Ever since I was a little kid I have loved to eat healthy foods. I was that little eight-year-old who would gladly pile my plate with broccoli, green beans, or whatever vegetable my mother might have cooked on a given night. As a matter fact, I have fond memories of sitting down with my family eating a well-balanced healthy dinner almost every night. Thankfully, I’ve been able to leverage those early experiences to create some pretty healthy eating habits as an adult. Typically, I avoid carbs and try to eat fruits and vegetables along with lean meats and complex carbohydrates. It all sounds pretty impressive doesn’t it? But I have a dirty little secret. I 100% love sweet foods, especially chocolate cakes and cookies. I mean, I really, really love them. You might even say I crave sweet treats. I’m not saying that I compulsively eat chocolate every day, but I am saying that it’s pretty much a daily struggle to avoid eating something that science tells me is not good for me at all. Sometimes I can hold my boundary for weeks and even months avoiding these high-fat, high-sugar foods, but in the end I always fold. Consistently, I find myself breaking out the Toll House chocolate chip cookies and slightly under cooking them so that they literally melt in my mouth. I’d like to say that when I do sell out that it’s a moderate “slip up” or “treat”, but that would be lying. Most of the time if I start eating the cookies, I don’t stop until I’ve had three or four. And that’s on a good night.
Here’s the thing, I know I’m not alone. I meet with people all the time in my clinical office who report similar struggles. Many people claim that they feel compelled to eat sweet foods (or salty foods, or comfort foods, or fattening foods) similar in some ways to how an alcoholic might feel compelled to drink. Researchers have studied this for years and have come to clear conclusions. High-fat, high-sugar foods activate the dopamine pathways just like drugs and alcohol do. So when you eat that Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzard, you’re actually releasing copious amounts of that feel good neurotransmitter dopamine which is responsible for the experience of human pleasure. While the diagnosis of food addiction is not contained in the DSM-5, the physical reality that high-fat, high-sugar foods impact your brain in a similar way as drugs and alcohol is hard science at this point. Even rats that have been exposed to sugar water for extended amounts of time show a series of behaviors similar to the effects of drug abuse. These are categorized as “binging”, “withdrawal” symptoms indicated by signs of anxiety and behavioral depression, and “craving”, especially as the rats are denied the sugar water for periods of time.
We will save a discussion on diagnosable disorders like binge eating, anorexia, and bulimia for another time. For now, let’s focus on the the idea that food addiction is a reality for some and that many people in our culture typically struggle with binge eating behaviors, cravings, and a lack of control around food. While someone who gets a craving or overeats occasionally probably won’t fit the criteria for the emerging idea of food addiction, there are some characteristic qualities that suggest a person should look more closely at their relationship with food. The way you answer the following three questions will help you determine whether or not you have a more typical struggle with food or a more significant issue that you need to address head on.
Do you struggle to approach foods you crave with moderation?
For some people, there’s no such thing as a cookie or two. One bite of chocolate turns into three or four candy bars. One slice of pie turns into half a pie. This all or nothing approach is problematic in regard to food cravings. As I stated above, there are many times in which I struggle with moderation once I start eating the sweet treats, but if I’m honest I would also say that I do have a governor on how much I will eat in a given setting. People with a true food addiction will struggle immensely with this concept. There is no such thing as moderation with food addiction. Once you start eating you simply don’t want to stop. It’s like telling an alcoholic to drink one beer. It’s just not going to happen.
Do you struggle with guilt over your choices with food?
The good news here is that if you have some guilt regarding food, that means you are at least attempting to control your eating. People struggling with significant issues regarding food will give into a craving, eat much more than they planned on, then feel intense guilt that they have “failed again”. This kind of guilt yields shame, an emotion that can be incredibly toxic in the life of someone who is trying to shift their relationship with food. The problem with guilt and shame is that these emotions end up driving a person to eventually eat more of the high-fat, high-sugar foods in order to feel the pleasurable effects of the dopamine we talked about. This starts the toxic merry-go-round cycle of emotional eating: cravings that produce the lack of self-control with food that produces shame and guilt which produces more cravings. If this sounds familiar, recognize that this is the core of the addictive process playing out in your life with food. This, my friends, is why we have such a hard time demonstrating self-control with food.
Do you have a hard time following your own rules for food?
If you have engaged the struggle with food at all, you’ve probably decided that it is in your best interest to stay away from certain foods. For me, that would be my decision that it is just not good for me to eat the sweet treats every day. Once we make that decision we often time create rules for a relationship with food. Unfortunately, if you are struggling with a food addiction you will find it very hard to follow through with your own rules. We essentially become experts at rationalizing why it might make sense to break the rule at any given time. For instance, I don’t eat sweets unless it’s on a holiday, a vacation, a birthday party, a weekend, a weekday, or if I happen to be breathing oxygen at any given moment. Granted I’m using some hyperbole there, but it is a slippery slope isn’t it? If you find that you are constantly finding ways to reason around the rules you have set for food, you’re probably at least moving in the direction of a food addiction.
My sincere hope is that we will all be able to be honest as we answer those three questions. Now let’s be clear: if you answered yes to these questions, I don’t think you need to self diagnose a food addiction. I do think you need to start evaluating your relationship with food in much more detail. Our job is to make sure that we are making healthy choices regarding our relationship with food and that we are not caught in the crazy merry-go-round of emotional eating. If you feel like you are struggling with a significant issue with food, please know that you are not alone. Seek out supportive relationships that can encourage you and empower you to make the healthy choices. And if you feel like your relationship with food is totally out of control, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.