Food addiction and dealing with it

October 19, 2020

In diagnostic terms, addiction is referred to as ‘substance dependence’. Food or eating addiction is a behavioral addiction that is characterized by the compulsive consumption of palatable foods which markedly activate the reward system in humans despite adverse consequences.

Scientific studies show that certain foods affect our brains in the same way as alcohol, nicotine, heroin and cocaine.

When these foods are consumed repeatedly, they can cause an addiction similar to what we often see with alcohol and drugs of abuse. At first, such foods are attractive because they release endorphins and ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters that can temporarily relieve emotional discomfort, anxiety and depression.

This is a process similar to drug addiction: the food triggers the reward center of the brain, causing a sense of pleasure. But with frequent consumption of such foods, we can become physically and emotionally addicted.

Highly processed foods, such as sugar and flour, have the greatest impact on our brains because they dramatically raise blood sugar, and they can override normal body mechanisms that tell us we have eaten enough. Sweeteners, grains and dairy show the greatest potential for addiction.

The more refined or processed a food is, the more habit-forming it can become. As with any addictive substance, increased amounts are needed over time to satisfy cravings and avoid symptoms of withdrawal.

People who show signs of food addiction may also develop a kind of tolerance to food. They eat more and more, only to find that food satisfies them less and less.

Scientists believe that food addiction may play an important role in obesity. But normal-weight people may also struggle with food addiction. Their bodies may simply be genetically programmed to better handle the extra calories they take in. Or they may increase their physical activity to compensate for overeating.

Craving for a particular substance is an essential characteristic of addictive behavior. Increasing evidence suggests that food cravings and excessive food consumption could similarly be due to addictive processes.

A research study found that individuals who presented with signs of addictive eating behavior reported more experiences of a variety of food craving dimensions such as intentions to consume food, anticipation of relief from negative states as a result of eating, lack of control over eating, preoccupation with food, hunger, emotions before or during eating, cue-elicited craving, and guilt.

Food addiction is very complex. Individuals can become addicted for a combination of reasons:

• Genetics

• Family history of substance addiction

• Neurotransmitter imbalance

• Nutritional deficiency

• Toxic food environment

• Food allergies and intolerance

• Metabolic disturbances (diabetes)

• Hormonal imbalance (leptin resistance and thyroid disease)

• Compromised digestion (candida, constipation and IBS)

• Emotional stress and trauma

How to deal with Food addiction?

Food-addiction cravings can be similar to the effects a cocaine or heroin addict experiences. The main difference is that food is legal, socially acceptable and highly marketed.

The first crucial step toward breaking free from physiological food cravings is to stop eating addictive foods. Just as alcoholics must abstain from alcohol to maintain sobriety, those of us with food cravings must stop eating chemically addicting foods like sweeteners, flour and processed food. This is the only effective way to end the craving cycle.

The second and equally important step is to maintain nutritional balance by replacing addictive foods with wholesome, nourishing foods. Eating nutrient-dense food with balanced portions of protein, fats and carbohydrates, diminishes and eventually gets rid of physical food cravings. As we establish a healthy foods plan, healing begins and we rebalance our brain chemistry. Only after we have put cravings behind us can we start to address the emotional issues that also drive food addiction.

If you or someone you know is struggling with food addiction, reach out to us and we’d be happy to help. 


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Ria Jain
Functional Nutritionist

Ria has a Master’s in Nutrition and Dietetics and is in a permanent research mode and keeps the rest of us at iThrive (Previously ThriveFNC) updated with her latest findings in the field of Nutrition. Her articles on iThrive's blog are an expression of her research findings. We really don’t know what we’d do without her support and her focus.

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