When thinking about addictive substances, most people will put illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes at the top of the list, without even giving a second thought to the food they consume on a daily basis. That makes sense, given that “food addiction” is not currently included in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard classification used by mental health professionals in the United States to diagnose addiction. However, perhaps it should be, as there are more than 100 million adults considered obese in the U.S. compared with the country’s 17.6 million alcoholics and one million chronic heroin users. Is “using” food America’s drug of choice?
The “jury” is still out, so to speak, when it comes to classifying food as an addiction. On the pro side, scientific research shows us that certain palatable foods can create a reaction similar to the impact drugs have on our brain. For example, when a person repeatedly eats sugar, which is hidden in so many of the foods that we consume, it causes dopamine to be released in reward-related areas of the brain. These same areas of the brain are activated when you drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. The reward from eating sugar can lead to further eating, ultimately making it hard to cut back on intake.
On the other hand, critics will argue that the because there are no clear signs of intoxication or withdrawal, no clear disruption of normal daily functioning, and no clear risk for overdose, food should not be considered an addictive substance. People also argue that you can’t be addicted to something you need to survive. But do we really need the added sugars and processed foods that permeate our food choices? Did cigarettes create clear signs of intoxication, overdose or barriers to normal daily functioning? Yet we know how harmful cigarettes are.
Whether or not you believe that food is an actual addiction that should be included in the DSM, there is no question that there is a problem. We can’t hide the fact that there is a growing epidemic across the globe with 2.1 billion people considered obese or overweight. In the United States, 69% of adults ages 20 and older and 18.4% of adolescents ages 12 to 19, are considered obese or overweight according to the CDC. We need to understand that obesity is a much more complex issue than eating too much or not going to the gym. When someone is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, we don’t just say, “Oh, they just lack will power. They simply need to redirect their impulses!”
Today, common approaches to weight loss such as fad dieting treat the symptom and not the disease. We need to dig deeper into the root of the cause to get a complete picture and understand why someone could be turning to food to control or quell an emotion, and treat obesity the same way we treat drug addiction.
If you or someone you know is struggling with food addiction, here are five topics to consider as an intervention:
- Be aware there is a deeper issue. If you are overweight or obese, know that you’re not failing because you lack will power. There are likely real biological, physiological, and/or emotional issues undermining your success. For instance, did you know that once your body has become accustomed to living in an overweight or obese state, it will always fight you to go back to that state? Even after you’ve lost weight! This may be a hard pill to swallow, so to speak, but I believe that knowledge is power. So be aware of how your biology is working against you.
- Facing the triggers. Start with being honest with yourself about your pattern of behavior when faced with the urge to over-eat or choose unhealthy food options. Are you an emotional eater? Do you plan events around food? Do you always have to have snacks with you? Do you eat when you’re bored? Tired? Stressed? These are all triggers that precede food consumption. Knowing what these triggers are, and being honest with yourself about your food behaviors, is the first step to changing them.
- Change your external circumstances. Similar to those who find themselves caught up using illicit drugs, food “addicts” need to break the cycle. We’re not talking about abstinence here, we’re talking about what’s called harm reduction. The ultimate goal is to stop “using” the foods of choice that are getting in your way of success, but the process to getting there is based in harm reduction; how can I use coping skills that reduce my risk of turning to food? Think about changing your daily routine. Swap that morning bagel full of empty calories and highly processed white flour with a healthier option like eggs and fruit. Make a conscious and mindful choice to do so. Choose activities that aren’t food-centric like watching a movie instead of going out to dinner. Be cognizant and mindful of the choices you make to help you stay on track with a healthier life.
- Enlist your friends and family. Don’t go it alone. Tell your family and friends about your plan to kick the habit and your decision to create a healthy lifestyle change, and encourage their support, even encourage them to join you on your journey. This one is tough—what if your partner wants to indulge in pizza every Friday night after work? This seems harmless, after all he or she doesn’t have any weight to lose! Similar to drug or alcohol addiction, this can be problematic for you. So get your partner on board. “Having pizza is problematic for me, it creates a barrier for me to be successful in my weight loss journey even if it is just once a week. I don’t think I’ll join you tonight, or perhaps you’d be willing to join me in making a different choice?” Training yourself to be assertive and asking for what you need on this journey is hard, but ultimately a skill you will need to be successful long-term. After all, food is everywhere, so learning the skills necessary to ask your loved ones for what you need is essential.
- Seek out support. Conquering an addiction requires commitment and support, as well as behavioral therapy and occasional medical intervention. Science tells us that immersive behavioral therapy is the most successful form of intervention for long-term weight loss success. There are many more resources now for weight-loss treatment than there were even 10 years ago. Seek out support for help with this multifaceted, complex issue.
It’s time to create a new healthy obsession with food. As we better understand how food can affect our minds and bodies, instead of using food as a drug, we can use that knowledge to nourish a healthy productive lifestyle for ourselves and our children.