Are you concerned your compulsive overeating is a food addiction? Not sure if the cause is emotional, physical, or maybe just a habit? How would you know if it’s a food addiction or sugar addiction? Or, could it be a behavior addiction, instead?
• Does it feel like a true addiction, similar to an alcohol addiction in an alcoholic?
• Once you start eating do you feel out of control with food?
• Have you ever said, “I can’t stop eating sugar” or “I’m addicted to sugar”?
• Is fast food something you just can’t stop eating?
• Is compulsive snacking a problem most nights?
• Has ordering pizza started to feel like an addictive behavior?
• Do you keep buying carbohydrate rich binge foods, in quantity, even though you swear each time is your last?
Those are frequent concerns I hear from people who struggle with compulsive overeating, emotional eating, and from people who binge eat.
Can a person become addicted to a substance in food; sugar, carbohydrates, and/or high fat foods, just like some people become addicted to substances like cocaine, heroin, or alcohol?
Or, instead, do we get addicted to certain food behaviors because we’re seeking the reward we get (the release of feel-good brain chemicals dopamine, endogenous opioids, serotonin) when we turn to those behaviors over and over again? Does stopping at a fast food restaurant every night on the way home from work indicate an addiction to a specific ingredient in that fast food? Or, do we rely on that addictive, repetitive behavior because it calms us down as we transition from work to home every night?
Food Addiction and Behavior Addiction are hot topics these days. I glad to report that, finally, there’s much research under way. But it’s early to expect definitive answers. Preliminary research into “food addiction” (mostly studied in rats) suggests that it’s likely a small percentage of people may actually get “addicted’ to food itself. But many brain researchers are speculating that the majority of people who describe feeling “addicted to food” have actually developed what’s called a process or behavior addiction.
With a behavior addiction, a person gets addicted to a certain behavior because that compulsive behavior brings a reward and relief when they pursue that particular behavior (i.e. bingeing, compulsive snacking, compulsive spending, excessive web surfing or streaming video watching, ordering a lot of food delivered to the house, too much time on social media, purging, over exercising, gambling, pornography or sex addiction, self-cutting, etc.)
One definition I read said this involves “… brain reward, motivation, memory, and related brain circuitry”. We have memories of previous times when we felt good after emotional eating (felt zoned-out, relaxed, soothed, or excited). We got both a biological and behavioral response to whatever familiar cues triggered our eating. Maybe it was a fight with a family member, or it was the fast food sign you saw when driving home after a stressful day at the office, or it was just the habit of turning on the TV at the end of a long day. Those familiar cues, in turn, trigger craving and/or engagement in our addictive behaviors. Our “Emotional Eating Reward Switch” gets flipped and we head for the food. We do it over and over again, for the reward, even when we know there will be adverse consequences and we say we want to stop.
Research suggests we keep turning to food because engaging in that behavior leads to the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain; dopamine, which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and helps regulate emotional responses… and opioids made in the brain that dull the senses and cause relaxation. When we turn to food, over and over again, we may be chronically seeking those rewards that come from this repeated behavior, and the repeated release of those feel-good chemicals.
While we wait for the brain researchers to learn more about what causes this brain circuitry “dysfunction” and chronic “loss of control”, there’s some good news on the horizon. Practitioners in the trenches, people like my colleagues and I, are taking the research that is available and applying it to our work with our clients. Through a variety of targeted strategies, we’re learning how people can replace their self-defeating, habitual, reward-driven behaviors with other more productive ways to get those feel-good chemicals in the brain.
Yes! You can learn how to lean on more effective tools! You can learn and practice healthier, more effective ways to get those feel-good brain chemicals AND replace your old conditioned responses.