Christian Living

Family Matters 10/17/12

Is Food Addiction Real?

This week, I did a webinar for the American Association of Christian Counseling on Body Image and Food Addiction. Both are family problems. People struggle with hating their bodies and compulsively eating even when overeating does harm. But, the food addiction as a real addiction is a bit controversial.

The scientific community is currently debating whether food is a real addiction. More studies are needed, but the idea that people can be addicted to food is gaining ground. Because of neuroscience, we can see into the brain and recognize the neural pathways similar in food addition to other types of addiction.

That said, food addiction is NOT a mental illness, nor is it a category in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental illness that lists substance abuse as an addiction. However, it is possible that there are subsets of people capable of abusing food as a substance.  For a certain group of people who struggle with overeating, this classification may make some sense even though the jury is still out.

A doctoral student at Yale, Gearhardt, has found that obsessive food cravings can be set off by food triggers like walking past a bakery. Part of the brain that houses the ability to have the willpower to resist eating sort of goes offline. Other researchers such as Eric Stice, at the Oregon Research Institute, found that a career of overeating blunts the reward receipt in the brain in a similar way that drug abuse does.  Functional MRIs show similar patterns of neural activation between eating and substance abuse. David Ludwig at Harvard is studying food cravings related to large amounts of consumption of processed food. He is finding consumption to change the way the brain is wired.

Food addiction advocates identify early warning signs as obsession with food, eating to relieve worry and stress, eating until so full that one feels sick, feeling anxious while eating, overeating because food is available., eating fast to eat more, eating everything on the plate despite feeling full, guilt with eating, secretive eating, food bingeing after dieting and avoiding food. 

Obviously, an abstinence approach with food is impossible. We all have to eat multiple times a day. So treatment programs based on 12-step models are now available, as well as other treatments.

I’m following the research of this evolving field, but not sure if I believe that food is in the same category as cocaine or other drugs. We can agree that treatment is needed to stop obsessing and compulsive eating regardless of how you think about food addiction.

What are your thoughts about food addiction?