Food addiction is one paradigm towards understanding a problematic relationship to food. It is not yet a medical diagnosis, although there are plenty of indicators that food and disordered eating can be an addiction, indeed, an addiction as overpowering as cocaine or alcohol.
Whether or not another addiction is involved, many people who struggle with problematic eating display the same qualities Addiction specialists rely on to diagnose Substance Abuse or Substance Dependency (loosely known as addiction).
One characteristic feature of Substance Abuse and Dependency is that the individual develops cravings and obsessions about their desired substance. We can see that some individuals develop obsessions for certain foods, typically those high in sugar in the same way that an alcoholic will crave another drink. They may develop a preference for a favourite food, thinking about it all day and going to any lengths to get it. For example, a person may be willing to travel across town in inclement weather, regardless of the late hour, to buy their favourite brand of ice cream or cake.
Some of these individuals are grazers, constantly eating in order to stuff down distressing feelings that would otherwise break through. Food becomes an obsession that can override other painful emotions. Others are binge eaters, consuming large quantities of food to feel better or to numb their emotional pain. Notably, the craving for food may be triggered by the quantity alone. Large amounts of food–even healthy food–can overwhelm the body’s hormonal regulation and satiation signals.
Another feature of Substance Dependency is that the substance use interferes with normal activities of daily life, including work and social events. Habitual over-eaters often cancel planned events in order to overeat or will disrupt their activities because they are painfully full.
Another criterion of Substance Dependency is that people will use despite negative consequences. We see that many people continue to habitually overeat, despite obvious consequences of disease. Aside from obesity, great damage to one’s health is caused by disordered eating behaviours, such as hypertension, diabetes, malnutrition, and sleep apnea. No matter how ill they become as a result of the problematic eating, they cannot stop. These people frequently isolate, as their social circle narrows to those who share or tolerate their food obsession.
Importantly, these people spend a good portion of their day thinking obsessively about food and their weight. Plotting and planning the next binge or diet (just the other side of the same obsession) can be tremendously time consuming. Restricting the desired food causes withdrawal symptoms of irritability, anxiety, insomnia, and even physical symptoms of shakes, body aches and mental fog. Having withdrawal symptoms is another criterion of Substance Dependency.
Further to the criteria, is the inability to stop, despite repeated effort? People who are “dieting” start off with good intentions to eat a small portion of food and then find that they are unable to stop. They simply can not stop after eating only one cookie. When they try to cease their disordered eating, they may resist briefly, only succumbing once again. The obsession with food is overwhelming. The diet always fails. This lack of control leads to remorse, anxiety, depression, self-loathing, and a progressive worsening of the disease. These are all hallmark signs of addiction.
Do you have a question or comment about food addiction? Contact Dr. Vera today.