Are You Addicted to Food?

Years ago, I often wondered if I could possibly be addicted to cookies and peanut M&M's. I craved them so much. I seemed to "use" them to calm my anxiety, stress and negatives emotions. All those sweets did tend to "work" or do the trick, at least for a few minutes. Then I would start feeling guilty and angry at myself for eating all those cookies, which would make me want more. I have gotten over using sweets as a band-aid, at least for the most part. 


I knew that experts discounted the theory that food could possibly be addictive, primarily because when you stopped eating a particular food, no withdrawal symptoms seemed to be presented. So I kept focusing on helping people change their eating behaviors. But I still wondered why some people had more trouble than others with food. People who experienced the urges and cravings with certain foods that seemed to fit every other criteria for addiction:


Diagnostic criteria for substance dependence or addiction (DSM)


  1.  Substance is taken in larger amount and for longer period than intended.
  2. Persistent desire or repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit.
  3.  Much time/activity is spent to obtain, use, or recover.
  4.  Important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced.
  5. Use continues despite knowledge of adverse consequences (e.g., failure to fulfill role or obligation, use when physically hazardous.)
  6. Tolerance (marked increase in amount; marked decrease in effect).
  7. Characteristic withdrawal symptoms; substance taken to relieve withdrawal.
  8. New research suggests that certain foods may act as addictive substances in some people, much like nicotine, heroin, or other drugs.
New research suggests that certain foods may indeed act as addictive substances in some people, much like nicotine, heroin, or other drugs. The key is in the response of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. A rise in dopamine acts to motivate us to engage in rewarding behaviors, and at times can override willpower. "Wanting something more than liking.”
Brain scans show that obese people had lower amounts of dopamine in the reward areas of the brain than did people at normal weight. Researchers theorize that obese people have fewer dopamine receptors, or that the receptors in the neurons themselves don't work as well, much like cells that become resistant to insulin in Insulin Resistance and type 2 diabetes. They are currently looking into whether obese people are born with slow dopamine response or if overeating somehow over-stimulates the dopamine system, resulting in fewer receptors. Perhaps overeating calorie-dense foods tempers the receptors, and fewer dopamine receptors create the urge to overeat foods that provide the dopamine response. Though this research is in it's infancy, it is exciting to me, and perhaps a bit comforting. It seems to explain my past history quite well...

Which foods can be addictive? Calorie dense foods seem to be the norm: in particular foods high in sugar and fat. Highly processed foods or "hyper palatable” foods are also described as most likely to be targeted. For example, potato chips, candy, cookies or ice cream.

The Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has created a questionnaire to determine food addiction:
Food Addiction Scale
  1. I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than I had planned.
  2. Not eating certain types of food or cutting down on certain types of food is something I worry about.
  3. I spend a lot of time feeling sluggish or lethargic from overeating.
  4.  There have been times when I consumed certain foods so often or in such large quantities that I spent time dealing with negative feelings from overeating instead of working, spending time with my family or friends, or engaging in other important activities or recreational activities that I enjoy.
  5.  I kept consuming the same types of food or the same amount of food even though I was having emotional and/or physical problems.
  6. Over time, I have found that I need to eat more and more to get the feeling I want, such as reduced negative emotions or increased pleasure
  7.   I have had withdrawal symptoms when I cut down or stopped eating certain foods, including physical symptoms, agitation, or anxiety. (Please do not include withdrawal symptoms caused by cutting down on caffeinated beverages such as soda pop, coffee, tea, energy drinks, etc.)
  8. My behavior with respect to food and eating causes significant distress.
  9.  I experience significant problems in my ability to function effectively (daily routine, job/school, social activities, family activities, health difficulties) because of food and eating.
If you think you may have a food addiction, it's time to start managing it.  Experts recommend:

  •  Beware of cues
  •  Avoid triggers
  •  Eat healthy foods
  • Distract yourself
  • Manage stress
  • Exercise
    •  Aerobic exercise increases brain cortex volume, which is the control center, or executive branch that houses willpower. This means that EXERCISE STRENGTHENS WILLPOWER!!
  • And I will add, eat regular meals and healthy snacks to keep your blood sugar levels steady!
Fire UP! You can do this!