"I can't be trusted around cookies." "I'm addicted to sugar." "If I buy chips, they don't last 10 minutes in my house."
Does any of this sound familiar? When you have spent years feeling out of control around food, it makes total sense to want to point to something like food addiction. But, is addiction the appropriate way to describe this experience?
As someone who works daily with people who have spent years trapped in diet culture, being told that their bodies need to be micromanaged and that they can't be trusted around food, only to see that they actually CAN eat a cookie without feeling out of control once they step away from the diet rules and give themselves permission to eat, I have a hard time with the concept of food addiction.
This is a topic that evokes some strong emotions because of each person's lived experience, which often feels very much like addiction. As such, I thought it would be helpful to take a quick look at what the research says about food addiction and how that applies to what people experience.
Here are a few takeaways:
1. No food has been shown to be addictive. Human studies that have demonstrated potential "addiction" have utilized the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which measures a person's personal experience and doesn't account for dieting or restriction. This is a big oversight in my book, as we know that restriction increases the desire for food. Feeling out of control around food is not the same as the physiological response that happens in other addictions.
2. Rats in some animal studies have shown addiction-like behaviors around sugar, but only after they were deprived of sugar which, again, we know increases interest in and drive for food. Rats given unlimited access to sugar did not display addiction-like behaviors.
3. Research utilizing brain scans shows that the more a food is considered "off limits", the more pleasure centers in the brain light up when shown or given the food. Again, this makes sense when we consider that making a food off limits (restricting) makes the food more desirable.
Although there isn't scientific evidence for food addiction at this time, the experience of feeling out of control around food is very real and I don't want to discount that. However, there is evidence that how we relate to food can lead to guilt, restriction, binges, and generally feeling out of control around food.
In light of this, it can be helpful to consider under what circumstances you feel out of control around food. Is it when you're alone or with others? At a certain location? During a certain time of day? Does it occur with specific foods or types of foods? What are your beliefs or thoughts when you consider eating those foods? What is your emotional state or degree of stress?
Many times, the answers to these questions can provide valuable insights into food struggles. When we physically or mentally restrict our intake, judge ourselves for eating certain foods, or are used to coping with stress and emotions using only food, it is easy for eating to end up feeling out of control.
If you come home ravenous because you missed lunch and stressed about work and have no food around except for a large container of ice cream, it doesn't mean you're addicted to food if you eat the whole container of ice cream. It means you're hungry!
The good news is that hope is not lost. You don't have to feel out of control around food! Eating regularly and adequately, giving yourself permission to eat a variety of foods without judgement, and building trust around foods you've previously felt out of control around can go a long way in making peace with food.
Like I said above, I've seen this freedom happen. Honestly, I've experienced it myself! I used to think I just couldn't buy cereal, crackers, chips, or ice cream because I'd basically always end up eating the whole container and not feeling well. Now that I'm not afraid to honor my hunger cues throughout the day, I choose foods that are satisfying, and I don't categorize foods as "good" or "bad", I no longer feel out of control around these foods. I can eat any food in an amount that is filling and satisfying and then move on without judgement.
I won't say it's an easy process to come to the place of being at peace with food but it is worth it. Can you even imagine what it would be like to eat without feeling out of control and beating yourself up with guilt and shame? That kind of freedom is so worth the work it takes to get there.
If you want to stop feeling out of control around food, I'd love to work with you in that process! Click the banner below or click here to apply to work together.
For more on food addiction, check out dietitian Marci Evans on episode 38 of The BodyLove Project podcast for a fantastic summary of the science and how to move toward a more peaceful relationship with food.
If you feel like you've tried giving yourself permission around food and still feel out of control or addicted to food, I'd highly recommend this short blog post by dietitian Rachael Hartley on giving yourself FULL permission around food.