Food Addiction?

This is NOT “the” answer or explanation for obesity! 

(Note: please see also in the categories sidebar under “disordered eating” and the links in blog roll under “Food Peace”)

Some people may be dealing with some degree of addiction-like responses to certain foods at some points in their lives.

Not all people are susceptible to developing this, no matter their food choices or behaviour (just their blind good luck) and people who are vulnerable to this have done nothing to cause or choose it.

You can’t ‘spot’ someone with food addiction by looking at their body size – this is a burden that slender and average-weight folks can share as well.

Key Points

  • addictions to foods, such as to sugars or other “highly palatable foods” is likely a real problem (or as close to real as one can get without allowing the use of the highly charged “addiction” label).
  • people who report that they have food addictions also report remarkable improvements in their lives with strict abstinence from their specific trigger foods.
  • many also report the need to monitor themselves over time to watch for signs of addictive or ‘triggering’ responses to other foods, substances or other stimuli  – allowing them to ‘nip it in the bud’
  • some have reported that they do not achieve stable long-term success without dealing with all their triggering/addictive substances/stimuli.
  • I would suggest that some of these triggering/addictive stimuli can be very difficult to become aware of, such has habitual anger responses or habitually having strong judgemental reactions
  • I suspect, but it’s just a hunch, that sometimes some of the problems some people have some of the times with stalling weight loss after starting out with wonderful success on low carb diets (or even weight re-gain while truly maintaining low carb – yes, it can happen) might, in some circumstances, be related to new triggering that has developed over time after the original triggers have been eliminated in the process of going low-carb

Many people report that they are addicted to foods.  This is a highly debated topic in medical/scientific circles.  Recently it is getting a growing amount of serious attention and research.

Much of the response to this idea seems to be more philosophical than scientific. Also, I suspect that a large component of the challenge to this idea relates to political and policy issues, rather than science.  If people really can be diagnosed with being addicted to various foods or food groups, what would that mean in terms of their rights to receive care for that addiction, their rights to be accommodated for their medical condition, etc.

Thus, the use of specific words becomes highly charged – to a degree that to an outsider looks like ridiculous nit-picking.  Addiction, addition-like-behaviour, sort-of-like- an-addiction     – what??

Do the specific words used matter?  In a way they do and in a way – not so much.  When the term “addiction” is conclusively applied to an individual, this is then a diagnosis.  That certainly matters.  What is the purpose in medicine of making a diagnosis.  It has various uses and purposes, but the principle ones are to shed light on underlying cause (perhaps something can be changed or avoided), on prognosis (how things might go for that person over time, so the person can plan and prepare in their life) and to give guidance as to what might be the most beneficial treatments to try.  The point of making a diagnosis is for that to be of benefit to the patient.  A withholding of a diagnosis can thus interfere with the person learning of the underlying cause of their health problem, understanding their prognosis and knowing their best options for improved health (treatment choices).

When a diagnosis is difficult to arrive at, a perfectly valid option in medicine is to use a “trial of therapy” – if circumstances warrant and if the therapy to be tried is not unduly dangerous, damaging, onerous or expensive, etc.

Applying this to the question of food addictions would simply mean doing with the suspected substance, for example sugar, exactly the same one would do to manage an addiction (such as to alcohol) that was recognised as a valid diagnosis.  In other words, simply doing a trial period of total abstinence from the triggering foods.  Then watch the response.  Is there a period of withdrawal symptoms, of intensified craving, followed over time by improved well-being?  If the person finds their health much improved by treating their problem food (e.g. sugar) as an addiction, then applying the word “addiction” as the diagnosis does not fundamentally alter that reality.  It does, of course, have implications for their access to care, their health rights, and other political/policy issues.  Also, truth is good and having one’s sense of self recognised and not being dismissed also, ahem, matter.  Personally, I do not like telling people that they don’t exist.

What might this mean for you?  You might find it useful to learn more about the topic.  People have found it useful to look at the official criteria for diagnosing addiction and to think about how much of those things they recognize in their own lives.  Now, of course, if you are hungry or have been in food restriction, you will have a drive to eat.  With normal eating, after the first part of a meal, you would start to feel gradually less hungry and there would not be an escalating effect on meal size over time.

The criteria for substance dependence that causes significant problems must include three of the following:

  • Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: – the need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect OR markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance
  • Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: – the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance OR the same (or closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal
  • Taking the substance often in larger amounts or over a longer time period than was intended
  • There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control substance use.
  • Spending a great deal of time in activities necessary to obtain or use the substance or to recover from its effects
  • Giving up social, occupational or recreational activities because of substance use
  • Continuing the substance use with the knowledge that it is causing or exacerbating a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem.

I think this lady is fabulous.  This lecture is one of many on the topic of food addiction presented at a conference. A bit challenging for the non-scientist to wade through, but worth it.  Besides, what more interesting thing do you have to do with your time than find out the thrilling answer to the question:  what happens when perfectly normal, average lab rats are put through cycles of diet restriction and refeeding (including access to Oreos), with chronic stress, made to miss their breakfasts, and then given access to both normal food and Oreos?  (What – was that a little twinge of self-recognition you just felt?)

The Food Addiction Library

This is a digital library of popular articles, videos and research publications, that is intended to be of use to the general public.  Included is all the videos from a conference in 2009, which focuses not only on research, but includes people who ‘have been there’ presenting their stories, as well.

“Welcome to the most comprehensive source of sugar addiction information on the web.”

See also my page Brain Sensitized?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s