Recovery Bytes

Food Addiction, by Lori Herold, RD, LD

food illustrating the concept of food addiction

If you had asked me years ago if I believed that food could be an addiction like alcohol and drugs, I would have said “no”.  I did not distinguish between an overweight individual and someone who was truly addicted to food. I also did not recognize that normal weight and underweight people could also be suffering from a food addiction. I was convinced that a “food problem” could never be as devastating as alcohol and drugs. Well, I was wrong.

Once I started working in the eating disorders field and had recorded hundreds of diet histories from food addicts, I found that they do intoxicate themselves with food, overmedicate themselves with food and reportedly feel drunk from the effects of food.

When you compare the criteria used for substance dependence and hear the increased amounts of food the food addict needs to use, withdrawal symptoms, inability to cut down or control food, how they isolate themselves, give up all the important activities they used to do, and despite knowing the physical consequences they continue to use the food to excess – then you realize that this is a very complicated problem. Food addiction can lead to a cycle of bingeing and purging that is very much out of control.

So, can food act like a drug? Absolutely! Do people become dependent on that drug? Yes. This is why they will have some of the same withdrawal effects when they no longer have that drug. Now to add a little biochemistry…

Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter that helps our bodies to feel calm. It also improves our mood and sense of well-being.  Serotonin dysfunction can present itself in different ways including alcoholism, compulsive overeating, panic disorders, depression, and many other forms. It is believed that Serotonin levels are much lower in compulsive overeaters than in non-binge eaters. When Serotonin is low, you may feel depressed and feel some discomfort.  Medicating yourself with food and feeding your feelings, especially with sugar, white flour, high fat and highly processed foods, boosts Serotonin in the brain, thus making you feel better This feeling is temporary. These foods act as drugs to medicate a poorly functioning serotonin-emotional system.

Alcohol and food can have the same effect on the body to make us temporarily feel better. It appears that many alcoholics have a deficiency in serotonin. Alcohol is used to boost serotonin. Alcohol is a processed grain that is much like liquid sugar. An alcoholic will self-medicate with alcohol the same way a food addict with self medicate with sugar, white flour, high fat, and highly processed carbohydrates (chips, Doritos, Cheetos, etc).

When the food addict comes into treatment and admits that they are powerless over food, admits that their lives have become unmanageable and begins working the 12 Steps – their obsession with food is lifted.  They learn to live without eating compulsively and become abstinent. After adjusting to a new way of eating and a new food plan (which is not a diet), the client is restored to a happy, productive life. We emphasize the importance of abstaining from all binge foods and foods that trigger these cravings. Turning Point’s goal is for the client to find a life of recovery. Looking at this as a food problem and NOT a weight problem can make all the difference. If you take care of yourself and take care of the food, the weight will take care of itself.