by Caitlin Peiris, Registered Dietitian
I see many headlines and research papers diving into this topic. I meet a lot of people who have diagnosed themselves with a food addiction. I might be so bold as to say the majority of my new clients say they think they are addicted to food, and often, sugar.
Considering how often it is mentioned, you’d think there would be copious amounts of evidence that proves food is addicting. However, this is not the case and the lack of evidence is not for lack of trying. There have been many studies, but the results just don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Before you scroll away, rolling your eyes about how I don’t get it, hear me out: I believe you! I believe you when you say you feel totally out of control, totally obsessed, and unable to stop yourself around certain foods. I may be skeptical about the idea of food addiction, but that’s not to say I don’t believe you’ve got some complicated food stuff going on.
But what if it’s not actually an addiction? What if there’s another explanation that is less about addiction and more about our relationship to food?
Let’s take a look, shall we?
The science of food addiction doesn’t measure up to the hype.
The argument I hear most often is that food is a drug. That is not correct, as our pleasure response system is meant for natural rewards like food, water, and sex.
Food triggers the brain’s pleasure centres. That’s a good thing. If food didn’t taste good and give us pleasure, we’d have very little incentive to eat it. And if we don’t eat, we die. Just like with sex and companionship, dopamine is released in our brains when we do things that increase our chance of survival.
Diet culture might tell you that a particular food is bad, but your body tells you it serves a very critical purpose: survival! Just as people don’t always have sex just to procreate, not every bite of food has to be the bare minimum necessary to keep us alive. Pleasure is a really great part of life. Some might say it makes the whole thing worth it. But I am not a philosopher, I am a dietitian. So on to my next point.
The limitations of research
Much of the food addiction research comes from animal studies. This is a limitation in and of itself. We can’t assume that mice and humans react the exact same way to food. Researchers have found that under starvation conditions, mice begin to drink sugar water in a way resembling addictive behaviour. They rearrange their lives to get it, they binge on it, and they withstand discomfort and pain to get it. Yikes! Sounds like a food addiction, doesn’t it?
Here’s the thing, these mice have been starved for 12 hours. However, when mice get unrestricted access to sugar water, they don’t act this way. They don’t binge, they don’t suffer to get it, and they just have it when they want it.
What does that suggest about our own behaviours around food? It suggests that instead of studying food addiction, these researchers are actually learning a great deal about what happens when we suffer food deprivation. Dieting is deprivation. Cutting out sugar is deprivation. When humans undergo deprivation, we might eventually binge and feel out of control. We feel like we might be addicted.
However unlike addiction, when we eat the same thing over and over, our dopamine responses decrease over time. For example, you buy a beautiful, amazing cheesecake and it’s in your fridge. The first day you have it, it’s heavenly bliss. The second day it’s still pretty dang good. The third day it’s yummy, but not heavenly bliss like the first piece. Does this sound like addiction? No, it actually sounds like the opposite.
All dopamine responses to food are not created equal, even for the same food. The mice with free access to sugar water did have a dopamine response. But mice who were restricted for 12 hours and then given sugar water had a much stronger dopamine response. Cutting foods out actually increases their reward value, giving you a bigger dopamine hit when you do finally have them.
So to handle this reality, you have two options. One is to never have that food again, which is highly unlikely. Or two, you can learn to integrate it more calmly into your life. I know it’s not easy, but the second option is more sustainable, pleasurable, and ultimately more achievable than completely eliminating sugar, or other foods.
On top of all this, we also get lots of messages about eating from diet culture:
“I shouldn’t be doing this.”
“I’m so bad, I’ll have to make up for this later.”
”I better eat it all now while there’s no one home so that it won’t be in the fridge tempting me.”
Messages like these cloud the dopamine response and make things more complicated. Of course, dopamine is only one factor in what, when, and how much we eat. There are many others.
While much of the food addiction data is based on animal research, the research on humans also has limitations. For example, it doesn’t take into account a person’s history of dieting. It’s challenging to try to separate out deeply entrenched diet messages, from possible disordered eating, from something separately called food addiction. Dieting increases our feelings of hunger, our cravings, our preoccupation with food, and our reactivity to environmental food triggers. But that isn’t caused by food addiction. It comes along with the deprivation of dieting.
What does it mean if I believe I am addicted to food?
Our thoughts and beliefs have power. Our thoughts and feelings impact our behaviours and our behaviours impact our thoughts and feelings. Telling ourselves we’re addicted to food gives food a whole lot more power than it deserves.
It also leads us to blame ourselves, instead of placing the blame squarely on the culture that promotes fear-based, unscientific messages about food and bodies. When people tell me they are addicted to food or carbs or sugar, the statement is full of shame, exasperation, resignation, and powerlessness. Framed as an addiction, our food choices feels totally out of our control. There’s nothing we can do. It might feel hopeless, like the only option is total abstinence from the food that causes such anguish. People peddling this message can certainly be found everywhere, telling you that cutting out certain foods like sugar or carbs is the only option.
If we tell ourselves that a difficult relationship with a certain food is an addiction, then what can we do? Should we bother trying to change things, or is it a done deal? Has our fate been sealed?
Evidence, as well as my professional experience, clearly shows that a relationship with food that feels out of control and totally overwhelming can absolutely be transformed. It may not be easy but it is possible. Let’s look at how somebody might approach this without buying into the idea that their struggle is an addiction.
If it’s not an addiction, then what is it?
Like the mice that binge on sugar after being deprived, humans adapt to a precarious food supply by loading up after access is cut off. This on again, off again pattern is just like what we see with any type of diet.
It’s worth repeating that I am not dismissing how overpowering, all consuming, and out of control you might feel around food. This is real for many people, but it’s not an addiction. The strong urge to eat is a predictable response to undereating, a predictable response to cutting out foods or food groups, and a predictable response to criticizing ourselves after every time we have some of the so-called addictive food. This reaction to food only happens when people are not eating certain foods, not eating enough food, or telling themselves not to eat certain foods.
There is only one way to get off the restrict-binge cycle and that is to eat enough food, and to stop restricting.
I have seen this countless times with clients. They seek the help of a dietitian (or an eating disorder program) because they’re bingeing and think they’re addicted to carbs. I don’t coach them on reducing their bingeing. Instead, we work on eating enough food through the day and not judging certain foods as being wrong or bad to eat. The goal is a judgment-free relationship with food where they’re not riddled with guilt if they eat chips, bread, or chocolate. Without fail, the bingeing and so-called addiction is significantly reduced, if not eliminated, by truly getting enough food each day, carbs and all.
Here are five tips for moving from feeling out of control to a peaceful relationship with food:
Tip #1: Don’t cut out any foods or food groups.
The only foods or food groups you should cut out are foods you are allergic to, not foods that feel addicting to you. Studies show people actually feel less out of control and feel calmer around foods when they bring them back into their life. This brings us back to that earlier comment about choice. This means choosing to include these foods as part of your life. Not just having them and saying that you’re cheating, or planning to “burn it off” through exercise, but choosing to have them, with intention and permission. This takes effort and practice. It won’t be perfect the first time, especially if you’ve always been all-or-nothing with that food. It takes a consistent effort at working through the judgments we’ve piled on to these foods and ourselves. Books like Intuitive Eating (Evelyn Tribole & Elise Resch, 3rd edition) can help you work through this process.
Tip #2: Don’t label foods as good or bad.
Speaking of judgments, the judgments really deserve a bullet point all their own. The way we label foods as good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, clean and junk, contributes to an antagonistic relationship with food. It leads us to criticize ourselves, and actually makes us more likely to eat the stuff we’ve labelled negatively in a way that feels out of control. Our attempts to categorize, judge, and control ourselves around food totally backfire!
Tip #3: Bring kindness into your relationship with food and your body.
Take a look at the self-compassion website of Kristin Neff. Consider what it would be like for you to bring some kindness into your relationship with food and your body. Many of my clients are severely underfed in this area.
Tip #4: Eat enough throughout the day.
Food is just food. Life is short. You deserve to eat things that taste good, and your desire to eat enough doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. Eat enough throughout the day.
There is a good chance you just read that and thought, “But I do eat enough throughout the day!” Maybe that’s true. Maybe it isn’t. I will say that literally every client I have ever worked with has seen a dramatic change in their bingeing behaviours over time when they have worked on bumping up their regular meals and snacks to be more adequate.
Your body needs carbohydrates multiple times per day. You will feel better. I promise you that Big Carb did not pay me to say that. I recommend clients have some carbs with every meal and snack. The same goes for fat and protein. Work towards combining some fats, carbs and protein with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and at least one snack.
Tip #5: Don’t try to overhaul everything at once.
Start with small steps. As you do this, you will very likely be just like my clients and see a marked decrease in your body urging you to snack all night long.
Some final thoughts:
Are the above tips a magic solution? No, of course there are still emotional and habitual reasons why we want snack foods at night (and they’re also delicious)! But I have yet to meet a client who labelled themselves an emotional eater and a food addict who didn’t see a remarkable change just by following the guidance to enjoy fats and carbs and protein at meals and snacks throughout the day. Combine that with the previous suggestion of working on your self-talk and your food judgments, and you are on your way to not feeling like a food addict.
My high school math teacher told us math is like golf: it’s simple, and it’s hard. Relearning to eat and relate to food is the same. If you can be nicer to yourself, eat enough, and stop judging foods as good and bad, you’re going to feel calm, cool, and collected when you’re deciding what to eat. It’s that simple.
I know that’s not easy. It takes time and practice and you may feel a bit out of control when you’re working at it. Be gentle with yourself. You are unlearning years of rules and diets and habits and messages. You are starting to trust yourself around the donuts that have always felt unmanageable.
Regardless, control is no way to relate to your appetite and preferences. It inherently means you are fighting against your own body which is trying to eat enough food to meet its needs and help you live your life. Research shows that children will choose a balanced diet when given free access to all foods over time. Even though we all start this way, societal messages about food and our bodies change this.
The problem does not lie with us and a lack of willpower, despite what diet messaging says. We can unlearn the messages that make food feel like an addiction and empower ourselves to work on our relationship with food.