Here are a few Facts about the science proving food addiction in humans…there are none.
About a month ago, I got a little annoyed; you see, I work as an eating disorder specialist in Tyler, Texas. And, a treatment center contacted me to be a referral source for patients that are stepping down from inpatient care.
They bragged that they were “The Nations ONLY Treatment center that treats food and sugar addiction.” I just happen to know that their approach is to completely eliminate sugar and bleached flour.
You might wonder, “Woah Celeste, why did that make you so mad? It’s just an email; chill out.”
Here’s why- Human Food Addiction is not scientifically substantiated, no matter what your favorite food documentary tells you. Treating food behaviors, the same way as addiction does real harm because it only exasperates food behaviors. Restriction drives binging, and programs like this set people up for a lifetime of shame and often eating disorder behaviors. When professionals are harming people who are desperate for help, I think that should make us angry.
I want to say to anyone who is struggling with feelings of food addiction- your feelings are very valid. I don’t want to, at all, detract from that. While I am frustrated with this treatment center, I am never frustrated with my clients or people who feel like they are addicted to food. It is not your fault that you feel this way. I want to acknowledge that those feelings are real and painful. I just disagree that addiction is what causes those out of control feelings and behavior. Science supports that restriction, not addiction, drives that out of control feeling. In controlled studies where mice were given inconsistent access to sugar water, they did behave in a way that mirrored addiction. However, when they were given abundant access to the same sugar water, the rodents did not exhibit the same behavior. They knew they could have it whenever they wanted, so it became less important to them.
I have seen this in the lives of my clients as well. The more they limit a food item or food group (mentally or physically), the more they think about it, and the more they feel out of control when they do have it. Sometimes, they give themselves full physical permission but not full mental permission, and this promise of “after this one time I will be better” keeps the client feeling out of control around food as well. You may have experienced this. I see the reverse with my children all the time! How many times have you gone to the store and bought the largest quantity of snack available, only to get it home and after half of the 200 packs of fruit snacks, all of a sudden, your kids hate them and never want to eat them again? I actually once mentally invented a “mom snack trade app” to fix this problem.
You may have heard that sugar lights up the same parts of the brain that cocaine does. This might very well be true. However, this isn’t because sugar is bad for you. That is how the brain is supposed to work! Your brain is supposed to feel rewarded and pleasure when eating because that is what makes humans want to eat. If this part of your brain didn’t work, you would become malnourished. The same parts of our brains light up when we snuggle a baby. I always joke that this is the reward center, encouraging you to continue to hold that baby even though it kept you up all night and pooped all over you. This function is a normal and natural, and it’s actually cocaine that problematically takes advantage of this ingrained survival mechanism. We aren’t advocating for people to stop holding babies (or having sex with their partner, or hugging their friends- activities that also light up the same areas of the brain) so why are we advocating for people to restrict entire food groups?
Often, people will tell me that sugar is not necessary, so eliminating it is helpful. They equate sugar to alcohol and state that “We don’t need it to survive; so if it is causing you to struggle, it’s best to just eliminate it totally.” There are two problems with this; eliminating a food or food group actually predicts that you will binge or feel out of control around that food. Also, you can live a pretty full life without drugs and alcohol- but if you have ever struggled with an eating disorder or loved someone who has- you know living a life of restriction is not living. Being unable to have a piece of cake at a birthday party, go out to eat with friends, enjoy holiday meals, or take your kids for ice-cream is not living. Having constant food and body thoughts is not living.
Food is such an integral part of our lives, and that isn’t a bad thing. This has been true, throughout cultures, and throughout history. People gather for meals when they are excited, sad, celebrating, or grieving. I always joke with clients, “No one brings a salad to a funeral.” Why is this? We know that food can be a way of speaking love and comfort to the people around us.
It‘s time we stop allowing diet companies, that make over 66 billion dollars every year and have a 98% failure rate, to make us feel bad for having taste buds and enjoying food. The way to freedom is not through more restriction. The way to freedom is through full permission and intuitive eating.
That might sound scary to you; it does to most of my clients. This is because we live in a culture that is thinness and health obsessed; we equate the two, although they aren’t necessarily synonymous. But that’s a post for another day and time. If the idea of giving yourself full permission around food is terrifying, it might be helpful to take some baby steps.
Working with a therapist and dietitian, that come from a Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating perspective, will be a tremendous help as you engage this very difficult process. There are some amazing books out there, including Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield, and Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (phenomenal workbooks for teens and adults available also- I highly reccomend both). There are also so many great podcasts by therapists and dietitians out there that can help you on your journey. Some of my favorites are Don’t Salt my Game by Laura Thomas, Food Psych by Christy Harrison, and Love, Food by Julie Duffy Dillon. Finally, there is a fabulous Instagram community that is active and involved. This has been super helpful for many of my clients. If you follow the hashtags #HAES and #intuitiveeating, you will find so many great resources.
I am sorry we live in a world that has made food so hard. Believe it or not, you do have a deep inner wisdom and you can be trusted around food. You don’t have to continue to feel out of control or “addicted.” There is freedom and recovery, and I have seen it in so many of my client’s lives. This recovery is a journey and it takes a lot of hard work, but it is so worth doing!