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What You Need To Know About Food Addiction

Consciously or subconsciously, we link addictions to destructive behavior. Ask yourself this:


What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the term addiction?


For many, it’s an image of a person having their life destroyed by a drug such as heroin. For others, it could be an image of an alcoholic drowning in a bottle at 10 AM.


But have you ever considered that food could also be a source of addiction? Researchers are yet to find common ground on this issue, but there seems to be a lot of truth to it.


What is Food Addiction?


An addiction is any compulsive behavior that brings pleasure for the moment but is destructive in the long run. 


While addictions are complex brain conditions, researchers have managed to link them to the brain’s reward system, which is typically where all patterns and habits originate. In other words, we do things because they feel good.


The issue is, researchers haven’t been able to identify an ingredient (or several such) that leads to addiction. The consensus so far is that highly-processed and highly-palatable foods that offer lots of sodium, fats, and sugar can have addictive qualities for some. But on their own, these ingredients don’t do anything for us. For example, one wouldn’t simply take a spoon and go down a jar of table sugar, much like they wouldn’t grab a block of butter and eat it like a Kit-Kat. 


Instead, we could speculate that addictive foods are a combination of ingredients working together in a specific way. Perhaps they overstimulate the reward system in the brain. It could also be something different. Researchers aren’t sure.


Food Addiction or a Bad Diet: How to Tell The Difference


This one is difficult to determine because there seems to be a fine line between the two. It would be difficult to determine if a person has food addiction or is simply a victim of their bad nutritional habits simply by observing them.


Instead, a better approach would be to examine how the person behaves and how much they crave specific foods. Strong indicators of addiction include:


  • Not being able to enjoy specific foods in moderation; always overeating
  • Having frequent cravings for particular foods, even after finishing a meal
  • Feeling guilty after eating a food, only to eat it again a short while later
  • Repeatedly trying to cut certain foods from the menu, only to fail, and make the promise again


In contrast, a bad diet due to habits is easier for the person to get away from. They might enjoy following the diet, but they don’t feel a compulsive need for specific foods, and walking away from the table often happens more easily.


Food Addiction And Genetics: Is There a Link?


According to some research, genetics may play a role in food addictions. We’ve known that certain people are predisposed to addictive behaviors more than others, which also seems to be the case for food.


In one paper, researchers speculated that food addiction might be linked to the brain’s dopamine-modulated reward system. In their words, “As predicted, polygenic dopamine scores were related to ventral striatum activity, which in turn was associated with higher food addiction scores.”


While we certainly need more research to conclude, there seems to be a genetic element here.


The Silver Lining


The good news here is that food addiction is treatable. Even if it doesn’t seem so right now, you can make a long-lasting change.


Some great first steps include:


  • Optimize your environment and rid your home of trigger foods that lead to binge episodes.
  • Avoid restrictive diets. Instead, focus on building better habits like controlling your portions, eating more slowly, and making healthier food choices.
  • When eating out, look for places that offer healthier foods on the menu. This will help you make better choices, even if you’re eating out.
  • Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. This will make you more likely to buy wider varieties of food that promote addictive behaviors.