Food addiction isn't a laughing matter. Sure, we all have those moments when we're in a bad mood and crunching angrily on a big bag of chips seems like the best way to cope. But there's a big difference between indulging once in a while and full-blown food addiction.
Not sure you can tell the difference? Don't worry, you're not alone. If you're having trouble figuring out if you have a problem or not, here's some expert advice that can help.
How to Spot the Signs of Food Addiction
Being addicted to food is just as serious as any other addiction — it's just rarely taken as seriously.
"Being a food addict isn't very different from a normal person who overeats. The food environment we're in today is actually pretty toxic," says Vera Tarman, MD, MSc, FCFP, author of Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction. "The food industry makes food intentionally addictive — there are even some commercials that say 'crave.' So if a person can't stop at one, it's not because they're a food addict — it's because they're exposed to food that was made addictive."
And if addiction runs in the family, it could make someone even more susceptible to developing an addiction themselves.
"There's a subpopulation who gets that hook like everyone else, but then they're vulnerable because of a previous addiction or genetics," Dr. Tarman says. "It's like an alcoholic who can't put down a drink; it's similar with food. Once they get going, they can't stop."
Tarman uses a series of questions to determine whether someone is addicted to food or not. Some examples are below, but it's important to note that this is not a medical diagnosis. The questions merely reflect what's commonly seen in cases of food addiction and help gauge the likelihood of addiction.
- Do you crave and obsess over food, even when you're not hungry?
- Have you ever wanted to stop eating but you couldn't?
- Do you eat unrealistically large quantities of food at one time?
- Do you eat when you're not hungry?
- Do you throw away food only to come back later and get it?
- Do you ever eat in secret different than how you'd eat in public?
- Have you ever stolen other people's food?
- Have you ever hidden food to make sure you'll have enough for yourself to eat after your guests leave?
- Have you ever felt guilty about how you can't control your food?
- Have you ever felt hopeless?
- Do you crave food or obsess about food so it becomes the focus or reward to the point where you might have something else planned, but food becomes more important?
For the full list of questions, visit Tarman's website here.
How to Get Help If You Think You're Addicted to Food
If you feel like your love of food has taken a dangerous turn, it might be time to get help from a professional.
"I tell people to explore, experiment, and see what works and what doesn't," says Judith Brisman, MD, founding director of the Eating Disorder Resource Center in Manhattan and author of Surviving an Eating Disorder: Strategies for Family and Friends. "See what it's like avoiding certain foods. Does it help? Does it make you want that food more? Ultimately, I'm a big believer in integrating a structure around eating, like having a sense of three meals a day and two snacks — something rhythmic that can work ongoing. Then listening to one's body about what's needed at each of those times."
For some people, food acts like a drug. You get a buzz, and you just can't stop.
Dr. Brisman recommends practicing intuitive eating and asking yourself some simple questions: Are you really hungry? If you aren't, what else do you need? Afterward, find out what you're really hungry for, whether that's a connection, speaking your mind, or something else entirely.
If you are hungry, Brisman says to experiment again — listen to what you want to eat, then listen to your body.
"Do you even know when you're full? The most important part is to find a way to get to know your body and your needs — both physical and emotional — and to find a way of eating over time that you can sustain," Brisman says. "If this is too hard to do on your own, specialists in the treatment of disordered eating can really be of help."
Tarman's approach is a little stricter and focuses on completely taking the trigger foods out of your diet, which usually means getting rid of junk food.
"For some people, food acts like a drug. You get a buzz, and you just can't stop," Tarman says. "Those people have to figure out what their trigger foods are, and like with any drug, they have to stop eating that food. That means no sugar, chips, bread, bagels, and popcorn — anything like that. I tell people to try a food addict diet for three months. That's eating vegetables, proteins — basically no processed food."
It might sound rough at first, but she says once someone makes it through, they feel free.
"People don't want to try it — it's a terrifying thought. But there's a message of hope in there. Those first couple weeks you stop, you go through withdrawals because you want your things, just like you would when quitting smoking or drinking. But if you make it through the first three or four weeks without picking up even a little bite of something you're not supposed to, you won't crave it anymore," Tarman says.
How to Support a Loved One Who Has a Food Addiction
If your relationship with food is fine but someone close to you is having a hard time, speak up. Sometimes it takes acknowledging there's a problem in the first place to move forward in fixing it.
"If someone is a food addict — meaning they turn to food repetitively and eat big quantities, fast-paced, often hidden and in shame — know they're hurting. They want to enjoy food the way everyone else enjoys food. This isn't fun for them," Brisman says. "Trying to know what's needed at those moments — turning to healthier options of self-care — is likely going to be the hardest thing they've ever done. Support them any way you can."