Food Addiction? Am I addicted to food? How can I end this? (Guest Blog Post)

Anna Marie is back at it this week addressing one of the biggest recent questions in nutrition - is food addictive? She delves into the research to share that food addiction is bunk (at least in our opinion over here at Nom-Nomaste!) but don't take my word for it- read on!!! 

Anna Marie Oglesbee
Coordinated Program in Dietetics
The University of Texas at Austin

A hot topic in food today is food addiction. It’s common to hear “I didn’t know I was addicted to sugar until I cut it out completely” or “I didn’t know I was addicted to carbs until I went keto for 6 months.”

Addiction can be medically defined as “a compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and well-defined symptoms upon withdrawal” (Merriam-Webster, 2018). Based on this definition, it seems logically impossible that one could be addicted to food because one cannot cold-turkey stop eating. Although it is possible to cut out a food group, no well-trained dietitian or nutrition professional would recommend this because of the toll it would take on the body. Before deciding that you must be addicted to food, let’s take a look at the research behind food addiction.

The concept of food addiction has “very little supporting evidence” (Ziauddeen, 2013). Food, unlike drugs or alcohol, does not have a pharmacological action, so addiction cannot be measured in the same way as substance abuse or alcoholism.

Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS)

The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) is a self-reported 25 statement questionnaire based on criteria for substance dependence (Long, 2015). Although this questionnaire is widely accepted, more than half of the statements on the questionnaire could be reflective of chronic dieting, not addiction. For example, the first question states “I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than planned”. This statement is more reflective of someone who has dieted repeatedly in the past (deprivation mindset, i.e. “I better eat it now, since I won’t get it again”) than someone with an addiction. One important thing the YFAS scale does not take into account is previous dieting history. Biologically, when one restricts a certain food, the deprivation effect kicks in leading to feeling out of control around this food. This is not addiction, it’s simple biology.

image1 (16).jpeg

Think about it like this: you’re on a long road trip with very few convenient stops. You drink a large amount of water and have to go to the bathroom. How much more are you thinking about how good it would feel to just go to the bathroom? You wait much longer than you should, and you are uncomfortable. When you finally get to a rest stop, how much longer does it take you to use the bathroom and get rid of the excess water? The same thing happens when you deprive yourself of a certain food for a long time. You have increased food preoccupation, and when you finally eat the restricted food, you have a much more than you would have had if you honored the initial craving for the food. 

This is not an effect of addiction; it’s a normal byproduct of continual restriction. Are you hard on yourself for having to go to the bathroom? Why should you beat yourself up for wanting what you’ve deprived yourself of?

Addiction or Deprivation Effect?

One study followed 56 participants on a restrictive weight-loss diet. The participants were provided chocolate snacks for a week to establish a baseline, then restricted for three weeks. After the three-week period, they ate more chocolate than at baseline. The deprivation of chocolate led to “an increase in consumption post-deprivation in restrained eaters” (Keeler, 2015). These participants were not addicted to chocolate. They simply wanted it more since they had been deprived.

When a certain food is “forbidden” or restricted, thoughts of and preoccupations with this food increase. When the food is finally temporarily allowed, the “last supper mentality” sets in and causes over-eating. The mindset of “I better eat it now because I’ll never have it again” takes over and leads to over-eating. This is not addiction, it’s simply the deprivation effect and is the result of chronic dieting/restricting.

Food Addiction and Binge Eating

Higher BMI and the presence of binge eating are strongly associated with a positive YFAS score, but correlation does not always mean causation (Long, 2015). Although binge eating is associated with higher BMI, not everyone with a higher BMI engages in binge behaviors, and not everyone who binges has a higher BMI (Ziauddeen, 2013). As mentioned before, the YFAS does not take into account chronic dieting. “Restrained eating often leads to loss of control, bingeing, and counterproductive weight gain” (Carr, 2011). Restriction (not addiction) leads to binges.

If you think you are addicted to a food (or all foods) because you cannot stop eating when you allow yourself to have “just one bite”, ask yourself if it’s something you’ve ever restricted before. Even if you restricted a food 30 years ago, you can still have the deprivation mindset if you still (intentionally or unintentionally) label the food as “bad” or “unhealthy”. Cutting out the food that you are “addicted to” is not the answer. A common misconception is that since you cannot stop eating a certain food, you must cut it out completely to eliminate the temptation. This only makes the temptation stronger. The reason you feel so out of control is because you’ve restricted this food in the past.

Give Yourself Unconditional Permission to Eat

The deprivation effect is not the same as food addiction. Even though some people may score higher on the YFAS scale, a scale cannot “measure a behavior and validate a pathophysiological process to underlie that behavior” (Zaiuddeen, 2013). No existing research supports the theory of food addiction, however, higher YFAS scores are seen in individuals with binge eating behaviors and people who have been unsuccessful in controlling their weight (Long, 2015).

Food addiction is not probable, according to the research. The only way to get over the deprivation effect is to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Many people think that with unconditional permission, they will definitely over-do it. While this may be true initially, once you realize you can have the food you have been restricting yourself from any time, it loses its alluring effect. For example, if you’ve avoided candy at all costs for over a year because you believe you are addicted to sugar, at first you may over-do it and have a few sugar crashes. Once you realize the candy is there whenever you want it and it will be there tomorrow, you may want less today. The key is time. Undoing the deprivation effect is a process and does not happen overnight. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods is the only to end deprivation mentality.

For more from Anna Marie - follow her on insta!

And check out Nom-Nomaste for more body positive realness!