Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted to Food…Or Are You?
By Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
My mother has always described herself as a ‘food addict.’ Although she has successfully lost and kept off more than 100 pounds, she still considers food her nemesis. Before I became a registered dietitian, I often rolled my eyes whenever my mother spoke of feeling powerless. I, too, lost weight (more than 30 pounds) and have kept it off for years, but unlike my mother, I have learned to eat and enjoy appropriate portions, and never feel guilt when I eat.
Always on the search for scientific evidence to understand the complexities of food, nutrition and the art of eating, I realize that my mother may have known best. “There’s a strong possibility that food addiction exists,” according to Ashley N. Gearhardt, MS, MPhil, a Yale Psychology doctoral student. “For years, we’ve been uncovering similarities between substance dependence and obesity, and studies have suggested that some individuals may be addicted to highly processed foods” says Gearhardt.
Last week, Gearhardt and colleagues published a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry. They found that women who qualified as ‘food addicts’ showed brain responses similar to those found in alcohol and drugs addicts when they were shown food cues—in this case, a picture of a chocolate milkshake. Instead of relying on individual’s self-identifications as food ‘addicts’ or ‘cravers,’ Gearhardt and colleagues used the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a 25-item questionnaire, to assess signs of substance-dependence (such as tolerance, withdrawal, and loss of control) in eating behavior. Those who experience 3 or more symptoms in the past year and have a clinically significant impairment or distress would be diagnosed with “Food Addiction.”
Gearhardt acknowledges we need more research to determine whether or not people can truly be addicted to food, but she hopes ‘food addiction’ will someday qualify as a disease. She says “...we can remove some of the stigma and personal blame associated with being overweight and hopefully create comprehensive treatments to overcome the condition.”
According to Sunny Sea Gold, author of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug, “Food hasn’t been proven to be addictive in the same way drugs are; the science isn’t quite there yet.” But Gold, who overcame binge eating disorder, does believe that people can use food just like they would alcohol, drugs, or sex. “They can become dependent on food as a distraction, as a coping mechanism, and as something they comfort themselves with...I know I did” she adds.
For those who think they may be addicted to food, Gold suggests the following:
- Identify what food means to you. Gold recommends the book The End of Overeating by David Kessler, MD; it explains why so many of us find it so difficult to resist certain foods and why it’s so easy to overindulge.
- Seek support. “I don’t think I would have been able to heal completely without the wisdom and support of the people in my support group.” If face-to-face support is not for you, Gold suggests seeking a support group that offers online or phone “meetings.” Her support web site, healthygirl.org, can also be helpful, as can Overeaters Anonymous or Food Addicts Anonymous.
- Forget labels. Gold discourages getting hung up on labels like ‘addiction’ or ‘eating disorder.’ She says “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether your relationship with food is an addiction or a full blown eating disorder, or if you’re just a little “weird” about food—it will have similar effects on your life and body.” Gold adds “If your relationship with food makes you miserable, it’s time to do something about it.”
Might you be ‘addicted to food’? What helps you overcome it?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and award-winning author of "Nutrition At Your Fingertips," "Feed Your Family Right!," and "So What Can I Eat?!." She is also a past national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. For more information, go to www.elisazied.com. Follow Elisa on Twitter/elisazied and on Facebook.
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