The Myths and Facts of Food Addiction

It's a condition, not a character flaw.

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Obsessing over drugs and alcohol is one thing, but obsessing over food is entirely different, right? Wrong.

In a small August 2015 study released by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers found that food cravings activate different brain networks in obese people than normal-weight people. You might have heard about it: To stimulate cravings, 39 obese participants and 42 normal-weight participants were offered buffet-style food before getting MRI brain scans. The obese study participants showed increased connectivity in the reward-processing center of the brain — much like the neural activity displayed by substance addiction — compared to the normal-weight participants.

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This finding suggests there may be a more complicated reason why some people struggle to control their food intake even when it's causing them physical and mental health issues. According to the study's lead researcher, Oren Contreras-Rodríguez, PhD, neuroscientists are advocating for a "food addiction model" of obesity that could change how we look at overeating.

Despite many reviews and editorials published on food addiction, Dr. Contreras-Rodriguez notes that there's still little clinical research on the topic. But that's likely to change as obesity rates continue to increase, so we asked two eating disorder and addiction experts to clear up some of the most common food addiction misconceptions.

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Myth: Food addiction isn't a real condition.

"There are many views on food addiction, and there's a lot of research to indicate that for some people, foods rich in sugar, fat, or salt can trigger the brain to produce neurochemicals such as dopamine, which allow for a feeling of calm," 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. "The desire for that physically-induced feeling results in food cravings that cause people to eat even when they aren't physically hungry."

And, much like a drug addiction, that desire can eventually become a mental and physical burden. "When overeating like this occurs, it may start out as pleasurable, but quickly the food isn't tasted and all the person feels is a craving for more, not a real hunger for or enjoyment of the food," Dr. Brisman says.

Questioning the "realness" of an illness doesn't do much to help people who are suffering. "There is no medical diagnosis yet, so professionally we're in limbo. A lot of people say it's not a disease — it's a choice. As an addictions doctor, I'm used to people being resistant about that, but I see people with food addictions every day in my practice," says Vera Tarman, MD, MSc, FCFP, author of Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction. "When I talk about it in the professional realm, it's very much dismissed. People talk about bulimia and binge eating disorder, but there's also another one: food addiction. There are people in the public who think it's funny, and it's not funny."

Myth: Food addiction is the same thing as loving food.

Just because you have a big meal and a big dessert doesn't mean you have a disorder or an addiction. "Everyone overdoes it with food at times. We all can eat too much, too fast — or want more of that cake we've just eaten," Brisman says.

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What sets people apart is if it becomes an uncontrollable habit. "Someone who loves food — someone who tastes the food and enjoys it and is not embarrassed about eating — is likely not a food addict. Someone can feel 'gross' afterward, wishing he or she hadn't eaten so much and thinking about 'losing weight' to offset a huge meal or dessert — that's normal," Brisman says. "But if the eating is repetitive, filled with shame and the person ultimately isn't enjoying the food, that's a different story. The question is one of frequency and whether the eating interferes in one's life."

Myth: Being a food addict is the same thing as being an emotional eater.

Don't worry — eating a carton of ice cream after a breakup is not a gateway behavior. "There's a big difference between being a food addict and being an emotional eater, and the way we tell the difference is asking if the treatment for emotional eating worked. If it has, you can't be a food addict because the treatment is entirely different — it's actually opposing," says Taman. "We see people who have tried everything and it hasn't worked. Then there's a good chance they're a food addict, because nothing we give for emotional eating helped — from medications to cognitive therapy."

Myth: Only obese people can be food addicts.

It's entirely possible for a food addict to have a normal waistline or BMI. "First, there are so many ways to restrict after eating a lot — most of my patients have jagged, extreme eating swings. They binge, then they starve or restrict or over-exercise. Their weight may be normal — even skinny," Brisman says. "The question is how the person uses food, not what one's weight is. Just because someone is thin doesn't mean they aren't a food addict."

Myth: Food addicts are only drawn to junk food.

Food addiction doesn't always mean drowning yourself in cake. These experts have seen it all — even those who stuff themselves full of fruit and vegetables until they're sick. "Usually food addicts are drawn to foods rich in sugar, fat, or salt. But many of my patients are drawn to anything. Some eat 12 apples at a time, another ate chicken and bowls of pasta — so much so that the chickens wouldn't fit in the refrigerator," Brisman says. "If someone has emptied the house of 'bad' food, I've heard of so many concoctions made out of desperation — flour mixed with water and cinnamon (the only things in the house) and then fried — just so there's something to eat."

Myth: Food addicts are weak and aren't trying to lead a healthy life.

Addiction is a serious condition that should be taken seriously — in all its forms. "The biggest food addiction myth I want to clear up is that people who are food addicts are weak or not trying if they continue to binge. This is a tough addiction," Brisman says. "Patients who have struggled with alcohol and drugs tell me that fighting food is harder than any other addiction because it's always there — you can't just avoid it."

Fact: Food addiction could have genetic ties.

Those with addiction in the family don't always go for the same vices. Instead of alcohol or drugs, sometimes it's easier to turn to food. "There are studies proving the genetic contribution to addictions of all kinds. Yes, an alcoholic parent may well produce a child who is a food addict. But also know parents who turn to substances to deal with feelings and difficulties teach children to do the same," Brisman says. "Whether it's drugs, alcohol, or food, parents may unwittingly teach their kids to turn to something outside of themselves to make their feelings go away."

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