Does food addiction actually exist, or is it just a modern excuse to avoid responsibility for lifestyle choices, such as impulsive overeating?
Have you ever heard: “Oh my God, you will be addicted once you try this…”
“You will never be able to eat anything but these…” or
“I can’t live without eating…”
“Oh my God, I just had to eat one more…”?
Whether it is the lure of a luscious salted caramel and white chocolate Messini’s gelato, a scrumptious smashed avo toasted sandwich, or a tantalising cheesy bacony burger with sweet onion relish, we use the language of addiction when describing our food choices.
There comes a point when how we talk about our food is an accurate depiction of our relationship with it. We are ‘addicted’ to beverages like coffee, we ‘binge’ on our favourite snacks, we ‘obsess’ and fantasise about certain culinary creations then we feel crushed if we don’t get to have them. It does sound like an addiction, but does food addiction really exist?
How do we know if something is an addiction?
Usually, we apply the term addiction when a person is consuming a substance (e.g. cocaine), or engaging in an activity (e.g. watching pornography), in order to get temporary pleasure, relief or satisfaction (e.g. feeling high) despite the long-term negative consequences (e.g. losing employment). Usually, it has a negative impact on the person’s daily functioning, health and relationships, yet the person finds it difficult to stop such behaviours. Other hallmarks of addiction include increased tolerance (e.g. you increase the amount of substance you use), binge consumption (e.g. large amounts are consumed at one time), and withdrawal (e.g. the person might experience the psychological or physical symptoms of not engaging in the addictive behaviour).
The role of receptor genes in addictions, including food addiction
Current research suggests that the D2 dopamine receptor genes might play a role in situations where someone seeks out ‘rewarding’ food, has an inability to exercise control over their binges and potentially develops a food addiction.
To summarise the science: Dopamine is a catecholamine neurotransmitter, which means that in the central nervous system it controls a variety of functions including cognition, emotion, locomotor activity, food intake and endocrine system regulation.
In scientific studies, the D2 dopamine receptor (DRD2) gene has most commonly been linked to alcoholism, although the gene has been associated with other addictive behaviours such as smoking, illicit drug use, gambling, and overeating.
Some researchers suggest that food can be addictive, resembling the effects of drug abuse on the dopamine and opiate systems, for example decreasing the dopamine receptors in obese people. Similar findings relate to individuals having drug addictions. This means that a lack of dopamine 2 receptors could lead to increased food-seeking behaviour and an inability to control consumption.
Gerhardt et al. investigated food addiction in obese patients with Binge Eating Disorder using the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). They found that there was a strong association between food addiction and the presence of lifelong mood disorders, negative affect (e.g. anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, guilt and shame, irritability, other unpleasant emotions and poor self-image), lower self-esteem and emotional dysregulation. Another study, using the same food addiction scale, found that 15% of participants who presented for weight-loss treatment met the criteria for food addiction.
The Gerhardt et al. study was further able to show that participants who met the diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder and Food Addiction appeared to suffer from a greater eating disorder psychopathology and had related difficulties with negative affect and emotional dysregulation.
The study acknowledged that impulsivity might be playing a significant role in the development of both substance abuse and an eating disorder. What makes it hard in managing food addictions is the fact that we need food to survive – we can survive without drugs, pornography, overspending and gambling, but we can’t survive without food.
Addictive food groups
Not all food is problematic, the dangerous groups are those foods that are highly processed, with high levels of sugar and fat. So, you can’t get hooked on celery sticks. It is usually sugary, highly processed and fatty foods that are the objects of addiction.
It is interesting to note that impulsivity doesn’t just play a significant role in the development of the addiction, but it is also responsible for maintaining it. We know from previous research that people who are high in impulsivity have difficulties getting rid of their unhealthy habits. So, because highly impulsive people find it hard to tolerate the discomfort of urges and temptations they are more likely to relapse and decide to stop off at a local burger joint before going home for a healthier dinner.
Some studies reported that sugar has addictive properties that are similar to psychostimulants and opioids. It has been confirmed that sugar and saturated high-fat foods are responsible for most weight gain. From personal observations, I have never seen my colleagues rush towards a tray of carrot and celery sticks and dips, whereas they most definitely would for a Danish pastry or a cupcake.
Make a plan
So, if it looks like an addiction and has all the symptoms of an addiction, then maybe we should accept that some people could have a food addiction. But, in the case of this addiction, we can’t eliminate the substance – food – from our lives completely; so, for a food-based addiction, we might need to create a different plan to succeed.
Focus on developing a set of skills, strategies and a basic plan to deal with this issue. Do you think you have a food addiction? If so, you might like help in dealing with it. Send us an email, we can work to help you to control your eating habits.
 Gearhardt, A. N., White, M. A., Masheb, R. M., Morgan, P. T., Crosby, R. D., & Grilo, C. M. (2012). An examination of the food addiction construct in obese patients with binge eating disorder. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(5), 657-663.
 Eichen, D. M., Lent, M. R., Goldbacher, E., & Foster, G. D. (2013). Exploration of “food addiction” in overweight and obese treatment-seeking adults. Appetite, 67, 22-24.