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Is there such a thing as "food addiction"?

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Old 04-15-2009, 08:22 PM   #1
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Exclamation Is there such a thing as "food addiction"?

I don't know if this has been discussed before, or if this is a hot issue, but today at my WW meeting, we had a --ahem-- LIVELY discussion about whether or not one could be addicted to food. About half of the group felt that food addiction was terrible because they had to eat every day whereas alcoholics didn't have to drink, and because they couldn't avoid eating, they were doomed to being overweight.
The other half felt that one COULD be addicted to fat/salt/sugar, but that an addiction to the process of eating was absurd. After all, there aren't too many "food addicts" who obsessively eat carrot sticks or salads. It always seems to the the high fat/high suger/high salt/easily obtainable junk that those who claim a food addiction binge on. So the addiction isn't to food per se, but to junk. And is probably emotional/behavioural eating at that, rather than a physiological addicts (such as to crack cocaine or heroin).
What do you guys think?
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Old 04-15-2009, 08:24 PM   #2
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You can get addicted to any chemical response within your body, and food definately causes one. I'd have to say yes, definately.
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Old 04-15-2009, 08:55 PM   #3
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I do not believe that the process of eating itself is addictive, but I do believe that particular substances we ingest--sugar, for example--are addictive. Note that I'm not even calling sugar "food." It's not food, it's a chemical that is refined from a food plant. And sugar is proven to be physiologically addictive, just like cocaine and heroin are.
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Old 04-15-2009, 09:21 PM   #4
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I am personally addicted to the feeling I get from food....if I am stressed, candy makes me feel better (briefly).But I dont think I am addicted to the actual candy.Make sense?
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Old 04-15-2009, 09:52 PM   #5
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I think that, in general, the word "addiction," is bandied about rather carelessly.


My husband and I are on pain medications, and some friends have said that because we use them daily - that we are "addicted" to them. Without pain medications we (especially my husband) would not able to function even nominally - so the choice is take no pain meds, be miserable and in bed, or take pain medications to have a semblance of a normal life. Is that addiction? No, that's dependence. Two very different things. We take our medications only as our doctor prescribes, and in our medications reviews (three times a year for myself, and four times a year, for my husband), we discuss with our doctor how often we are taking our medications, and how well they are doing the job.

We have a friend who has abused pain killers in the past. He has legitimate permanent and severe pain issues from a severe injury. It would be inhumane for any doctor to refuse him pain medications, but because he has abused pain medications in the past; he, his family, and his doctor have to closely monitor his pain medication use. So yes, he does have to use a little bit of his substance, daily. He isn't "doomed" to abuse pain medications, he just has to be that much more vigilant, and have a support system to help.


There are some similarities between food issues and drug issues. Food can be a perception-altering substance. Caffeine is a drug, and some foods contain caffeine and/or similar substances. Sugar and carbohydrates may have emotion-effecting properties, bost biochemically and socially (comfort foods tend to be carbohydrates, often fatty carbohydrates, a particularly "addictive" combination for some people).

But, while there doesn't appear to be much survival value to drug addiction, our food "drives," in the natural world do. In the "natural" world, food is scarce, particularly concentrated food sources. A sweet or fat "tooth," or a stronger hunger drive had survival advantage. Because in nature, overpopulation tends to occur before overabundance of edibles. Also, in the natural world, food gathering burns a lot of calories, especially the concentrated calories. Meat/fat and grains require a lot of work to either obtain (for the former) or or make edible (for the latter).

Going to the grocery store, doesn't really burn a lot of calories, so we've created a very upside down food relationship, that no other creature on the planet has naturally (zoo animals also have to be protected by obesity, because they don't have to work very hard, if at all for their food - some progressive zoos are changing this by hiding the food in the enclosure, or encasing it in devices that require the animal to work a little). The more you eat, the less you do (as opposed to the natural world where if you want more to eat, you've got to be able to do the work to obtain it - if you get a bit fat, the harder it is going to be for you to do the work needed to obtain the food (or prevent being eaten as food) - either way - instant weight loss plan).

That all being said, there is a physiological component of "carb-addiction," that is somewhat addiction-like, particularly if you happen to be insulin-resistant or diabetic. It's fairly well understood - carbohydrates, especially simple and small-chain carbohydrates trigger a blood sugar spike, which triggers an insulin spike. One of the side effects of an insulin spike is hunger and cravings (generally for more carbs).

I think you can take the parallels too far, though - especially if you're going to be trying to talk about a food addiction being "worse" than an alcohol or drug addiction. In general, the social consequences are much different. You're not going to see random blood-sugar testing of employees to detect "carbohydrate" abuse. You're not going to lose your family, job, or freedom for "using." There are no "food police," except in our imaginations.
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Old 04-15-2009, 10:32 PM   #6
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I believe, and I'm no professional and I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, that some foods are addictive, such as caffeine. Otherwise, I think we make bad choices that turn into bad habits, such as eating when we are stressed out or sad or mad.

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Old 04-15-2009, 11:08 PM   #7
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I'd like to say yes.
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Old 04-16-2009, 05:31 PM   #8
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you can definitely get addicted to food! Food triggers the pleasure centers of the brain.
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Old 04-16-2009, 07:58 PM   #9
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Yes, I think that's why it's so hard to kick it. If you're addicted to food (even if it just be food that tastes GOOD to you) you can't avoid it. I think it WOULD be a lot harder for an alcoholic to continue to maintain not being drunk all the time if they had to drink one small glass of wine a day. If you completely avoid it then it gets easier to forget about, but that one small glass in moderation just reminds you of it, makes it harder to get over. In the same way, because we can't stop eating but have to learn to eat in MODERATION, we are constantly tempted and resisting takes a lot longer to get easeir.
I think if you are genuinely only addicted to pure junk food you'd have no problem. But if your case is like mine, where I am just as addicted to things like macaroni and cheese and tuna salad and strawberries, anytime I eat these pleasurable foods I am reminded of it. I think it makes it a LOT harder.
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Old 04-16-2009, 08:07 PM   #10
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But mac and cheese has a high fat content, as does tuna salad made with mayonnaise. So is it the fat/salt? Or the act of eating? And if it is the act of eating, couldn't one eat celery and carrots and be really really healthy?
One doesn't have to eat foods that are bad for you -- I guess the way I see it is that:
One must drink fluids every day. One can be addicted to alcohol. One can drink fluids every day while completely avoiding alcohol.
Likewise, is it fair to say:
One must eat every day. One can be addicted to high fat/sugar/salt foods. One can eat every day while completely avoiding the junk.
Or am I out to lunch (so to speak...)
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Old 04-16-2009, 08:23 PM   #11
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There aren't just physiological components to self-destructive behavior, there are also emotional, psychological, cultural, social, and physiological factors.

Social pressure to conform to the norms of your culture or subculture, for example play a huge role. When I was in law enforcement as a probation officer or in social services as a counselor, when counseling alcoholic and drug abusing clients, one of the biggest factors of relapse was whether the person's friends and family used. For law-breaking behavior it was the same. A thief was more likely to reoffend, if all his friends and family were lawbreakers.

Often, we advised people to avoid people and situations that might prove tempting. Tell me, on what island would we have to move to avoid people who "use" our sugar/salt/fat foods?

White knuckled abstinence, is the most difficult to maintain. It's risky to engage in social situations in which the substance use is expected (turn down a piece of your own birthday cake, even if it offends Grandma who worked all day to make it?)

Food (and especially fat and sugar) are such an ingrained part of culture, that it can be extremely difficult to overcome the social pressure to eat them. It's just as hard for alcoholics who have a large number of friends and family who abuse alcohol. If alcohol were "pushed" to the degree food is, it would be even harder for alcoholics to abstain also. The social pressures are stronger than they are often given credit for. "Just say no," is terribly unrealistic.
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Old 04-16-2009, 08:36 PM   #12
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But isn't that what one has to do at the end of the day? Just say NO? Coopt those around you into healthier habits? Stop going to fast food restaurants because everyone else is? Don't diabetics "just say no" to sugary foods in order to control their insulin levels? Don't people who are allergic to peanuts "just say no" if Gramma buys them a peanut buster parfait at the DQ?
Addiction is primarily psychological in any event (else everyone who ever received morphine at a hospital would be an addict) -- there is physical dependancy which is different from addiction --so in this sense there can be a food addiction. But is it fair to say that controlling this addiction is out of your control because you have to eat every day? Or can you, like those who have wheat allergies, avoid those foods which are a problem for you?
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Old 04-16-2009, 10:07 PM   #13
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You can oversimplify anything, but generally when you do so, most useful information gets tossed out the window. You can spend a lifetime learning about all of the factors that feed into human physiology and behavior - and it's all really interesting stuff, but what you learn after studying all of the information is - that it's not a simple equation. Free will, personal responsibility, the role of genetics, environment, psychology, culture, physiology....... are complex.

The person who says, "it's all mind over matter, and I am fully in control, always" is just as deluded as the person who says "it's not my fault, I have no control over this." Instead, it's a complicated mixture, and that mixture is probably varies quite a bit from person to person.

Even with allergies (even severe allergies) there are some people who find that they don't just say no (and may even get ill because of it). I have a dear friend, a college roommate who was allergic to so many things, following her diet was incredibly difficult. Firstly, practically because she was allergic to corn which in the form of HFCS is in almost everything. Secondly, because she "liked" some of the things she was allergic to (like potatoes), she was less careful with her diet sometimes than others, and suffered as a result of it. Stress was one of the factors that would sometimes trigger carelessness. During finals week, she would almost inevitably want french fries with ketchup (practically poison to her), and under stress she would sometimes "crack," and say "you've got to die from something," or some other fatalistic attitude and eat fries with ketchup. The next day she'd be sick with a flu-like illness and she'd have swollen, bruised black eyes (looked like someone punched her in both eyes).

Human behavior is fascinating. I have a BA and MA in psychology, and still only scratched the surface in terms of understanding why people do some things they don't want to do, and don't do some of the things they want to - and while I can list off many of the factors, it boils down to (I'm afraid) "it's complicated."
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Old 04-16-2009, 10:20 PM   #14
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But at the end of the day, after all the analysis and psychological explorations of WHY one eats, and HOW one eats, and after considering ALL the factors of biology, isn't it just that simple? We can write reams and reams and reams of essays and theses and postulate theories and try to figure it out, but at the end of the day, isn't an individual responsible for putting that forkful of food in their mouth?
Have we as a society relied too much on "my big sister picked on me" and "there are too many social pressures" and explanation after explanation after rationalization after reason instead of addressing the real issue -- you are responsible for what you eat?
I mean, one can sort out the whys as a personal journey and it is helpful, but all I am asking is "where is the personal responsibility?" And if there is none, and all the psychological issues need to be resolved, should one accept their weight and not strive to overcome their challenges?
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Old 04-16-2009, 10:30 PM   #15
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No, it really isn't all that simple - because if it were, there would be absolutely no need for the field of psychology at all. When someone comes for help with problem behaviors, they are not told "just suck it up and do it," they're given help modifying their behavior in a variety of ways. The more help and tools a person has, the more likely they are to be successful, showing that it isn't just willpower that is responsible for success (it isn't always the person who wants to succeed the most who does).

In fact, the more a person changes their environment, the less they require "will power," as most of us think about it. And changing your environment is a skill - one that can be taught, and sometimes has to be taught. There are a lot of people out there without the skills that many of us would consider basic (such as when I was a probation officer and had to teach a woman how to use an alarm clock, because her family had never had one).

As a probation officer, I learned that the person who wanted to change the most, wasn't always the most successful. There were a lot of factors that were associated with success, and we tried to give every person access to as many of them as possible (for example church attendance, a job - unless it was a workplace where substance abuse was rampant, changing social relationships and leisure activities). Changing the environment was as important as personal desire or determination. The strongest person, going back into an environment where everyone else is using, or engaging in illegal behavior, wasn't "doomed" to reoffend - but they made it a lot harder on themselves than those willing and able to change their environment, also.
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