Chocaholic. Sugar addict. Food junkie. You might label yourself as one or more of these in casual conversation, but is food really as addictive as nicotine? Or is it lack of self-control that has us finishing the entire tub of Halo Top?
Enjoying food because it tastes good is pretty normal, and foods that are rich in sugar and fats just happen to be more attractive to most taste buds. It’s hard to argue with the fact that melted cheese makes everything better, or that fries aren’t extremely satisfying.
‘It’s normal to like some foods more than others because of the taste, texture, smell, or the way it makes you feel,” says Emily Hardman, Accredited Practising Dietitian and eating disorders expert.
But how do you distinguish between a food craving and something more sinister and uncontrollable (and, admittedly, controversial), such as a food addiction?
Cravings, or a more intense desire for a particular food, are considered relatively normal. A craving can even be a positive thing, providing clues to nutrient gaps in your diet.
‘The body is very capable of telling us when it requires a particular type of food,’ says Nathan Baldwin, Accredited Practising Dietitian and intuitive eating advocate. ‘For example, people who consume low-carb diets will initially get very strong cravings for carbs.’
The problem is not in enjoying or eating a food we crave, but our ability to control how much we eat of it. And there’s evidence to suggest that certain foods actually override our natural feelings of being hungry or full, to have us reaching for it in ways that seem beyond our control.
This is where the potential for ‘food addiction’ comes in.
Symptoms tend to parallel those of drug abuse, from dependency to withdrawal. However, food addiction is not yet recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, one of two diagnostic manuals used by health professionals in Australia to diagnose mental illness.
The unofficial nature of food addiction makes it difficult to understand how common it is. But one study of over 130,000 men and women in the US found that nearly six per cent of women met the criteria for food addiction.
‘Food addiction is an eating behaviour that involves the overconsumption of highly palatable foods, which are often rich in fat, sugar, or salt, in quantities that are beyond a person’s nutritional requirements,’ explains Hardman.
‘These foods trigger a reaction in the brain that induces feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, which, over time, can make a person addicted to these foods.’
While we certainly don’t object to polishing off a block of chocolate occasionally, if you’re replacing a nutritious meal with the delicious squares every day, read on.
Even if you don’t have a diagnosed food addiction, understanding your eating patterns and behaviours, especially those that result in feelings of guilt or shame, can help you to feel more in control of your own body.
Five tips from the experts on how to take control of your eating:
1. Find other activities you enjoy
Finding activities that bring you joy and comfort will remove your emotional and psychological need to eat unnecessarily. ‘Some strategies that may be useful include deep breathing, spending time in the sun and fresh air, spending time with people you care about, or listening to peaceful music,’ says Hardman.
2. Avoid restrictive diets
Diets can often intensify the preoccupation with food. Instead, all of our experts recommend nurturing a better relationship with food, listening to natural hunger cues, and finding a more balanced approach. ‘Retrain your body and hypothalamus to ‘intuitively eat’, relying on signals of true hunger and feelings of being full,’ says Psychologist Sarah Godfrey.
3. Don’t deprive yourself
Cutting out addictive foods completely may do more harm than good. Believing you can’t have or aren’t allowed a particular food often increases your cravings. ‘Instead, create a balanced approach to eating by choosing nourishing foods most of the time, but allowing the foods you love here and there,’ says Hardman.
4. Keep a food journal
Identifying the emotional and psychological triggers that have you reaching for addictive foods can help you become more aware of your behaviour, and so find better ways to deal with it. Think anxiety, sadness, or stresses in your day-to-day life.
5. Invest in professional help
Isolation is a food addiction’s best friend, so try allowing someone to help fix the problem at its core. ‘A professional can help to unpack emotional and psychological issues associated with comfort eating and reliance on food,’ says Godfrey.
To learn more about the signs of food addiction, the food addiction scale, and the differences between cravings and addiction, read the full article in the October/November print edition of STRONG Fitness Magazine Australia.