What is food addiction (aka food use disorder or food dependency)?

Every day in casual conversation, we hear things like, “I’m a junk food junkie,” “I’m a chocoholic,” and, “I need my sugar fix to get through the day.” It may be hard for some people to take food addiction seriously. But if you are struggling with real food addiction, you know how deadly serious it is. From diabetes, to morbid obesity, social isolation, bulimia, mental and emotional problems, and more, the road can be long and painful.

The scientific evidence is growing, but most people within the medical community still don’t understand how people can become addicted to certain foods. Many assume that those who struggle with their weight simply lack willpower — that the answer is to eat less and exercise more. This assumes that people are choosing to overeat.

Many professionals assume that those who struggle with eating disorders are dealing only with emotional problems. This assumes that the problem is the eating behavior, and not an actual biochemical dependency.

In reality, food addiction, as with all addictions, is a brain disease. For food addicts, changing what and how we eat takes much more than good intentions, strong will, or even therapy. Once a person is addicted to certain foods, those foods actually change the brain in ways that make abstaining from them very difficult — even for those who desperately want to stop.

The good news is that treatment programs treating food addiction have been producing successful results for decades. The research is pouring in, and people are recovering from food addiction and leading productive lives that they never imagined possible.

Is food addiction real?

Food addiction is just like drug and alcohol addiction. Addiction happens when the body has become biochemically dependent on a particular substance and needs that substance in order to function “normally.”

In the case of food addiction, the body has become dependent on certain foods or eating behaviors. The most common addictive foods are sugar, flour, high fat, high salt, certain grains, or a combination of these. The most common addictive eating behaviors are bingeing, purging, grazing, and volume eating.

Food addiction is a chronic disease characterized by seeking the foods or food behaviors we are addicted to, eating/doing them compulsively, and having difficulties controlling these urges despite harmful consequences.

When we initially consumed these foods as children, we probably still had the choice of when and how much to eat them. But repeated use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist consuming these foods or partaking in their eating behaviours.

Because these brain changes are persistent, food addiction can be complicated to treat. People can often go on a “diet” for a while and think they’re fine — “See? I can quit eating (fill in the blank). I am fine. I’m not an addict.” However, once somebody is addicted, “dieting” for a period of time is rarely a successful long-term solution.

Over time, the best solution is abstinence. This begins with acknowledging that addiction is the problem — and, as with all addictions, support is needed.

To learn more about food addiction and how to achieve abstinence, contact SHiFT – Recovery by Acorn and ask us about our treatment programs.