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Is It Possible to Become Psychologically Addicted to Food?

Food Addiction

The word “addiction” typically brings to mind drug or alcohol dependence. But individuals can be addicted to anything that triggers their pleasure center or is perceived to fulfill a need – like sex, gambling, video games, shopping, a certain food, or any number of other substances or activities.

Addiction means the body has become dependent, physically or psychologically, on a particular substance or activity, and needs that substance or behavior to feel a positive sense of well-being. When we experience something pleasurable, our brain is triggered to release chemicals like dopamine that cause a euphoric rush. Neurotransmitters in the brain that signal the intense “high” work similarly whether the substance is food, drugs, or alcohol, and reinforce a craving to re-experience the feeling.

What is food addiction?

Food addiction is similar to drug or alcohol addiction, in that the body adapts to and becomes dependent on certain foods or specific eating behaviors. The Food Addiction Institute describes food addiction as “a chronic and progressive disease characterized by our seeking the foods or food behaviors we are addicted to, eating/doing them compulsively and having a great deal of difficulty controlling these urges despite harmful consequences.”

The Institute says the most commonly addictive foods are those high in sugar, flour, fat, grains and salt or some combination of these ingredients. They describe the most common addictive eating behaviors as bingeing, purging and volume eating.

The Yale Food Addiction Scale, a questionnaire based on diagnostic substance dependence criteria, was designed to assess and diagnose food addiction. Their criteria is based on an inability to control consumption of sweets, starches, salty foods, high fat foods, and sugary drinks.

An article on the diagnosis and treatment of food addiction published by the Danube Symposium of Psychiatry also found strong similarities between food addiction and drug, alcohol and other addictive behaviors and recommend similar treatment approaches.

The difference between physical and psychological addiction

Physical addiction to a substance means that your body will physically react if the substance is no longer present. Physical withdrawal symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, can occur within a few hours of the last use. It usually takes regular use of the addictive substance for a period of time for the body to reach a state of physical addiction.

Psychological addiction is more of an emotional, rather than physical, craving for a substance or behavior. If a person has become psychologically dependent on something and then stops that behavior, they won’t have physical withdrawal symptoms but they may have emotional withdrawal symptoms like anxiety or depression.

Both physical and psychological addictions are reinforced by the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Dopamine, a “feel good” brain chemical, regulates our emotions and motivation. When eating certain foods triggers the increase of dopamine, pleasure results, motivating us to eat more of that food. This cycle can reach the point where the craving to eat certain foods becomes intolerable unless the urge is satisfied. As the behavior continues, it can lead to tolerance.

Tolerance results as the brain adapts to the presence of certain substances or behaviors that trigger the pleasure and reward center. As the brain adjusts, the level of reward that is triggered diminishes, so the “high” experienced is reduced. This tolerance encourages the person to eat increasingly higher or more frequent amounts of the trigger food to achieve the desired response.

A statement by the American Society of Addiction Medicine calls addiction “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry…This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” This psychological addiction is intensified as tolerance increases.

Food addiction may be related to psychological factors

According to a Harvard Medical Center newsletter, “The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal.” When the pleasure center of the brain is activated, learning, motivation, and memory are also triggered. This combination, according to the newsletter, can spur “the transition from liking something to becoming addicted to it.”

Numerous twin and adoption studies have shown that approximately 50% of predisposition to drug, alcohol, and smoking addiction is genetic. With food addiction, however, psychological factors seem to play a far greater role than genetics. For all addictions, behavior and coping skills strongly influence whether a person’s brain reinforces the addictive behavior.

Traumatic events in a person’s life, especially when they occurred at a young age, have been shown to have a strong impact on food addiction and obesity. Events like abandonment, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse drive many to find ways to numb their pain. Some turn to food, especially high-sugar and high-fat foods, for comfort.

The study “Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and food addiction in women,” published by JAMA Psychiatry found that women with PTSD symptoms had a much greater incidence of food addiction than those without symptoms of trauma. Women with 6-7 symptoms of PTSD had more than twice the prevalence of food addiction, especially when trauma occurred at an early age. The association between PTSD and food addiction was similar independent of the type of trauma.

The study “Abuse Victimization in Childhood or Adolescence and Risk of Food Addiction in Adult Women,” published in the journal Obesity found, “Severe physical and severe sexual abuse were associated with roughly 90% increases in food addiction.” Childhood abuse was found to be most strongly associated with food addiction. “Women who had experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 18 years were almost twice as likely to have a food addiction in middle adulthood compared with women without a history of childhood abuse,” the study concluded. Women who experienced both physical and sexual abuse in childhood had the highest risk for food addiction. According to the study, abuse, neglect, or other trauma in children or teens may “significantly affect your frontal cortex, thereby making you more susceptible to addiction.”

If you have or think you may have, a food addiction, there are many resources available to help. Turning Point of Tampa offers a nationally recognized Eating Disorders/Food Addiction Program, utilizing a comprehensive 12-Step based treatment approach.

Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987. If you need help or know someone who does, please contact our admissions department at 813-882-3003, 800-397-3006 or admissions@tpoftampa.com.