We all love a good tasty dish, but for some that feeling towards food goes beyond love and can turn into an obsession. When that love becomes out of control, it may mean you have a food addiction.
According to Dr. Vera Tarman, medical director or Renascent, Canada’s largest drug and alcohol treatment centre, and author of Food Junkies, food addiction doesn’t mean you have an uncontrollable urge to eat all food, but rather sugary foods and processed foods.
And it’s a problem within our society that is growing exponentially, Tarman says.
“It’s addictive to anybody and everybody in the population because those foods are made to be addictive. But there are some people – just like many who can’t drink with discretion – some people can’t eat with discretion. They can’t have just a couple of cookies, for example, so they apply addictive type of behaviours to food like those foods just like a drug.”
The reason it’s becoming a bigger problem, Tarman says, is because these foods are becoming more and more accessible.
“The food that we’re eating is becoming increasingly saturated with sugar, and we’re eating more and more processed foods,” she says. “We normalized what we used to do on occasion to be done throughout the day at any time. So that constant exposure will make anybody potentially addicted.”
So what differentiates people who are addicted to food versus people who are just compelled to eat addictive foods?
The signs that may signal a food addiction are:
- If you’ve been using food as a way to cope, feel better or deal with boredom
- You cannot control the amount you eat
- You’re obsessing about food (when you’re not eating, you’re thinking about eating)
- You’re worried about what the effects of the food are doing to you (do you feel like you’re gaining weight?)
- Food is impairing your life (you’re obese or have been diagnosed with diabetes as a result of your eating habits)
The signs, Tarman adds, are not much different than if someone were addicted to alcohol or drugs, and can in fact be very similar.
And there are risk factors present that may make some more prone to developing such an addiction, Tarman adds.
- If you have a family history of any type of addiction
- Women tend to gravitate towards food as an addiction more than men
- Personal history (meaning they give up one addiction and replace it/substitute it with another, often times food)
- The level of exposure to addictive processed foods
- Previous mental health issues like ADHD or PTSD
A 2013 study in the journal Obesity also linked food addiction in adult women with childhood abuse. According to that study, women who experience severe physical or sexual abuse during childhood are much more likely to have a food addiction as adults than women who did not experience abuse.
Having a food addiction can take a toll on one’s physical and mental health, Tarman says.
For example, becoming overweight or obese may result from overindulging in such unhealthy foods. Diabetes may also manifest as a result.
“If you’re eating those foods and you can’t control it, it will affect your moods,” Tarman explains. “Eating that stuff messes with the neuro-chemistry in the same way other drugs can, … like when you use drugs you have that euphoric effect and then you have the crash.”
Food addiction isn’t a recognized medical diagnosis at the moment. But Tarman says clinicians everywhere are working toward changing that status. Tarman, in particular, says she has started that conversation with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
According to the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, “binge eating disorder” continues to be recognized in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disoders), and has become distinctly recognized from Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia nervosa. However, what remains in debate is whether binge eating is “underpinned” by an addiction disorder, and if it should be treated like other addictive disorders.
Evidence that food can be addictive has been reported over the years, according to the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior. Its 2011 study reported that clinical symptoms of food addiction are similar to those of drug addiction in a subset of people.
While food addicts weren’t any different in their age or body weight, they did display “an increased prevalence of binge-eating disorder and depression, and more symptoms of ,” the study says. They were characterized as having more impulsive personality traits, and were more sensitive to the “pleasurable properties of palatable foods.”
Treatment today in Canada is scarce, but there are resources out there to help food addicts navigate their addiction. One place to start is Renascent. Eating disorder treatment centers may also be another option. A list of such centres can be found on Eating Disorder Hope.
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