Is food addiction a real condition?

There’s a current debate among healthcare professionals who study food and addiction about whether there is such a thing as food addiction. Some would rather call it food obsession, or refer to conditional names such as problem eating, emotional eating, or overeating to describe variations on eating problems.

Regardless of the debate, the idea that one can become addicted to food is gaining traction because the science is starting to point in that direction. Recent experiments conducted on both animals and humans indicate that, for some, the same ‘reward and pleasure’ centers of the brain that are activated by addictive drugs — ex., heroin and cocaine — can also be triggered by foods rich in sugar, fat and salt. Highly palatable foods can increase brain chemicals like dopamine in the same way addictive drugs do.

Clearly there is a “feel-good” factor here. When someone eats certain foods and experiences the pleasure associated with rising dopamine levels in the brain, they may quickly feel the need to eat again. In fact, the reward signals created by consuming highly palatable foods may even supersede other important signals — like the ones that make you feel full or satisfied. Some have also suggested that people can actually develop a ‘tolerance’ to food. When that happens, the more a person consumes the less they are satisfied.

So can food be an addiction or not? Well, the signs are certainly pointing to YES. It is after all true that individuals with eating problems DO continue to eat despite negative consequences — ex., obesity, weight gain, and damaged interpersonal relationships — and there is no doubt that this behavior is strikingly similar to the actions of those who have drug or gambling addictions. My Addiction Physician ™ can help individuals cope with food addiction. Two main conditions that stem from food addiction — and for which we offer comprehensive addiction treatment plans and guidance — are obesity and being overweight.

Obesity / Overweight: Key Statistics

Estimated annual medical costs of obesity in the U.S. alone (2008): ~$147 billion dollars

Obesity and being overweight are not just problems for the U.S., though, as they are also leading risks for deaths globally. Even more important to note is that being overweight or obese causes deaths that are preventable. It is estimated that about 3.4 million adults globally will die every single year as a result of obesity or being overweight. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ~44% of the diabetes burden, ~23% of the ischaemic heart disease burden, and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer burdens can be attributed to obesity and being overweight.

Approximate % of U.S. Children (ages 2 thru 19) who are obese: 17%
Approximate % of U.S. Adults who are obese: 35%
Approximate % of Adults GLOBALLY who are overweight: 35%
Approximate % of Adults GLOBALLY who are obese: 11%

Causes of Food Addiction / Obesity / Overweight

The common threads that run through all types of addictions are right there, driving food addiction in the same way: too many negative thoughts and emotions and too few gratifications in life. This vicious cycle causes maladaptive behaviors like problem eating and overeating, which brings us to the frequent result of food addiction: being overweight or obese.

So, we’ve spoken briefly to the mental and emotional components driving food addiction, which in turn can lead to being overweight or obese. What about the biological components? This is a pretty straightforward issue. The fundamental biological reason for obesity and being overweight can be characterized as an energy problem — or an imbalance between consumed calories and used calories.

Also know that numerous dietary changes and social factors are at work. In recent times the world has seen a paradigm shift in available types of food which has contributed a global imbalance in calories consumed vs. calories burned. Many more of today’s foods are processed than were in the past, and so there have been significant increases in the human intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fats.

Simultaneously, many professional or vocational occupations over time have become more sedentary in nature and therefore the average amount of human physical activity has declined. There are literally too many factors to list when considering what contributes to being overweight or obese! However, you can imagine that those factors involve changing trends in agriculture, transportation and distribution, societal norms, food processing techniques and prevalence, marketing, education, information access, and ever increasing urbanization — all of these things play a role! Suffice it to say that wherever physical activity declines, so do the calorie expenditures.

Obesity / Overweight: Health Risks

The risks associated with obesity and being overweight cannot be overstated, because these are preventable conditions. When individuals are overweight or obese their BMI (Body Mass Index) is considered to be higher than normal. Having a higher than normal BMI is a serious risk factor for noncommunicable diseases including, but not limited to:

  • Diabetes
  • Osteoarthritis and other musculoskeletal disorders
  • Heart disease and strokes (the leading leading cause of death in 2012 globally)
  • Some forms of cancers, including endometrial, breast, and colon cancer

Childhood obesity also carries risk factors that can damage physical and emotional well-being. The probability of adult obesity is higher, as well as premature death or disability. Children with weight problems are also more prone to experiencing breathing problems, hypertension, bone fractures, future cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and psychological problems.

At My Addiction Physician we can help both children and adults to cope with food addictions, weight problems, obesity, overeating, problem eating, and emotional eating. If problem eating has stolen your independence we can help you get it back. We can build a comprehensive plan to address the unique condition of each individual and in the end, help you live a healthier and happier life! Reach out today.


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