Food Addiction

In this episode, we are talking about a more serious subject of food addiction. We cover:

  • Food addiction or eating addiction and is there a difference?

  • Emotional eating versus food addiction

  • What to do if you think you have these or if you suspect a friend is struggling with this

  • Other eating behaviors that are not necessarily disordered eating and how to recognize the difference

Before we get into today's topic, here's something new in the food world that could be the future of feeding an ever-growing population. It's cultured meats. Cultured beef for example is made by harvesting muscle cells from a living cow. Scientists then feed and nurture the cells so they multiply to create muscle tissue, which is the main component of the meat we eat. The cells grow into strands. 20,000 of these small strands of meat are then combined to create one normal sized hamburger. It is said to be biologically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the demand for meat is going to increase by more than two-thirds in the next 40 years and current production methods are not sustainable. One cultured meat company, Memphis Meats, says “our products are better for the environment (requiring up to 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, land and water than conventionally-produced meat)." So the question is, would you eat cultured meat?

This topic is a more serious one and an important one. Starting with the term “food addiction” since we hear people joke about being "chocoholics" and such. Yes we all like chocolate but to be truly addicted is another thing. Food addiction involves a regular pattern of compulsive overeating, usually done while alone, that impairs daily functioning. Food addiction is not a diagnosis, like bulimia or binge eating disorder, but often overlaps with other eating disorders. Like alcoholism or drug dependency, food addiction can be characterized by these addictive behaviors as described on the Timberline Knolls Treatment Center website:

  • Obsessive food cravings, combined with a preoccupation with obtaining and consuming food

  • The continued misuse of food (through binge eating or compulsive overeating) in spite of serious health consequences

  • Repeated attempts to stop overeating, followed by relapse into addictive behaviors

  • Loss of control over how much, how often, and where overeating occurs

  • A negative impact on work, family life, financial status, or social activities as a result of overeating

  • The need to consume more food in order to get the same sense of emotional release or comfort

  • A pattern of eating alone in order to avoid negative attention from others

  • Hiding food, destroy the evidence such as wrappers, or eat in secret.

Emotional eating might get confused with food addiction, but these are different. Emotional eating is using food as a form of relief or reward and eating when you are upset, stressed, tired, bored or sad, and doing this often. For emotional eaters, eating serves a psychological, as opposed to a biological, purpose. Everyone does it from time to time, but when you use food to deal with being upset rather than dealing directly with what is bothering you becomes a habit, it becomes harder to separate physical hunger from emotional hunger. A big difference in emotional eating from food addiction is the severity. Emotional eating could be occasional or most days but there is not the interference with work and family as you would with eating or food addiction.

If you are reading this and thinking food addiction sounds like something you might have or someone you know, use this Yale food addiction scale and ask if the the following actions apply. Do you:

  • End up eating more than planned when you start eating certain foods

  • Keep eating certain foods even if you're no longer hungry

  • Eat to the point of feeling ill

  • Worry about not eating certain types of foods or worry about cutting down on certain types of foods

  • When certain foods aren't available, go out of your way to obtain them

These next 3 questions ask about your relationship with food on your personal life. Ask yourself if these situations apply to you:

  • You eat certain foods so often or in such large amounts that you start eating food instead of working, spending time with the family, or doing recreational activities.

  • You avoid professional or social situations where certain foods are available because of fear of overeating.

  • You have problems functioning effectively at your job or school because of food and eating.

The questionnaire asks about psychological withdrawal symptoms. For example, when you cut down on certain foods, do you have symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety

  • Agitation

  • Other physical symptoms

These last 4 questions gauge the impact of food decisions on your emotions. Do these situations apply to you?

  • Eating food causes problems such as depression, anxiety, self-loathing, or guilt.

  • You need to eat more and more food to reduce negative emotions or increase pleasure.

  • Eating the same amount of food doesn't reduce negative emotions or increase pleasure the way it used to.

If you think you are addicted to eating, talk to your doctor about it and see a counselor trained in behavior change and addiction. Consider trying this as well:

  1. Avoid labels. You’re not a bad person doing bad things. The same goes for labeling foods. Food is food -- it’s not ‘good’ or ‘bad.

  2. Pause when you feel like eating and ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” If you are a regular emotional eater you might be out of touch with hunger and fullness cues so you’ll have to actually stop yourself and tune into his.

  3. When they are doing more harm than good, stop restrictive diets. Deprivation can be a trigger for overeating just like stress, anger, or anxiety.

What are some eating behaviors that people have that are abnormal but not an eating disorder?

Cravings are not eating disorders. Cravings happen for many reasons, typically because we have seen an ad or smelled something that reminds us of a food we like. And guess what? Food tastes good! Our bodies and brains know they need food to keep going and they will send signals to make sure you seek food and eat it. We have talked on a previous episode about Orthorexia Nervosa, which is not an officially recognized disorder in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by clinicians to diagnose and classify mental disorders). Orthorexia literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” For these people every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of the diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake. This is quite different from someone who chooses to eat healthy foods in general. Where we see healthy eating start to turn to orthorexia is, for instance, when a person refuses to eat when what they deem to be “good” food is not available and they won’t make exceptions. Ironically this obsession with healthy eating can become extremely unhealthy and lead to other eating disorders. Here are questions to consider if you think orthorexia is an issue:

  • Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?

  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

  • Do you feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet?

  • Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?

Last, let’s look at a couple of myths around food addiction.

  1. The first is that only people who are obese can be food addicts. That is false. Someone addicted to food might binge and then restrict or over-exercise, keeping a normal weight for their height.

  2. The second myth is that people with food addiction are only addicted to junk food. This is also false. While most people turn to foods high in sugar, fat or salt, some will eat bowls of fruits and veggies or when the junk food is gone, turn to whatever is left in the kitchen.

  3. The last myth is food addicts are weak and they just aren’t trying to be healthy. Also false. Addiction is a serious condition that can’t be turned off like a switch. Plus, unlike drugs or alcohol, we must eat to live so the addictive substance, food, can’t just be removed.

Please note all the information is based upon professional and personal experience working in the health industry. We are not doctors and this should not be taken as medical advice but rather health/diet guidance.

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