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We all need food, but some of us just can't get enough. Can it get so bad that you're actually addicted to food?

I have recently embarked on a "weight loss journey", but I'll readily admit I used to have a problem with food. I self-identified as a foodie for a while, but since that entails having refined, fancy tastes, the label didn't really fit. Basically, if food was anywhere near me and I considered it vaguely palatable, it'd go down the hatch. I wanted food when I socialized with people, when I was bored, when I was anxious, when there was something to celebrate, when I was hungry, and when I was full. It was more of a constant grazing — so I definitely didn't have binge-eating disorder, but I did have a problem. I didn't take note of how many calories I consumed, not even roughly, and when I started, it became more than clear why the pounds had been piling up over the last decade or so. 

Was I addicted to food? Is it possible to be a food addict?

Is there such a thing as a food addiction? If so, what causes it?

Quite a lot of research is devoted to answering this very question, and the results are both contradictory and controversial. The fact that different definitions of addiction exist is, at least partially, to blame for this. One meta-analysis that evaluated a large number of studies that all sought to find out whether food addiction is real uncovered some features of addictive behavior in relation to food, however. Obviously, not everyone who really likes food or eats way too much will have these characteristics, but those who do may be dangerously close to having a real addiction. 

  • Research shows that "food addicts" can experience brain chemistry changes, including alterations in how dopamine and opioid receptors work. 
  • Like other addicts, "food addicts" can become completely preoccupied with food. They eat food in larger amounts than they planned to, and feel bad about it afterwards. They spend a lot of time eating, trying to obtain food, and recovering from eating too much food, just like, say, an alcohol would do with alcohol. They crave food when it's not there. 
  • There are some signs that some foods can induce tolerance, for instance, needing more soda to experience the same positive effect from it. Refined carbs, sugar, and fats — in short, processed foods — are noted offenders here. Abstaining from these foods may also cause withdrawal symptoms.
  • Problem eaters may have a genetic risk, a high risk of relapsing, and be chronic problem eaters. These features are also present in other substance addictions.
  • An inability to abstain even if you want to, the addiction messing with social and work obligations, and continuing to use the substance despite clear negative consequences are other commonly accepted features of addiction, and it's not yet clear, scientifically, whether people have this kind of relationship with food. (We can easily see how someone would continue to engage in problem eating despite obesity, high-cholesterol levels, deficiencies in certain nutrients, and so on, though!)
In short, the relationship some people have with food certainly comes very close to addiction, even though they may not meet all the criteria usually associated with addiction. 

Could you be a food addict?

Whether or not it can be classified as a real addiction, here are some signs that you're a "food addict":

  • You eat too much, and have been doing that for a good while.
  • You've tried to cut down unsuccessfully.
  • You continue doing it even though you know it's bad, and it messes with your life or health in a negative way.
  • You think about food a lot. 
  • You use food to try to feel better. 
  • Eating food makes you feel less satisfied or happy than it used to. You may eat even more to make up for this.
  • When you read about the general features of addiction, you think they apply to you with regards to food.

Can you do anything about it?

Yes, you can. Food addiction not being universally recognized as a real addiction and research on the topic reaching contradictory conclusions, I'm going to go ahead and take some liberties. That is, I'll combine scientific recommendations with some advice from my own experiences.

Addiction is a chronic illness that you can manage and be in remission from, but never quite overcome — you're always vulnerable to relapse. The goal of managing an alcohol addiction is to stay away from alcohol forever, as just one drink can lead to a full-on relapse. The goal of managing a cigarette addiction is to never light up again. The goal of managing a gambling addiction is to never gamble again. It's not that easy with food. You have to eat, obviously. 

When trying to manage a food addiction, it's important that you don't get addicted to "not eating" instead. That is, be watchful that you don't develop an(other) eating disorder. What's worked for me is to assign the right amount of calories to myself each day, through a nutrition-tracking app, and to make sure I hit the right macronutrients. Radically increasing my protein intake (I'm vegetarian and was getting way too little) has helped me feel full and satisfied for longer, so I don't crave empty carbs even if they're right in front of me. But I also need some flexibility.

I've been on boring diets involving meal plans in the past, and because my food was lacking in taste, the process leading up to a binge resembled that of an erupting pimple. (And was just as inevitable.) I even have "bad foods" sometimes, but the calorie limit is also my limit, and I don't go over. I very much try not to eat when I am not hungry and it's mostly working. I guess that means I didn't have a full-on addiction, since real addicts use their substance even when they don't want to, but these tips are also found in scientific studies so perhaps they'll work for you, too. 

Adding exercise to your routine can also help, not just with weight loss, but also with getting those good feelings from another source. Because many people eat more when they're stressed, the stress reduction exercise often offers can also work wonders. Other ways to reduce stress include cutting out stressors (let's say, cutting those visits from your mother-in-law down to once a month or hiring a cleaning lady so you don't have to do so much at home), engaging in fun and meaningful activities, and practicing meditation. 

If those things don't work? Seek therapy. Psychodynamic therapy is likely to be good for you as it focuses on underlying issues that may be contributing to your weird relationship with food, but cognitive behavioral therapy can also be useful. Here, you learn to correct thought patterns that are doing you more harm than good. You don't need an official food addiction diagnosis to reap the benefits of talk therapy!

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