Food Addiction: How to Know if You Have a Problem

Is it possible to be addicted to food? Here's why the addiction starts, who is most at risk, and how it can be overcome.

Michelle’s Story

It was the first date in nearly a decade for 30-year-old Michelle*. At more than 300 pounds, she was excited that someone found her attractive. But the guy turned out to be a complete jerk, and the night a total disaster. “Halfway through dinner, he started asking about my friend,” she recalls. But it was what he said next that is burned into her memory. “He said, ‘I saw a picture of you when you were thin and beautiful. What happened?'” Michelle snuck out while he was in the bathroom and took a cab home, humiliated and devastated.

Soon afterwards, Michelle joined Overeaters Anonymous to make sense of a lifetime of food habits gone wrong: At the age of eight, she ate stolen food in her cottage bedroom as other children splashed outside; in her 20s, she’d order takeout from two places and pray they didn’t arrive at once.

But it was around age 27, when a private detective tracked down her biological family, also obese, that Michelle learned where her insatiable appetite came from. “I didn’t inherit the fat, because when I eat normally I weigh normally, but inherited something else,” she says. “The stop mechanism that lives inside of normal people doesn’t live inside of me.”

If Michelle’s thinking sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a classic description of addiction. If Michelle were guzzling vodka or gambling compulsively, doctors would call it a disease and offer specific support. If she were to confess all of the above to her doctor, though, she’d likely be diagnosed with binge eating disorder or compulsive overeating, but not an addiction. (Here are reasons you may be overeating.)

“Generally, the medical profession disregards this and says it’s doesn’t even exist,” says Dr. Vera Tarman, author of Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction. Many doctors consider it a psychological compulsion rather than a physical addiction, she says. But recognizing it for what it is would go a long way to treating it, says Dr. Tarman, who has dealt with addiction from both sides as a recovering food addict herself, and as the medical director of Renascent, an addictions treatment centre in Toronto. “Binge eating disorder and addiction are fundamentally different, and treatment is fundamentally different,” says Dr. Tarman. In this case, labels matter in a big way.

Is the addiction to food or eating?

Studies on food addiction, meanwhile, are as split as they are sensational: “Oreos May Be As Addictive As Cocaine,” read a 2013 Time headline after one study found that cookies activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine in the pleasure centre of the brains of rats.

Another study, reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, revealed that human brains behaved similarly when reward centres went into overdrive for high-sugar chocolate milk (compared to less sweet, calorically identical milkshakes).

On the other hand, newer research from an international team of scientists studying the neurobiology of eating behaviour, addiction and stress has not shown strong evidence for a chemical addiction to food. These researchers propose that food addiction is a misnomer and eating addiction is a better description of a behavioural compulsion to eat.

Is the addiction caused by a hormone  imbalance?

Still, anecdotal evidence to the contrary is convincing. In food recovery since 2004, Dr. Tarman believes her addiction to sugar and white flour is no different than others’ to crack cocaine. Chemically, the brain is performing the same balancing act: when it comes to dopamine, the feel-good hormone associated with anticipation that surges when you think of love or your favourite song or cheeseburgers, and serotonin, the neurochemical that makes you calm, satisfied and content enough to put down your fork. Excess dopamine or insufficient serotonin causes insatiable cravings—wants are too great and rewards are too few.

Mike’s Story

And then there’s the story of Mike MacKinnon, a 48-year-old, health-conscious, personal trainer from Mississauga, ON. “I’m a recovered alcoholic and addict in general, and I promise you my food addiction was way worse than anything else,” he says. “When I ingest wheat, flour or sugar, it creates this phenomenon of craving that I can’t stop.” (Here are signs you’re eating too much sugar.)

MacKinnon was “clean,” as he calls it, for one year and three months when he succumbed to a bite of sourdough bread at The Keg. He finished the bread, ordered another basket and ate that, too, plus three desserts. Then, in the middle of the night, he got out of bed and headed to 7-Eleven for junk food. “My typical binges included a 12-slice pizza, a bag of cookies and eight chocolate bars,” he says.

How many Canadians are suffering from this addiction?

Without a term for diagnosis, experts can only speculate the scope of this problem. We can look to obesity rates (about 6.3 million Canadians, based on 2012 data), but that doesn’t provide an accurate picture since not all obese people are food addicts, nor are all addicts obese. (Like MacKinnon, some go through a continuous cycle of gaining and losing weight.) Dr. Tarman estimates that five percent of the general population and 30 to 40 percent of the obese population are food addicts.

As with all eating disorders, women are disproportionately affected. “Men tend to go for alcohol, women for food,” says Dr. Tarman. Already largely the domain of women, food is a very acceptable addiction. It’s also legal, affordable, available and conveniently delivered to your doorstep.

But we all overeat sometimes—Thanksgiving, anyone?—and most of us eat emotionally, too. Should we be worried we’re on the path to addiction?

“For me, food addiction is when you start to display addictive behaviours,” says Dr. Tarman. “If you become secretive about food, if you hide food for later, if you eat differently in public than you do in private.” If food starts to control your life, it’s a problem. (Here are signs you have a sugar addiction.)

How can food addicts receive treatment?

For Canadians looking for more information or guidance, Dr. Tarman recommends reading up on the issue, investigating a local chapter of Overeaters Anonymous, or seeking a private counsellor or reputable online community such as GreySheeters.

“We have more information about this than we ever have,” says Martha Peirce, a private counsellor and therapist in Hagersville, ON, who specializes in food addiction. And Peirce believes healthcare practitioners are slowly coming around, pointing to the 1st Annual Food Addiction Conference, sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where substance abuse treatment professionals, mental health counsellors, physicians and psychologists met to learn the latest science on food addiction, discussing proper diagnosis and treatment options for patients. (Read how one woman lost over 300 pounds.)

With new learning and awareness comes solutions and, more importantly, support for tough life choices such as abstinence, which is key to kicking any addiction.

This is the path that both Dr. Tarman and Mike MacKinnon find themselves on, practising an abstinence model by avoiding all sugar, wheat and trigger foods. (Here’s how to have a good relationship with junk food.)

It’s Michelle’s journey, too. Now down 160 pounds, Michelle is committed to a strict 1,800-calorie-a-day diet. (Here’s how many calories you should eat in a day.) But every day is a struggle. Unlike other addictions, such as alcohol or cigarettes, you can’t walk away from food completely. Your body requires it, every few hours of every day. That means you’re always dancing with the devil, always being tempted. If there were more research and recognition of food addiction, there could be more support for those addicts who risk relapse at every breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Is practicing abstinence from “trigger foods” necessary for full recovery?

The first step in Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) begins with the admission of being powerless over food, just as alcoholics do with booze in the original 12-step program. Modelled after Alcoholics Anonymous, FA was founded in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1987 and follows the tenents laid out in the Alcoholics Anonymous book, first published in 1939. FA claims a total membership of about 4,000 worldwide.

What sets FA apart from its sister organization, Overeaters Anonymous (OA), is a call for complete abstinence from sugar, wheat and all forms of flour, which the program defines as trigger foods for all addicts. OA, on the other hand, works in broader strokes, calling on members to resist their compulsions and personal triggers without restricting specific foods. This appeals to those who don’t solely identify as addicts or who are grappling with complex food issues. (OA services bulimia, anorexia and binge eating, in addition to compulsive overeating.) (See if cheat meals are good or bad for weight loss.)

So, how helpful are these programs? According to Michelle, who attended OA meetings for years, the road to recovery requires the support of other addicts. “The only thing that can get a food addict clean is someone like-minded who can say, ‘I’m like you; I’ve been there,'” she says.

Ready to attend a meeting?

There are Canadian chapters of OA and FAA across the country, as well as online resources for both programs.

*Name has been changed.

This story was originally published in Best Health magazine, May 2015.

Next, learn how one woman overcame her food addiction with the help of Overeaters Annonymous.