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What can I do for food addiction?

Asked by RK , California

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Hi, Dr. Melina. I read your response to a question a few weeks ago, and I don't think I have an eating disorder, but I feel like I'm addicted to food. Is there anything that I can do? I'm desperate to lose weight.

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi, RK. I actually hear this quite a bit from my patients. Food addiction is being increasingly recognized as a real condition that has similarities to binge eating but also has unique features. Research in both humans and animals shows that excess food consumption and dependence on other types of substances, including drugs, alcohol and nicotine, share common changes in brain chemistry as well as similar behavioral features including loss of control and continued use despite awareness of the negative consequences. Unfortunately, unlike other abused substances, food is necessary to survive.

Modern foods, which are often highly processed, high-fat, high-sugar and contain a variety of flavors and textures to improve taste and the eating experience, are even more potent in activating reinforcing and addictive-like behavior, which may be one of the factors contributing to the obesity epidemic we are experiencing. According to Ashley Gearhardt, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at Yale University who was involved in the creation of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, many foods in the modern era are "engineered to hijack the brain." The earlier use of these foods leads to a worse outcome, she says, so kids are particularly at risk to the addictive properties of food at an early age, which may result in obesity in many.

As far as treatment, modern approaches to addiction like cognitive behavioral therapy and 12-step programs may be necessary, particularly if you exhibit any of the following behaviors several times per week or more:

1. I find myself consuming foods even though I am no longer hungry.

2. I worry about cutting down on certain foods.

3. I feel sluggish or fatigued from overeating.

4. I have spent time dealing with negative feelings from overeating certain foods, instead of spending time in important activities such as time with family, friends, work or recreation.

5. I have had physical withdrawal symptoms such as agitation and anxiety when I cut down on certain foods (not including caffeinated drinks).

6. My behavior with respect to food and eating causes me significant distress.

7. Issues related to food and eating decrease my ability to function effectively (daily routine, job, school, social or family activities, health difficulties).

... and in the past 12 months:

8. I kept consuming the same types of food despite significant emotional and/or physical problems related to my eating.

9. Eating the same amount of food does not reduce negative emotions or increase pleasurable feelings the way it used to.

(Abbreviated Yale Food Addiction Scale, courtesy of A. Gearhardt)

If therapy is not an option, here are three tips that may help you overcome eating addiction.

1. Never let yourself get too hungry. I emphasize this constantly with my patients. It is important to control the physical aspect of hunger throughout the day to give you more control over the mental/emotional aspect. (Eating regularly and consuming protein, fiber and high-water foods are important for controlling hunger.)

2. Limit food cues that lead to overeating. This includes emotional and environmental: If I'm hungry, I skip Starbucks as I hate to stare at those delicious-looking pastries for five minutes while waiting in line. If you are feeling lonely, and this usually leads to the gallon of ice cream in your refrigerator, work on developing different responses to loneliness (go to the mall, take a bubble bath, call your best friend).

3. Try to eat a nutrient-dense diet that is low in sugar, saturated fat and processed foods. If you go out to eat often, stay away from items that have multisensory fat, salt and sugar flavor combinations, and try to keep your order as simple as possible.

It is very challenging to overcome food addiction in our environment, which has almost unlimited amounts of tasty food, no matter where you turn. But with commitment and support, I think it is possible for many.

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