Can You Be Addicted To Food?

Mark A. Carlson

Food addiction is real, and it can be treated like any other addiction.

We all need food for survival, but could we become addicted to it? According to experts, food addiction is very real. Here is some information on why.

Food can affect the brain in the same way as other addictive substances.

Despite that food helps us survive, research indicates that excessive consumption of food or consuming the wrong foods – like foods high in fat or sugar – can affect humans the way drugs or alcohol can.

The symptoms of addiction include:

  • preoccupation with a substance
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms
  • facing social consequences as a result of the addiction
  • engaging in “risky use”
  • consuming the substance at a dangerous level

According to Jagdish Khubchandani, Associate Chair and Professor of Health Science at Ball State University in Indiana, while food addiction is not defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the handbook for mental health professionals, these symptoms as they relate to food mean it is a very real concern for those struggling with compulsive or binge eating.

“I understand why people may not believe it exists,” Khubchandani says. “However, we must understand that food addiction as a health issue meets many criteria for substance use disorders that are clearly defined in DSM criteria.”

It goes beyond normal food cravings.

Just like with any other addictions, food addicts can experience withdrawal when they stop bingeing, or eating in excessive amounts. Food cravings can also cause anxiety and eventually, a food addict’s relationship with food can affect daily life.

The DSM’s criteria for substance dependence includes intense cravings that make it difficult to “think of anything else” and needing more and more of the substance to feel satisfied.

“[Food addicts] may also notice feeling irritable, anxious and tired once they stop overeating more food than their body needs for sustenance,” Tricia Nelson, a food addiction expert and author of Heal Your Hunger: 7 Simple Steps to End Emotional Eating Now, says. “When food addicts no longer eat excessively, the feelings they were attempting to numb begin to emerge and they can experience strong, seemingly out-of-control emotions, including anxiety, depression, and crying.”

It requires treatment like other addictions.

Treating food addiction can be especially complicated, considering a person needs food to survive. Treatment for food addiction includes therapy, physical methods to restrict eating such as appetite suppressant medications, gastric bypass surgery, and even 12-step programs like Overeaters Anonymous.

“In general, individuals with addictive-like eating behaviors would likely benefit from working with a multidisciplinary treatment team that includes a dietician, psychologist and physician with experience working with individuals with problematic patterns of eating,” Dr. Genna Hymowitz, Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of Bariatric Psychology at the Bariatric and Metabolic Weight Loss Center at Stony Brook Medicine in Centereach, New York, says.

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