Food Addiction Treatment: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Potential "Cures"
Before getting into food addiction help, we need to figure out whether you are classified as “addicted”.
First, a bit of trivia… Which is more addictive: cocaine or Oreo’s?
Now on to whether you are actually addicted. We have adapted a "quiz" developed by a Yale researcher in order to give us some information about your status.
Now that you have some idea where you stand with food addiction, review and click the sections below for all you need to know about food addiction.
We all have to eat to survive, so aren’t we all food addicts?
In a way, yes, which is why compared to other forms of addiction, food addiction is particularly complicated.
Fortunately, the scientific and psychological communities, along with our culture in general, are beginning to recognize and clarify the issue (3).
This section explains food addiction and the current debate surrounding it, including…
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as:
“A primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors” (4).
In short, food addiction is when the need for food leads someone to desire and pursue it over other reasonable considerations such as personal health, family, friends, work, or strong personal desires like appearance or avoiding obesity related health issues like diabetes.
For most of human history, finding enough food to survive was difficult. In some environments, food was extremely scarce, and people who stored extra nutrients, such as fat, were able to survive, while those who did not store as much fat didn’t make it.
Over the course of only a few decades, we’ve experienced a rapid shift that flipped this evolutionary benefit on its head. We now have an abundance of food at our fingertips, and the human body simply has not keep up with the speed of change.
One fun and satisfying way to get in your daily exercise and end up with yummy, delicious food is to start a little personal garden. It gets you up and moving, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a healthy sandwich or salad with ingredients from your own garden. Plus, playing in the dirt never gets old. Here is a great resource to learn more about the best ways to garden organically.
We have also altered the kinds of food we eat in significant and important ways. “Junk food” is now a substantial part of many modern diets. Junk food even has its own scientific term: hyperpalatable food. It is so appealing to our basic craving for fats and sugars that we have serious difficulty resisting it – possibly to the level of a cocaine high.
This is an especially big problem because of how our bodies and brains are wired. Our bodies secrete certain hormones that tell us when we’re full, but hyperpalatable food may be overriding those hormones by overstimulating our reward centers, much like our bodies and brains react to an addictive drug.
If left unchecked, this process can cause us to overeat and eventually lead to obesity, even for people who were not previously overweight. In fact, many in the obesity community are suggesting that a large part of the obesity epidemic is caused by food addiction.
If you’re interested in more information click here for a deeper dive into obesity and our genetics.
- Food addiction is not universally recognized
- But it is gaining acceptance as a legitimate problem
Food addiction treatment becomes even more difficult when considering it alongside other more “established” food disorders. This has led to a debate in the community about the exact place food addiction should occupy in the area of eating and substance abuse conditions.
Reasons Food Addiction Is Not Universally Recognized
The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Version Five) (5) is the final word on anything psychiatric and is where the discussion usually begins for mental health diagnoses.
During the transition from the 4th to the 5th version, some advocated that obesity and addiction be viewed as essentially the same thing. This, however, was not ultimately accepted – many understandably did not want to label obese people as essentially mentally insane.
Some also argued that the addiction model for understanding food behaviors had some shortcomings, as well as gaps in hard support (6). As a result, food addiction was not officially recognized, still leaving its exact classification a little murky.
Reasons Food Addiction Is Gaining Acceptance
The idea of treating food addiction as a true addiction now has many advocates. For example, Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, controversially announced her support in 2012 for treating food addiction similar to other forms of addiction (7). While this and other advocacy have not led to full acceptance of the concept of food addiction, it has led to a greater awareness of it.
Food addiction also seems to stand on its own when comparing it to other overeating disorders. For instance, one disorder recognized by the DSM-V that is commonly misrepresented as food addiction is Binge Eating Disorder, or BED.
Food Addiction and BED do have many similarities such as (8):
- Diminished control over consumption of food
- Continued eating despite the negative consequences (personal weight or relationships)
- Diminished ability to cut down or abstain from eating
- Elevated comorbidity with mood/anxiety disorders
However, there are a few key differences like:
- BED is associated with elevated concerns about shape or weight, whereas addictive behaviors might not incite such strong concerns
- BED must happen over a specific period of time, whereas addiction does not have a time cut off
- BED does not place greater emphasis on the substance itself, whereas addiction diagnoses place a greater emphasis on the substance (so for food addiction this diagnosis would pay attention to the types of food being eaten, not just the fact food was being eaten generally)
As you can see, distinguishing between an eating disorder and food addiction can be surprisingly complicated.
Back to Your Food Addiction Treatment Options
If you feel that you may have food addiction, seek out personal, individualized help. Although there is disagreement among the professional community, experts can still help you navigate those disagreements and help you make the best decision possible.
As referenced above, consider contacting one or more of the following:
- Your primary care physician to discuss all of your options, including prescriptions or referrals to a dietitian or weight loss surgeon
- An experienced dietitian to discuss special food addiction diets
- A professional psychologist to help you through the emotional aspect of your addiction
- In-person or online support groups to get the peer support you need to succeed
- A top weight loss surgeon who usually have access to experienced psychologists and dietitians who focus on obesity-related issues
- Special diet
- Prescription drugs
- Medically supervised weight loss, professional counseling, and peer support
- Weight loss surgery
Is there a cure to food addiction?
Because food is a vital part of life, it is more complicated to treat food addiction than other addictions, such as alcohol or gambling. Ultimately you have to eat to survive, but you don’t have to drink or play cards.
While the scientific understanding of food addiction is still evolving, and there is no hard and fast food addiction cure, there are a few options that can help:
Instead of being specially designed to help you lose weight, these diets are crafted to help you adjust your habits and lifestyle.
For example, they help you properly portion your food so that you receive all the nutrients you need while also helping you to avoid overeating.
Explore the following resources for sample food addiction diets:
There have been several attempts at creating a drug to “cure” addiction. However, this effort has been somewhat disappointing:
- Belviq (Lorcaserin) stimulates something called the serotonin 2C receptor, which has been shown to reduce nicotine desire in rats and may have other application to addictive behaviors. Its effectiveness in humans has been less than ideal, with weight loss less than 10% of body weight.
- Rimonabant has been shown to reduce the desire for food. Unfortunately, it has also been linked to negative psychological side effects, like depression, and seems to be a long way away from being a viable weight loss option.
Talk with your doctor to determine whether these, or other prescription drugs, may be an option for you.
Professional counselors, dietitians, and support groups are a very worthy option to try if you haven’t already. The personal interaction and support of experienced professionals and other people battling the same demons as you has been found to be much more effective than going it alone.
The following resources will help you find support groups, both online and off, in your area:
- In-Person Support Groups:
- Meet Up is a platform for people to organize local, in-person groups, such as weight loss groups.
- Online Support:
- SparkPeople offers free nutrition advice, health-and-fitness tools, and a large online community and resources to help you lose weight.
- PEERtrainer "teams" you with a small group of others like you to share with each other your diet, exercise, and other weight loss habits. Through this regular logging and peer support the chance you’ll lose weight is much increased.
- United States:
- Medically supervised weight loss:
- BMIQ Professionals Program – Ask your doctor if they participate in this program, which uses a combination of online tools, medical advice, and lifestyle change to help you lose weight.
- Professional Counseling (Psychologist)
- Medically supervised weight loss:
- Looking for an online support group for Canadians? Canadians working together is a PEERtrainer group looking for Canadian members
- Calorie King Australia has several ways to connect with others, including forums, live chats, and optional access to a member directory.
- Weightloss.com.au has TONS of forums so you can connect with others close to you about anything from parenting and weight loss to the recipe of the week to "home grown tips".
- United Kingdom:
- Find a Weight Loss Support Group in the U.K. using this search tool from the National Health Service.
It is difficult for us to understate the effectiveness of these support groups if you are trying to lose weight.
For example, one study from the Baylor College of Medicine found that patients who had access to support groups lost 10.1 pounds on average, compared to 1.3 pounds for those who did not attend meetings (9). Another study from 2011 looked at all the studies published to date on weight loss and support groups. Out of the 20 studies they looked at, ALL 20 found a positive relationship between weight loss and attending support groups (10).
These are pretty conclusive results. If you want to lose weight, find a group to help you.
One effective approach often used by these professionals and groups to help battle food addiction is a variation of the 12 Step Program Approach. Developed in 1939 by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to treat alcohol addiction, groups like Overeaters Anonymous and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous have adopted these 12 steps which includes:
- Honesty – We admitted we were powerless over our food addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Hope – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Faith – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
- Courage – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Integrity – Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Willingness – Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humility – Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
- Self-discipline – Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Love – Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Perseverance – Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Spiritual Awareness – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Service – Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to food addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs (11) (12).
If you are interested in trying this approach, these resources will help you get started:
- Experienced psychological professionals:
- Popular Peer Support Groups:
Weight loss surgery, also called bariatric surgery, helps patients lose weight by reducing the amount of food they can eat, making them feel full sooner, and/or reducing the amount of food that the body can absorb.
Some weight loss surgery procedures, including gastric sleeve, gastric bypass, and duodenal switch, also impact hormones secreted by your body that make you feel hungry. In theory, this means that fewer "hunger signals" will be sent to your brain following surgery, making you less likely to want to eat.
Gastric Sleeve Surgery
If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into bariatric surgery, the gastric sleeve procedure is a good place to start. One of the most important results from our surgeon’s survey was the growing popularity of this procedure. The combination of high weight loss and low complications vs other procedures has made gastric sleeve the new "gold standard" bariatric surgery.
If you’re curious, read more about the gastric sleeve here.
At a minimum, weight loss surgery helps patients lose weight by causing them to feel full sooner, making them less likely to overeat, and prevents their bodies from absorbing as much food.
Despite the impressive average weight loss and health improvement results (for example, the average gastric sleeve patient loses between 64% and 75% of their excess weight), many patients still struggle with food addiction over the long term. These patients must figure out other ways to address their addiction or risk long-term weight regain.
Most weight loss surgeons and practices have access to an experienced psychologist and support groups to help with ongoing food addiction issues, and many offer free in-person or online seminars to help you determine whether surgery is an option for you.