What is food addiction?
In our modern culture we often use expressions such as ‘chocaholic’, ‘sweet fix’, and ‘sugar addict’, right? We also talk about food ‘cravings’ and ‘withdrawal’. All of these are words commonly used in relation to addiction. But if you went to your doctor and said you’re addicted to food you’d probably get a blank stare.
Rest assured, food addiction exists, and with all the modern highly processed foods out there, it’s incredibly common. In an Australian research study led by Dr Tracy Burrows, over 20% of participants showed signs of food addiction! Canadian food addiction specialist Dr Vera Tarman indicated that the prevalence of food addiction could be as high as 30% in any given Western population.
In her groundbreaking book Food Addiction – The Body Knows (1993) the expert Kay Sheppard describes food addiction as repeated compulsive episodes of uncontrolled eating despite negative consequences. She says food addiction is a metabolic, biochemical imbalance of the brain and body that creates craving for refined foods. The addictive eater is obsessed with food, preoccupied with weight and body image and progressively loses control over the amount of food they consume. Dr Vera Tarman, in her book Food Junkies – The Truth About Food Addiction (2014), describes food addiction as a condition where particularly highly processed foods can’t be consumed without developing strong physical cravings and mental obsessions about food. She says that you can be addicted not only to specific foods, but also to quantity.
It’s common for people to develop eating disorders to try and control their underlying food addiction. The obsession with food means they can’t stop eating and become concerned about their weight gain. They begin using disordered ways of dealing with the problem, such as fasting, purging through vomiting, using laxatives or over-exercising. In many cases, the addictive eater gives up any attempts to control their food, leading to rapid obesity.
Food addiction involves a great deal of shame which prevents sufferers from seeking help. Ashamed of not being able to control their food consumption, a food addict will often eat moderately in front of others and then binge in secret. After a binge they feel a sense of guilt, remorse and self-contempt, with a firm resolution to never binge again. Yet, the combination of the physical craving and the mental obsession always sets off a new cycle of binge eating leading to even greater despair, shame and isolation.
It’s pretty serious. According to Sheppard, food addiction is chronic, progressive and ultimately fatal. It’s chronic because the condition never goes away, progressive because the symptoms always get worse over time and fatal because the addictive eater will die an early death, usually as a result of obesity related diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, or as a result of deteriorating mental health.
As the food addiction progresses, more time is needed to manage it. The addictive eater spends a huge amount of time food shopping, preparing food, hiding traces of binges, vomiting or using laxatives, exercising, or recovering from the physical discomfort of a binge. Compounding problems such as financial strain, not showing up for work, health issues and social problems often accompany the addiction.
Researchers are beginning to recognise that food addiction may be a key contributor to our global obesity epidemic. If you ask me, in a world where the majority of us are overweight or obese, it’s high time to take a closer look at food addiction and how to treat it.
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