Do you have that one food in your life that’s SO DELICIOUS and irresistible, to the point where you feel like you will lose control if you give yourself full permission to eat it? Really, eating it in moderation feels impossible since this food seems to be “highly addictive”. 

In this blog, we’ll be talking about what food addiction is, and also unpack related topics such as the difference between substance and food addiction, what causes feelings of food addiction, and ways to overcome it. 

What is Food Addiction?

Food addiction, which has been a hot topic in the media and is currently being researched, is a theory that highly-palatable foods that are high in salt, sugar and/or fat can have the same effect as addiction to drugs or alcohol, because of the similar reward pathways they share in the brain.

Research hasn’t been able to pinpoint what exactly acts like an addictive substance in food. They don’t know if it’s sugar, salt or fat, and if it is, how much it would even take to evoke an addictive response. There also isn’t any solid evidence that proves that highly-palatable foods are “bad” for your health. On the other hand, stronger evidence is found in animal studies.  In studies where rats are given either intermittent or free access to sugar, results show that with intermittent access to sugar, rats exhibit binging patterns. However, when they have free access to sugar, they don’t develop an addictive response

What does that tell us…? 

It tells us that intermittent access, or restricting access, is most likely to blame for developing binging behaviours, rather than the sugar itself.

Is Substance Addiction Similar to Food Addiction?

There is one notable similarity between highly-palatable foods and addictive substances like drugs and alcohol – both light up pleasure pathways in the brain. Some of you might be thinking: “Does that mean I have to give up a certain food entirely because it might be the same as an alcohol addiction?!”

The answer is no! Here’s why:

Those same neural pathways for pleasure also light up when we hug loved ones or snuggle with our pets. Lighting up of these neural pathways alone doesn’t necessarily indicate addiction! Just because a food makes you feel good, it doesn’t mean that it’s addictive.

We can’t live without food. Unlike alcohol and drugs, we need food to survive! Not only is food necessary for our physical well-being, but it also brings people together – allowing it to play an important role in our social well-being too. 

An official clinical diagnosis of “food addiction” doesn’t actually exist. Although research has been conducted, after being considered for the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), food addiction was actually rejected 

What May Cause Feelings of Food Addiction?

Feelings of food addiction are most likely to be driven by stigma around weight, dietary restraint, and toxic food-fear culture. The behavioural approach analyzes how our views, relationships and behaviors with food can create or trigger feelings of “food addiction” or an “addictive response” (lack of control/obsession with a food item). These behaviors may include, but are not limited to: 

 

  • Having restrictive and dieting behaviors.
  • Assigning values to food, and labelling particular foods as “good” and “bad”. 
  • Believing that we have zero control over our food.
  • Eating to deal with environmental factors, such as coping with stress or to relieve boredom.
  • Blaming specific foods as the cause of the “addiction”.

Ways to Overcome Feelings of Food Addiction:

While restrictions and abstinence may be the most helpful solutions to overcome alcohol and drug addiction, the same cannot be said for “food addiction”. In fact, by assigning negative connotations to specific foods, or restricting and forbidding them altogether, our desire for these foods increases even more. This creates a vicious restrictive-binge cycle, where the more we restrict, the more we crave; and the more we crave, the more we restrict. Once we break our “food laws” and consume a food that we label as “bad”, we throw in the towel and consume LOTS of it to over-satisfy our cravings, only to feel guilty and start restricting once again.

Evidence shows that once people heal their relationships with food and their bodies, their feelings of food addiction go away. So, the next time you’re hit with another craving, I encourage you to let yourself have it; not because it’s an “exception for that day”, but because you simply want to enjoy it. Instead of focusing on the “bad” or “addictive” qualities of the food, why not try:

  • Directing all your senses to enjoy and appreciate the food (think about how it tastes – the textures, flavors and aromas it brings). 
  • Slow down and take the time to savour it. 
  • Cherish the people that you’re sharing the food with. 

These tips are great ways to practice intuitive and mindful eating, and encourage the perspective that food is food, and not an addictive substance to be afraid of. At the end of the day, I believe it’s worth celebrating that food does taste great and that it does give us pleasure.

Blog Contributers:

This blog was written with the help of UBC nutrition and dietetic students, Jasmine and Yasmin.

References:

Evelyn Tribole: 2015 Summary of Intuitive Eating and Related Studies (accessed August 31, 2020). Available from https://cme.dmu.edu/

Glenys Oyston: Is Food Addiction a Real Thing? (accessed August 25, 2020). Available from https://daretonotdiet.com/2016/10/10/is-food-addiction-a-real-thing/

Marci RD Nutrition: Food Addiction: A Prelude (accessed August 25, 2020). Available from https://marcird.com/food-addiction-a-prelude/

Margaret L. Westwater, Paul C. Fletcher & Hisham Ziauddeen: Sugar addiction: The state of the science. (accessed August 25, 2020). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5174153/

MaryAnn Jacobsen: 5 Truths About Food Addiction Most People Don’t Know (accessed March 4, 2020). Available from https://maryannjacobsen.com/5-truths-about-food-addiction-most-people-dont-know/

NutriFoodie: How to Practice Mindful Eating Using the Hunger Scale (accessed March 4, 2020). Available from: https://nutrifoodie.ca/2019/02/20/how-to-practice-mindful-eating-using-the-hunger-scale/

NutriFoodie: How to Start Mindful Eating (accessed March 4, 2020). Available from: https://nutrifoodie.ca/2019/11/04/how-to-start-mindful-eating-the-4-pillars/

Paul C. Fletcher & Paul J. Kenny: Food addiction: a valid concept? (accessed March 4, 2020). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6224546/?tool=pmcentrez&report=abstract

Vincci Tsui: Help! I’m Addicted to Sugar! (accessed March 4, 2020). Available from: https://vinccitsui.com/blog/2017/03/addicted-to-sugar/