cream, and soda. Most of us do. But why? Why do we love these things, why are they generally unhealthy, and how do they affect us? Can we love them so much that we can become addicted to them? Can we really have food addictions? Are food addictions, in fact, a real thing? What are the underlying causes? And, can it be overcome?

The Science

Generally, there are two underlying reasons why we are more compelled to choose these types of foods over others. The first is the sugar content. Sugar, as LiveStrong.com explains, is a kind of carbohydrate that generates energy in proportion to the amount consumed. This means, the more carbohydrates we eat, the greater the burst of energy we get.

Food Addictions and Sugar

Although sugar has been a part of human diets for thousands of years, large amounts of sugar and simple carbohydrates are not as readily available in nature as they are at your local grocery store. Our ancestors had to work hard to harvest fruit and sugar cane and bake pastries. They couldn't just have sugary foods whenever they pleased and, usually, the energy they garnered from such food was typically offset by the energy expended in getting it.

In other words, we aren't designed to have access to and consume the amount of sugar that we do. When we see a great source of quick energy, our mind instinctively compels us to take advantage of it because it would provide the energy it needs to function. Plus, in the "natural world," getting too much sugar would be very rare.

The problem is, today, there's a never-ending stream of such energy sources. It's no longer scarce or hard to get. So, our brains keep compelling us to seek out 'energy-boosting' foods, despite the fact that there's plenty more—too much more—where that came from.

Food Addictions and Nutrition

Secondly, such foods are typically low in the actual nutrition that your body needs to function properly. When we eat, our bodies break down the food to find the nutrients it needs, and it finds very little in sugars and simple carbs—especially the processed sugars and wheat that are common in everyday diets.

If you eat vegetables or a steak, your body will get more of what it needs than if you eat a piece of fried chicken or a cookie. Your digestive system, however, will look for nutrients in the fried chicken or the cookie. The problem is; when it can't get as much as it needs, your brain will tell you to eat more.

It's how a bad habit of unhealthy eating begins. It's not ideal, but it's also not destructive. That is—until it reaches a certain point. How does it reach that point? Once again, our old friend dopamine, the brain's reward, and pleasure chemical, comes into play.

Food Addictions and Psychology

Food addictions occur when we eat to fill a void other than an empty stomach.
In many cases, the "void" is psychological. An aching, empty something that has the addict feeling incomplete. To fill the void, a food addict has learned that consuming food, even when not hungry, helps to provide temporary relief. It's the dopamine at work in our brain.

This is because consuming particular types of food releases pleasure chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin in our brain. Much like the sensation experienced from substance addictions, sexual addictions, and internet addictions.

IdeaFit.coma website dedicated to serving fitness professionals, tells us that fitness, nutrition, and health professionals often hear the same type of vernacular from those addicted to sugar, carbs, and fast food as those addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Food addicts talk about withdrawal and detoxing, but they can't seem to stop their behavior. The big culprits are the hyperpalatablessugary, starchy, fatty and salty foods. Is there a relationship between food and addiction? Can food products hijack the reward system in much the same way as drugs? According to newly published data and a growing chorus of scientists, it's absolutely plausible.

The Root Problem

In past articles, we've referred to the TEDx talk by Zoe Chance where she refers to the "Six Human Needs" and how things that satisfy at least three of them can often be addictive. To recap, the six needs are significance, certainty, security, uncertainty, connection, and growth. How does food, particularly those energy-and-dopamine-boosting foods, hold up under this theory?


The feeling of significance is met by food perhaps more plainly than any other addiction. We need food to live. Sure we don't need chocolate, burgers, or fries to survive, but the principle exists. For a food addict, deep down, somehow, someway—food helps to fill the need for significance. In whatever form, that might be.


What about certainty? Food addicts know that every time they eat, they'll get that mysterious sense of satisfaction. For addicts, it never fails them, even if the slightly sick feeling afterward is also certain. Similarly, there's the certainty of knowing that food is always there, of there are ways and means to obtain it. That you can always run to the donuts or the Pepsi to make things better when you get down. Uncertainty? There's a never-ending supply of sweets and carbs out there to try.


Uncertainty? There's a never-ending supply of sweets and carbs out there to try. Not knowing what they taste like and how they could make you feel brings about the feeling of uncertainty.


How about the connection? There are few activities more social than eating. Family meals, dinner out with friends, getting coffee, grabbing lunch with co-workers. Although in many ways, food addicts go about their addiction in private, there's a sense of connection that a food addict gets when consuming food.


And finally, growth? Aside from the obvious physical growth, discovering food that we love, new favorites, new flavors, and combinations—it's a feeling that's hard to match.

Unfortunately, sugar or fried chicken cannot truly fill any of these needs, nor can any other food. It's a temporary fix, a high or a means to fill a void that doesn't provide any deeper meaning or satisfaction. It's also no substitute for healthy relationships, habits, and hobbies. This isn't to say, however, that if you experience food addiction that it's not possible to change.

It's Not Easy

Despite its inherent difficulty, food addictions are possible to overcome. But it's also not always easy. As we've discussed, food addictions aren't just about food filling a void in our stomach but also a void in our emotional and psychological well-being.
To overcome a food addiction it takes time and a burning desire to change.
It's difficult because, as with any other addiction, your brain has made the connection to rely on the surge of dopamine it gets from consuming food. No addiction is ever easily stopped by simply saying "I'll try to do that less." As my dad likes to say;
"If you always do what you've always done, then you'll always get what you've always got."
So if you find yourself feeling like you're not seeing the change you need, maybe it's time to try something different. Remember, without doing something dramatically different, it's very difficult to get different results. For you, it may mean committing to a strict diet, counting calories, or making specific rules like only water when eating out from now on. Or, it might mean, you need to ask someone for help.

Whatever your struggle might be, that's holding on to your food addiction, if you want to be free of this—you have to change something that you're doing. So make changes. Find people to hold you accountable. There's nothing wrong with enjoying food, even not-so-healthy food, in moderation. But if you know you have a problem, the first priority should be to seek help. Reach out to someone you know and trust and let them know you need help. There's absolutely no shame in asking for help. And if you feel you just need someone to talk with, we're here to listen.

Other articles in this 7-part series:

  1. What is an Addiction and Addiction Formation.
  2. Stages of Addiction: Are You Addicted?
  3. Substance Abuse: The Catalyst for Drug Addiction.
  4. Sexual Addictions: The Science and Psychology.
  5. (This article)
  6. Entertainment Addiction: Are We Escaping Reality?
  7. Breaking an Addiction: How to Set Yourself Free.