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What is food addiction?

Just as a person can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, they can become addicted to food. A food addict experiences a compulsive need to eat, even when they’re not hungry.
People with other eating disorders, such an anorexia or bulimia, can also have food addiction. While many people overindulge from time to time, a food addict typically struggles with binge eating on a daily basis. This isn’t the same as eating too much at a holiday meal or having too many cookies. Food addicts may have a hard time controlling their eating, despite the desire to stop.

What are the causes of food addiction?

This addiction is complex. Food, like drugs and alcohol, can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. This chemical is related to pleasure. It creates a positive link between food and emotional well-being. The addicted brain sees food as a drug. To a food addict, food produces feelings of pleasure, even when the body doesn’t need the calories. A 2010 study published in Current Opinion in Gastroenterology shows increasing evidence that food addiction is a result of changes in a person’s neurochemistry and neuroanatomy.

Another study published in 2010 showed that when lab rats were given free access to high-fat, high-sugar foods, their brains changed. The changes in their behavior and physiology were similar to those caused by drug abuse. The study authors cautioned against drawing a parallel between drug and food addictions, but their work does assert that there are similarities. It also highlights the possibility that eating lots of unhealthy foods could increase your chances of becoming addicted to eating.

What are the symptoms of food addiction?

Addiction isn’t always easy to identify. This is especially true for food addiction because we all need to eat.

Food addicts can have symptoms of other conditions, including depression, binge eating, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They will hide their problem by eating in private and even hiding food.

Common signs of food addiction include:

  • constant obsession with what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and how to get more food
  • overeating at mealtime
  • constant snacking
  • eating at strange times like in the middle of the night
  • hiding eating habits from friends and family or eating in secret
  • bingeing and then purging, exercising, or taking laxative pills to “reverse” the binge
  • eating even when full
  • eating to accompany pleasurable activities like watching TV or talking on the phone
  • associating food with punishments or rewards
  • feeling shame and guilt after a binge or after consuming particular foods
  • consistent failed attempts to control eating or eliminate bingeing episodes

Food addiction can often appear less serious than other addictions. However, it’s a condition that tends to progress gradually. It can result in lifelong obesity or health problems and worsen existing mental health issues.

What are the treatment options for food addiction?

Food addiction is typically treated in the same ways as other addictions. It’s a common belief in the medical community that addicted brains work in exactly the same way, regardless of what the person is addicted to.

Changing behaviours and managing physical cravings are key elements in treating food addiction. The following treatment options may be helpful.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Food addicts must learn to manage their triggers for eating. CBT focuses on helping them identify appropriate behavioural responses for day-to-day challenges. It teaches the food addict how to handle the negative thought patterns that can lead to bingeing.

Psychotherapy

A food addict may use food to numb painful feelings or avoid dealing with other emotional issues. Psychotherapy may help get to the root cause of overeating. It can teach a person how to deal with emotions in a positive way, rather than by eating.

Food addicts also often experience shame, guilt, and poor body image. Talk therapy can help a food addict work through their emotional issues.

Nutritional therapies

In many cases, people with severe nutritional deficiencies or chemical imbalances in the body have a food addiction. A personalised nutrition plan can help manage or eliminate cravings. Addressing nutritional needs with the help of a medical doctor or nutritionist can enable an addict to pinpoint the foods that will satisfy their food cravings.

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