Current research and science are teaching us that addiction can begin in the brain. Various pleasure centers of the brain can become activated when certain substances or chemicals are ingested into the body, or when certain behaviors are engaged in where a reward or promise of a reward is possible. Food Addiction, like addiction to substances such as alcohol and drugs, and addiction to behaviors such as gambling, gaming, online activity, or shopping, has the same ability to lead to a problematic addiction.
Research is showing that Food Addiction may be caused in part, by highly palatable foods that are being consumed in larger quantities than ever before. Highly palatable foods – such as those high in carbohydrates, salt, sugar, fat, or artificial sweeteners, triggers the pleasure areas of the brain, releasing chemicals such as serotonin or dopamine – resulting in a ‘feel-good’ sensation. For those individuals where the ‘feel-good’ sensation becomes highly activated, for example, by ingesting large quantities of these additives, or chemicals, an addiction to food can begin. This is known as Food Addiction, and there is ample evidence to show that our society has a growing problem in regards to this.
Our bodies and brains are not designed to manage artificial sweeteners, or chemicals in our foods, especially at the high levels that many of our current processed foods include. As a result of consuming large quantities, the brain may begin to ‘crave’ certain foods for the “feel-good” sensation to be satisfied. Over time, and through repetition of the behavior, the brain will adjust to seeking the “feel-good” feeling, and increasing quantities of the foods may become necessary for satisfaction.
Food Addiction is a relatively new area of study and treatment, despite the fact that the numbers of people who are suffering is growing in our society; both children and adults alike are at risk. Obesity is on the rise in our society, and as a result, Food Addiction warrants intense research, a rise in treatment options, and an overall look at ways to support those who are suffering from this addiction.
Interestingly, the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not include Food Addiction in its categorization of Feeding and Eating Disorders (FED). Eating disorders are categorized under 8 major areas of diagnosis in the current manual:
- Rumination Disorder (RD)
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
- Anorexia Nervosa (AN)
- Bulimia Nervosa (BN)
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
- Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)
- Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED)
- For further information on the types of disorders listed the reader is directed to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Some signs of Food Addiction may include:
- Gaining weight or maintaining current weight
- A feeling of loss of control
- Adjusting social and family gatherings to revolve around food
- Irritability, restlessness
- Emotional response in relation to food behaviors – guilt, shame
- Eating larger amounts of food
- Decreased energy level
- Avoidance of previous areas of interest
- Difficulties in other areas of life – social, relational
One of the major challenges and/or obstacles to treatment and recovery from Food Addiction is the fact that food is not avoidable. Food is necessary for survival. Chemicals and artificial additives, often found in highly palatable foods, however, are not. The continual daily process of needing to eat, can make recovery extra challenging. Food Addiction treatment is available, however.
Components of recovery to consider:
- Full medical team – regular physicals
- Reduction and/or elimination of highly palatable foods, coupled with the introduction of a balanced variety of foods – low in chemicals and artificial ingredients
- Work with a dietician or nutritionist to introduce meal planning, and offer specific tools of support: ie. tracking of food
- Work with a therapist to discuss emotions, stressors, and all areas of life
- Join a 12-step program that promotes community support and education
- Learn techniques such as mindfulness and meditation to promote present awareness
Our society would benefit from an increased examination of the impact of ingredients in our foods, offer education including how the brain responds to palatable foods, provide support and treatment for Food Addiction, and introduce people to stress management at an earlier and earlier age.