Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction?

By Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN. Gans is a registered dietitian, past spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans has a private practice in New York City where she specializes in weight management.

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Can a person be addicted to food? Does our body go through physiological withdrawal the same as it would for drugs and alcohol when a person stops eating a particular food item? In order to answer these questions, I exhaustively searched for conclusive science-based evidence, but unfortunately wound up pretty much empty-handed. So, I am going with my opinion here, basing it on my over 12 years of experience in private practice, working with hundreds and hundreds of people.

I claim that – no – you cannot be addicted to food, but you can have behavioral and emotional reasons that cause you to overeat. Our body needs food for survival, which is definitely not the case for drugs and alcohol. I think claiming you are addicted in some instances is taking the easy way out, basically saying that it is beyond your control. Are there really certain foods that a person really cannot stop eating from the moment they are born? Or for some reason did this develop over time? What came first the chicken or the egg?

For example, a patient of mine who came to see me for “food addiction” reported that she grew up in a household with foods labeled as “good” or “bad.” No cookies, cakes or candy were ever allowed in her home. As she got older, she found that whenever she ate cookies or cake, she couldn’t have just one piece. Is she truly addicted or simply never learned to incorporate these foods in a healthy manner into her diet? We worked together so she could learn a new behavior, giving herself permission to eat these so-called “bad foods” – instead of feeling guilty. Once she stopped totally depriving herself, she was able to start enjoying the food in a healthy manner. Now, if she had been an alcoholic or drug addict, there is no way possible she could start enjoying just a little amount. With a true addiction, abstinence is almost always the only answer.

Article written by Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN
Registered dietitian, past spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and author of The Small Change Diet