Dr. Ramani Durvasula answers common questions about the signs and symptoms of food addiction.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is a preoccupation with food – the person finds themselves chronically thinking about food, worried about it, planning around it, and obviously eating it. In addition, a person with food addiction typically uses food to manage emotions – turning to it to manage negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, boredom, loneliness and frustration. It can overtake a person to the point where they can be distracted from the people in their lives, their responsibilities and be more interested in thinking and talking about food than in other topics. People with food addiction may find themselves needing to eat more to get the same emotional effects. They may also become so wedded to planning around food that they will think little of inconveniencing other people with their need to eat at certain times or at certain places. People with food addictions may also find themselves needing to eat more food to get the same numbing or positive effects, and may even experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, irritability and loss of concentration when they cut out certain foods, especially sugar. They will often describe craving food, and having made repeated attempts to try and beat their addiction and not being able to succeed. For persons with a food addiction, food often starts as a reward (eat and then feel good) and then can jump the rails with food being used to avoid a bad feeling (eat so you won't feel bad). That's when it tends to get "stuck" as something that feels like an addiction.
What is the difference between food addiction and other types of addictions?
The key difference between food addiction and other types of addictions is that all of us have to eat. When talking about other addictions such as drugs and alcohol, remember that a person can live without drugs and alcohol. The goal in the treatment of many addictions, particularly drugs and alcohol is typically abstinence, which is an impossible goal in food addiction. In addition, other addictions, particularly drugs and alcohol, may result in more physiological changes in the brain and dangerous withdrawal. Finally, while food addiction can be harmful to health via weight gain and the potential impact on other markers such as cholesterol and triglyceride levels, the daily and necessary nature of eating make managing these symptoms uniquely challenging – and it has implications for how we clinically manage this with patients.
What is the difference between food addiction and emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a pattern of regularly eating in response to emotions, typically negative or distressing emotions (e.g. sadness, frustration, anger). Emotional eaters may not experience the same level of preoccupation we may see in someone with a frank food addiction. In addition, emotional eaters may not feel the same level of "high" from the foods, and instead may claim that the foods distract them or numb them. There is a great deal of overlap and in some ways emotional eating is a symptom of food addiction – but there are some emotional eaters who don't experience the same levels of preoccupation or reward from food.
What are some signs/symptoms of food addiction?
Preoccupation with food, including planning your schedule largely around food, spending significant amounts of time thinking about or consuming food, such that time spent in your other activities may decrease.
Needing to eat more and more over time to get the same emotional "fix." This can be needing to eat more to get the same level of emotional numbing or the same level of emotional reward.
Using food to manage emotions – both positive and negative emotions. Using food as a way to manage negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety or anger. Using food as a distraction from states such as loneliness or boredom. Food is also typically relied upon to celebrate or commemorate good events or good feelings.
Becoming so distracted by food or food-related issues that you may be less engaged in your life – not as engaged with family, friends, partner, children, or co-workers, or just not participating in other aspects of life in the same way.
Experiencing a sense of "withdrawal" or distress when you can't get reward foods such as sugary or fatty foods – this can manifest as headache, irritability, poor concentration or a general sense of not feeling well.
Making multiple attempts to address your patterns with food and not being able to succeed.
Craving food in an intense manner to a degree that is distracting.
How can someone get help for food addiction?
The best way is to work with a multidisciplinary team of health care providers with expertise in these issues, ideally with a licensed mental health practitioner who has expertise in food and addictions as well as with a registered dietitian. In addition, some people may find it useful to seek out group therapy or meetings with other people who are struggling with similar issues. This can build a sense of empathy and help people feel like they are less alone. Reading about the issue and becoming informed is also useful, but food addiction can often have very deep emotional routes and working with a professional with experience in these issues can be necessary. The first step is admitting that this is a struggle and then taking it a step at a time.