“I have an uncontrollable sweet tooth.”
“I’m obsessed with chocolate.
“I can’t have anything sweet, not even fruit! If I do, I’ll just lose control and binge.”
Does this sound like you?
If so, you might have heard of the idea of food addiction. Though not an official diagnosis, the idea that food itself is addictive, like drugs or alcohol, has been gaining lots of attention and traction in the past few years.
Is it Possible to be Addicted to Food?
When we eat, our brain releases dopamine, serotonin and endorphins—the “feel good” neurotransmitters. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense; if eating wasn’t a pleasurable experience, then we wouldn’t seek out food, and we would starve to death and not survive as a species. Additional research shows that we tend to release more of these “feel good” chemicals in response to high glycemic foods; in other words, sugar and carbs. Again, this makes sense, because in prehistoric times, sweetness would have been an indicator that a fruit was ripe and safe to eat, and a source of energy.
Nowadays, food is easily accessible—hunting is seen as a sport, not as a means of survival. Food companies have tuned into our natural obsession with sugar, carbs, fat and salt, and learned to dial it into their products at just the right amounts so that we want to buy more.
Food addiction researchers believe that continued overconsumption of these highly processed foods rewire our brains to become dependent on them, in a way that’s similar to drugs. Indeed, MRIs have shown that food and drugs can have a similar effect on brain activity.
Does that Mean I Have to Quit… Eating?
Treatment for other addictive substances, like drugs, alcohol and smoking, typically encourage abstention. We can quit drugs, alcohol and smoking, but we can’t quit eating, so what gives?
Food addiction researchers argue that people with food addiction aren’t addicted to all foods, just certain foods, so treatment generally involves avoiding these trigger foods.
The Big But
Many Intuitive Eating practitioners disagree with this idea of food addiction. First of all, just because something lights up our pleasure centres, doesn’t mean that it is addictive, or that we are addicted to it. More importantly, it is argued that restriction is what causes these “addictive” behaviours in the first place.
If you’ve ever been on a diet or struggled with your weight, you would probably know exactly what I’m talking about. When you restrict your food, your body actually thinks it’s starving to death. In order to prevent this, your body slows down your metabolism and amps up your appetite hormones—that’s why when you’re on a diet you crave food that you normally wouldn’t even think of eating! And when you finally cave, you binge on all the stuff you weren’t “allowed” to have, then you feel bad and guilty about gaining weight, or eating all that “bad” food, so you try to restrict again. Rinse and repeat.
Even if you’ve never dieted, that “mental” restriction still exists. It’s completely normal (and encouraged) in our society to label foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy”, or “good” and “bad”, so that even when you’re not physically restricting your food, sometimes the guilt, shame, and other negative feelings associated with eating “bad” or “unhealthy” foods is enough to send you into overdrive.
If Restricting Doesn’t Work, What Will?
While the idea of avoiding trigger foods seems easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, the problem with that is food is everywhere, and unlike drugs, smoking and alcohol, eating anywhere at any time is a socially acceptable thing, so you may be at risk of being exposed to trigger foods more than you realize.
The Intuitive Eating response to this is, what if you took away the idea of the forbidden fruit?
By labelling a food as a trigger or addictive substance, what we’re really doing is putting it on a pedestal. In Intuitive Eating (or at least my interpretation of it), all foods fit, and all eating serves a purpose. By treating all foods equally, we neutralize their “power”, so that we can let go of the shame, guilt and negative feelings that come with eating “forbidden” foods (as well as the smug superiority that can come with eating “good” foods)
In order to do this, I invite you to give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, at any amount, at any time. I know this sounds totally crazy, and in the beginning, you are going to feel like you’re on an all-out, out-of-control binge. But over time (and yes, sometimes this takes a long time), the novelty and newness of giving yourself permission to eat will lose its lustre. You will discover that you have power and choice over your food and eating habits.
It’s like a kid with a new toy (or adults with a new Nintendo Switch and a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild); for the first few weeks, they’re playing with it every chance they get, then over time, they lose interest until it gets relegated to the bottom of the toy chest.The unlikely answer to 'food addiction': Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Click To Tweet
My colleague Josée, a fellow HAES dietitian based in Toronto, has rounded up a fantastic list of resources on the subject, filled with blog posts, podcasts, books and webinars that explain this issue way better than I ever could.