The fact that an individual is overweight, or even obese, does not necessarily meant that they suffer from a food addiction. The reverse is also true. There are those with food addiction who maintain a relatively normal body weight. The definition of food addiction is eating food despite feeling full, social, medical, emotional and physical consequences, and consistently eating to manage one’s mood.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is involved in pleasure, reward-seeking behavior, pain regulation, and arguably keeps us alive. Humans naturally do things that do not cause pain and that provide some intrinsic need to the body. Whether it be the need for nutrients, exercise, shelter, emotional attachment, or sex for reproduction, dopamine is involved.
For some, the pleasure associated with eating, or the ability of eating to overcome or prevent negative emotional states, outweighs the harm caused by overeating, or eating foods that are high in calories, but nutritionally not of terrific value. The definition of food addiction from the Food Addiction Institute’s definition of food addiction is, “a cluster of chemical dependencies on specific foods, or food in general; after the ingestion of high palatable foods such as sugar, excess fat and/or salt the brains of some people develop a physical craving for these foods.
One can be overweight, or even obese, because they consume more calories than they burn in a typical day. This can be due to genetics, a low metabolic rate, a lack of exercise, or poor nutritional choices, and even due to a lack of sleep. However, there are those whose life centers around food, who constantly crave food, and feel enormous pleasure in eating food in general, or specific types of food.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS OF FOOD ADDICTION
- Eating more than intended
- Eating more often than intended
- Eating when not hungry
- Eating to manage one’s mood
- Spending a great deal of time, money, or thinking about or obtaining certain types of food and planning meals
- Eating so much that one feels sick
- Not participating in social or family activities so that one can eat more
- Hiding one’s eating habits
- Difficulty in functioning in work, leisure activities, activities of daily living because of eating
- Feeling anxious, depressed, agitated, or aggressive when certain foods or food in general aren’t available or after attempting to cut down
- Poor self-esteem and self-worth because of one’s eating habits
- Needing more food to feel normal or satiated
People who are addicted to food continue to eat, despite the negative consequences that are experienced, such as physical, emotional, psychiatric and social consequences. Food addiction can also create financial consequences from medical bills and the amount of funds that are spent on costly types of food. Food addiction is probably multifactorial, having some genetic and environmental basis. Eating high-calorie, highly-palatable foods to control one’s moods can establish a craving phenomenon for these foods.
The foods that are most commonly implicated in food addiction are foods that are rich in fats, sugars, and, salt. These are the substances that are most likely to create the largest dopamine response and, hence, pleasurable feelings. Even though the body has mechanisms that indicate to the brain that no more feeding is necessary for survival, there are foods that are so rewarding that they overcome these innate mechanisms and allow the person to continue to eat. Once the dopamine-induced pleasure is experienced by the addicted brain, the person will continue to behavior to continue inducing pleasurable feelings. The same centers that are activated by cocaine and heroin are activated heavily by food in those who are addicted to eating.
Because those with a food addiction and those who are overweight have reward systems that respond less than others to food. Therefore, more food is needed to overcome this depressed reward system. Further, the body produces more and more of the natural appetite suppressants, insulin and leptin, as one overeats, but the body and brain of overweight individuals and food addicts become tolerant to these appetite suppressants. Once a food addict eats more and more of highly-rewarding food, the body produces more appetite suppressants, and at the same time becomes more tolerant of them. This cycle continues to intensify as the food addiction grows in severity.
For food addicts, a large part of the day may be spent thinking about food, procuring food, planning meals, and eating. This preoccupation is a hallmark of addiction in general. Some people have a genetic propensity to handle extra calories without weight gain, exercise enough, only participate in binge eating, or purge to get rid of the extra calories and therefore maintain an appropriate weight, but still suffer from a food addiction.
Food addicts, like cocaine or heroin addicts, have difficulty cutting back or stopping their behavior. Oftentimes, an intervention by a professional or by a loved one is necessary for the overeating behaviors to being to change. The signs and symptoms of a food addiction closely follow that of other addictions.
FOOD ADDICTION TREATMENT
The treatment for food addiction is not as straight forward as it is for other addictions, because total abstinence is not possible. Therefore, one will constantly need to learn how to deal with food triggers. There exist specialized treatment centers for those who are suffering from food addiction, medications, medical care, and self-help groups, all of which can be beneficial for those who are willing to seek help for their food addiction.
There are also weight loss surgeries that can be performed. These surgeries have a high-success rate, but also have some unwanted consequences, such as the subsequent development or worsening of a drug addiction or alcoholism. Some of the medications that are used to treat obesity and food addiction are additive themselves, like the stimulants amphetamine, phentermine, and methamphetamine.
Inevitably the difficulties in living with a food addiction becomes more difficult than participating in the available treatments. If you or your loved one has decided that it is time to confront an out-of-control food addiction, the Addiction Specialists at the National Addiction Institute can help you locate the valuable services that you need.