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  • Writer's pictureGina Cullen

What is "Food Addiction?"

What is Food Addiction?

When people talk about eating disorders and use the term “Food Addiction,” in terms of overeating, it’s actually somewhat negligent of what an eating disorder is. An eating disorder is a biologically based brain illness influenced by environmental and psychological factors.


I remember feeling so offended when my dad called me a “food addict.” I was 89 pounds and in 2 weeks, I was going to be hospitalized for Severe Anorexia Nervosa. How can he accuse me of something I’ve proved to myself and many others I don’t take part in? He then defended himself saying, “Well you clearly have a dysfunctional relationship with food,” but all I heard was, “ADDICT TO FOOD.” I’ve worked so hard, and is it not obvious? Many people in recovery programs believe that any sort of dysfunctional relationship between the human and the substance of abuse/restriction surrounds addiction to the substance; however, that argument is up for debate and it is one that I wholeheartedly disagree with. I believe that when it comes to food, it is the behavior that one becomes addicted to.


So… MY Answer: No one is truly ever addicted to food itself. “Food Addiction” is an incorrect term for what is actually an addiction to a behavior that surrounds the controlling of food consumption.


Is it a choice?

No! No one chooses to become addicted to something. Just like no one can choose their eye color. Addictions are partially onset by the concepts of Nature and Nurture.

Addiction: Nature v. Nurture

Both biological and environmental factors play a part in one’s susceptibility to the addiction of a behavior surrounding food.

Biological:

  • Puberty, Menopause, Genetics, Epigenetic, Food Exposure.

Environment:

  • Financial State, Religion, Media Messages/Appearance Pressure, Peer Pressure, Bullying.

How does one fight it?

The trickiest part about this addiction is that no one can choose abstinence as a form of recovery. The body needs food! (And a good amount of it…) When one is addicted to tobacco, the most common form of recovery is to never smoke again. As I stated, abstinence from food would not reap the same benefits as abstinence from tobacco… This is another reason as to why I always tell people that the term “Food Addiction,” is more of an “Addiction to a behavior surrounding food consumption.”


One usually has to “hit bottom” before the need to recover approaches the consciousness. Hitting bottom looks different for everyone. For me, it was being sent to the hospital for my malnourishment. It took a damaged heart, brain and body for me to accept that there was an issue that I did, in fact, need outside help with. For many others, it’s receiving the news from the doctor, causing a death through drunk-driving, abusing a family member in a starved rage, or contemplating taking ones own life.

Many doctors argue for the use of weight loss pills when diagnosing patients with obesity. These doctors often write these prescriptions without taking into account that the obesity may be a cause of a behavior, not a physical illness. No one can stay and survive on weight loss pills for their entire life, therefore it is important to seek help for the true issue at hand when struggling with the addiction to the behavior of over-consuming food. When the weight goal is met, how will that weight be maintained without the sources that led to obesity becoming discovered and processed? Addiction does not die with medication long-term.

No one can simply choose to recover from the addiction of a behavior, just as no one can choose to recover from the addiction to alcohol. “Umm… Yeah they can. If it weren’t then how do people recover?” This is where psychology comes in….


Addictions cause brain deterioration. This deterioration affects one’s rationality. In terms of restriction, the energy that the body is scarcely provided goes strictly to the Limbic System of the brain, which means that there isn’t enough energy for the body to regulate circulation, emotion, motivation, and therefore the release of many important “Happy Chemicals.” In terms of the overconsumption of food, a certain tolerance to the effects of these “Happy Chemicals” is created.


Dopamine:

Dopamine: When one restricts, more dopamine receptors are created. This is because our bodies are our best friends, and they will always try to signal us towards what we need. (In the case for an individual who has restricted: Food!) More Dopamine Receptors are created so that the body will stay sensitive to the effects of Dopamine. This means that when the individual who has restricted has something that releases dopamine, (again in this case… food) the “reward system” will feel more “rewarded” than what would have been the case had there been no dysfunctional behaviors. For some, this leads to binges as that release of Dopamine becomes addictive! The same applies to the addiction to alcohol, marijuana, porn, gambling, working, etc.. Dopamine is a universal chemical. The way it works does not change addiction to addiction.

Simple Terms:

  1. Restriction → More Dopamine Receptors → Greater chance of binging due to the reward system being overclocked.

  2. Overconsumption → Less Dopamine Receptors → Larger binges as the reward system does not feel rewarded as easily.

Oxytocin:

Oxytocin: Oxytocin balances out the addictive effects of Dopamine, however addiction lowers the amount of oxytocin receptors in the brain. “Why?” The effects of addiction lead to isolation, and this isolation keeps one from the sources that gives one the release of Oxytocin. Without a normal release of Oxytocin, there is usually a lack of sexual drive, social drive and motivation for involvement. Dopamine and Oxytocin go hand in hand. Without an adequate release of one, you cannot have an adequate release of the other.


I isolated in my room all day, every day until my hospitalization. I avoided friends who I hadn’t seen for several months just for the sake of remaining in the body I was living in. If I hang out with them, I may have to eat. And I’m not allowed to eat. It wasn’t until I was forced into an environment of others that I began to feel the desire to interact with other humans again. I had also lost every ounce of a sex drive that may have previously existed and was even unkind to those who would hit on me. I remember feeling physically disgusted by humans until I was experiencing regular releases of Dopamine from food in treatment, as well as regular releases of Oxytocin from socializing with other patients in treatment.

Simple Terms:

  1. Feelings of Isolation/Depression/Dissatisfaction → Body seeks Dopamine release → Behaviors of addiction.

  2. Behaviors of addiction → Continued dysfunction of Dopamine → Dysfunction of Oxytocin.

4 Common Thoughts:

  1. I have to eat all of this now, because I know that I won’t have it again for a very, very long time.

  2. I can eat this and then just not eat for the amount of time it will take for my body to naturally burn these calories off. There will be no long-term weight gain or “consequence.”

  3. I spent money on this and now I have to eat it.

  4. I already hate the way I look, so what will it matter if I take part in this behavior?

4 Common Behaviors:

  1. Purchasing a lot of food but not eating it.

  2. Purchasing a lot of food and eating it past the point of fullness on a repeated basis.

  3. Restricting for the sake of binging “guilt-free” at a later date.

  4. The necessity of taking home and finishing leftovers even if the food was not good.

Things to remember:

  1. You are no less of a person because of your addiction.

  2. You have not done anything in your life that has deemed you unworthy of a happy life.

  3. A doctor’s scale is not an accurate measurement of health. Health includes all aspects of life.

  4. Addiction affects the brain, and there comes a certain point when one cannot choose recovery. They may need to hit bottom before the problem registers as a problem.


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