We know people can be addicted to cigarettes, caffeine, alcohol, pornography and shopping just to name a few. But can people really be addicted to food? Webster’s dictionary defines addiction as the persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful. So a person who has just survived a heart attack but continues to eat a diet high in fat and cholesterol after their doctor has warned them that these foods cause heart disease would by definition be addicted to food. How about a diabetic who continues to eat foods high in sugar despite knowing that high blood sugar will lead to a multitude of harmful health effects such as blindness, kidney failure and amputations? How about the woman who has low self esteem because she is overweight but continues to gain weight?
I think you can be addicted to food. Some people use alcohol to help them cope. Some people use cocaine. Others use pornography. And yes, many use food. Why? For one, it’s socially acceptable. Everyone eats! So nobody will look at you funny when you go into Olive Garden and order a meal. Nobody looks at you funny when you celebrate at a wedding with a few plates of delicious appetizers and a piece of cake. Secondly, it’s cheap! You can get your fix on for a few dollars at a fast food restaurant or a trip down the candy aisle at the grocery store. Third, it’s readily available. No drug dealer needed. No need to be 21. I don’t even need a car most of the time. I can just walk into my kitchen and there it is. And if I don’t find anything in my cabinet that I want, there’s always delivery service.
Studies are now showing that food addiction is similar to other addictions in that people who overeat can get a dopamine high from certain foods. These are foods that are high in sugar, fat and/or salt. It doesn’t take long until a habit is formed and the person finds themselves overeating daily.
Just like with alcohol, people with food addiction develop a tolerance to food. They need more and more to give them the dopamine high and satisfaction they crave.
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.
If this sounds like you don’t let yourself believe the lie that you just need more willpower. It’s not about willpower. It’s about figuring out what in your life is driving you to use food like some use alcohol. It’s about putting on your big boy or big girl pants and getting real with yourself.
Sherri Clarke, MS, RD, LDN, CPT