Retrain Your Brain To Beat Food Addiction

Can chocolate, potato chips and fast food be addictive like a drug? Many people think so.

In a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS ONE that surveyed American and Australian adults, 86% held the opinion that certain foods can be addictive. 80% thought that some foods might even be as addictive as cocaine, alcohol or nicotine. Some experts in psychology and nutrition also agree that food addiction is a real issue.

The case for — and against — food addiction

Research on animals has found that they more often develop addiction-like eating behaviors involving foods that are heavy in sugar and fat. For example, a study published in the journal Obesity in 2013 found that rodents allowed to eat sweet or fatty foods tend to binge-eat, compulsively look for these foods, and have withdrawal symptoms when they lose access to the food. Another 2013 Obesity study reported that rats also often choose a sweet-tasting drink over cocaine, even when they’ve been given drugs before.

Some evidence suggests that food addiction is a real problem in not just lab rats, but humans. In the 2013 PLOS ONE study, 652 healthy adults answered a questionnaire that points out possible food addiction. Overall, the study found that 5.4% met the criteria for food addiction, although it was much more common in women than in men. People with food addiction were also about 26 pounds heavier on average, with about 8% more body fat.

Another study, published in 2012 in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry, included 96 people who were obese and had binge eating disorder, a condition marked by an out-of-control urge to eat large amounts of food. The participants answered questions from the food-addiction questionnaire. About 42% met the definition of food addiction. People who scored higher on the questionnaire became overweight at an earlier age and binge-ate more often.

Still, not all experts believe in the idea of food addiction. As some point out, research demonstrating that it actually exists is scarce, and scientists will have to do a lot of work to show that people can get addicted to food like they can to drugs. Some research indicates that food addiction may turn out to be a form of binge eating disorder.

Symptoms of food addiction

The screening survey that some study participants answered is the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Sample questions from the quiz can give you a sense of how much control you have over appealing foods like sweets, pasta, salty snacks, burgers and soda:

During the past year, how often (per day, week or month) did you:

  • Eat more of certain foods than you intended?
  • Eat certain foods even though you were no longer hungry?
  • Eat until you felt sick?
  • Go out of your way to get certain foods if you didn’t have them nearby?
  • Avoid situations where you were either afraid you might eat too much of certain foods, or you were concerned that these foods wouldn’t be available?
  • Have symptoms of withdrawal such as nervousness when you cut back on certain foods (aside from those containing caffeine)?
  • Feel distressed over the way you ate?

In addition, have you:

  • Needed to eat more to get good feelings or prevent bad feelings?
  • Tried to eat less of certain foods or stop eating them entirely?

If you think you might have a problem with binge eating, you can find other eating disorder screening tools through the National Eating Disorders Association.

Managing food addiction or binge eating

If you feel like you have little control over certain foods, research shows that these steps might help:

Change your diet — In a study reported in the September 2014 issue of the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, researchers included 13 adults who were overweight or obese. Some of them followed a specially developed diet that aims to change the way the brain responds to foods and control the instinct to crave foods that are high in calories, such as sweet and fatty foods. The diet relies heavily on fiber and protein, as well as low glycemic-index carbohydrates that break down more slowly and keep blood sugar levels steadier. The people who followed the six-month diet showed evidence on brain scans that suggested they found healthy foods more appealing and high-calorie foods less appealing.

Play Tetris — The “put the falling blocks together” video game, popular since the 1980s, may help calm food cravings. In a 2014 study published in the journal Appetite, participants told researchers whether they had any cravings, including food cravings. Some of the group then played Tetris while the others sat and waited for a computer program to load (which was a long wait, since it was designed by the researchers not to load). Those who played the game went on to report less craving and craving-related images in their minds.

Seek therapy if you have binge eating disorder — Two types of talk therapy (psychotherapy) — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) — have been found to have long-term success in treating binge eating disorder, according to research published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychiatry in 2013. CBT helps explore current thoughts and behaviors in order to develop healthier thoughts and behaviors. The purpose of IPT is to address any problems in relationships with other people that might be leading to binge eating.

Talk to your doctor about medications for binge eating disorder. Many people with binge eating disorder also have other mental health concerns, such as major depression or anxiety disorder. According to a research review published in 2012 in the journal European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, certain drugs, including antidepressant drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can be helpful in reducing binge-eating episodes.

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