What is Food Addiction?
For years, overeating and obesity were often diagnosed as eating disorders caused from emotional problems that could be solved by psychotherapy or counseling. Although this is true for many individuals who have used food to manage their emotions or deal with stress, the problem is more complex for the true food addict.
According to Kay Sheppard, a pioneer in the treatment of food addiction, "the term food addiction implies there is a biochemical condition in the body that creates a physiological craving for specific foods. This craving, and its underlying biochemistry, is comparable to an alcoholic's craving for alcohol" (a refined carbohydrate). Just as alcohol is the substance that triggers the alcoholic's disease, there are substances that trigger a food addict's out-of-control eating.These substances are typically refined carbohydrates, sweeteners, fats and processed foods. These foods seem to affect the same addictive brain pathways that are influenced by alcohol and drugs.
Ms. Sheppard, says that "for some people, repetitive overeating and weight gain can be symptoms of food addiction, just as loss of control or inebriation results from excessive alcohol. I have seen that many food addicts, who participated in residential eating disorder centers, never found freedom from their food cravings even after completing treatment programs of 30 to 90 days. These individuals typically relapsed, returning to addictive eating after leaving treatment centers because they were never introduced to a ‘trigger-free’ food plan.Often they were encouraged to eat small amounts of their trigger foods," Ms. Sheppard said. "I believe this is like the alcoholic being told they should be able to have a small glass of wine every now and then.Food addiction, like alcoholism, is a chronic, progressive, fatal disease. It is chronic because the condition never goes away, it is progressive because the individual needs more of the substance over time, and it's fatal because many individuals with this disease die of complications related to their addiction, such as obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases."
Traditionally, food addiction has been treated as an eating disorder, using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV) for Eating Disorders for diagnostic and treatment purposes. On page 37 in her book, From the First Bite, Ms. Sheppard suggests food addiction fits in a different classification other than eating disorders. She suggests using the seven criteria from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) for substance abuse. Most food addicts who are in the advanced stages of their disease can say "yes" to all seven criteria.
1. Tolerance. The person needs increased amounts of the substance over time to achieve the same desired effect or feeling.
2. Withdrawal. When the substance is stopped, there are physiological and/or psychological withdrawal symptoms. The individual takes the substance again to relieve or avoid these symptoms.
3. Unintentional overuse. The person takes more of the substance or takes it over a longer period of time than intended.
4. Persistent attempts at cutting down on the substance are unsuccessful.
5. Preoccupation with the substance. A great deal of time is spent obtaining the substance, using the substance, or recovering from its effects.
6. The reduction of or abandonment of social, occupational or recreational activities in order to use the substance.
7. Use of the substance is continued despite persistent or recurrent physical and/or psychological problems exacerbated by the substance.
The majority of food addicts stay locked in the disease process due to lack of good information. Generally, the medical profession does not know how to treat this disease, treating the symptom of obesity instead of addressing the underlying condition. Effective treatment is based on abstinence from addictive food substances. Many individuals continue to overeat in order to avoid the discomfort of withdrawal. Often, the individual has a small amount of the addictive substance to alleviate this discomfort. The problem is that even a small amount of addictive foods will trigger the disease for true food addicts.
Scientific research using both animal models and human brain imaging studies strongly supports the concept of food addiction.
Professor Bart Hoebel and his teams at the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute have been studying signs of sugar addiction in rats for years. Until now, the rats under study have met two of the three elements of addiction: 1. they have demonstrated a behavioral pattern of increased intake; and 2. they have shown subsequent signs of withdrawal. His current experiments are capturing the phases of craving and relapse, which complete the cyclical picture of addiction. (1)
With obesity rates climbing in unison with the availability of refined foods, there is growing concern that food addiction may play a large role in the obesity epidemic. Mark Gold, chief of addiction medicine at the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida, says that food, especially highly palatable food, can produce the same effects as drug abuse. Despite dire consequences, it is common for people to eat more than they intend. Failed diets, unsuccessful attempts to control overeating, preoccupation with food and eating, shame, anger and guilt-all the issues look like traditional addictions. Once bad patterns are established, Gold says, our biological systems break down. (2)
Kay Sheppard points out that, "All addictive substances start out as natural substances which are taken through a refinement process. These addictive substances are quickly absorbed, alter brain chemistry, and change mood." As the world moves toward more processed and refined sugary foods, it is easy to see how we are increasingly using food as a drug rather than a source of nutrition. In animal studies, Dr. Serge Ahmed, a French researcher, and his team concluded "the super stimulation of our brain receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, generate a supernormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus lead to addiction." (3) Treating secondary diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and countless other health-related problems rather than the problem itself will not facilitate recovery for these individuals or help them build a healthy future for their children.
- Bart Hoebel, Ph.D. “Sugar can be addictive, Princeton scientist says.” http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S22/
- Mark Gold, M.D. ” Yale Hosts Historic Conference on Food Addiction” http://opa.yale.edu/news/article.aspx?id=1581
- Serge Ahmed, Ph.D. “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward” www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/