Has food addiction taken over your life? Do thoughts about eating constantly swirl through your head? Are there foods you can’t stop eating, no matter how hard you’ve tried? Does it feel like the cookies are literally calling your name? “Eat me! Eat me! You know you’re going to. You can’t stop yourself.”
Is your greatest fear that once you start eating, you physically cannot stop? No matter how badly you know you’ll feel after? Are you filled with shame and despair after you eat all of that thing you were trying to stay away from? Again.
If you relate, this article is for you. But get ready, because I’m about to say something controversial.
Food addiction is not a thing.
It’s actually a myth. A lie that’s been sold to you. And to me. To all of us. It’s a lie sold to us by by diet culture. And it simply isn’t true.
Food addiction is a myth
Food Addiction- if it’s a myth, what’s actually going on?
Before you stop reading… hear me out. I’m NOT saying feeling out of control around food isn’t a thing. It’s a very real experience. I spent decades of my life obsessed with food. Terrified if I took one bite of chocolate, a muffin, a cookie, etc… I’d never be able to stop.
Not only is obsession with food a very real experience… it’s a physiological drive. An instinct. Actually a very adaptive one. Let me explain.
We need food to survive. It’s one of our fundamental basic needs as mammals. When we restrict food (ie dieting, eating clean, fasting, cutting out major macro nutrients, etc), our brains immediately go into survival mode.
It’s very normal to obsess about food if you’re being deprived of it. It’s our body’s way of survival.
Kind of makes sense, huh?
The Science Behind This
Ever heard of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (MNSE)? It’s a study from 1944 that couldn’t be reproduced today because it would be considered unethical. A group of 36 men (who had previously eaten enough food for three months) were starved for six months and observed by researchers. All of the men were screened before the study and deemed physically and mentally healthy.
As time went on, the men in this study became obsessed with food. They collected recipes, daydreamed, and talked about food constantly. Irritability, mood swings, behavior changes, and aggression became severe for many of them. One man even chopped off three of his fingers with an ax during the experiment.
Once starved, these men quickly began experiencing major distress in their lives. The good news is: three months after eating again, their moods and behaviors stabilized.
However, once allowed to eat again, there were major changes in their food behaviors. They experienced an enormous drive to eat, obsessions with food, and many of them binged to the point of sickness over and over again. Even 8 months after the study was over. Despite feeling full they often couldn’t stop eating.
Psychologists today recognize the similarities between these symptoms to the symptoms of eating disorders. Obsession and anxiety around food. Feeling they could never get enough. Insatiable hunger. Inability to stop eating. (Any of this sound familiar?)
Basically after being starved, men who were previously mentally health exhibited symptoms consistent with a clinical eating disorder.
It kind of makes sense right?
After being starved they had an undeniable, uncontainable drive to eat food. Their minds were obsessed with food and eating.Their bodies simply wanted to survive. The compulsion to eat was their bodies way of reacting to being starved. It was a way to correct the deficit of calories.
But here’s the kicker.. The amount of calories they consumed while starving was 1600 calories. That’s way more than most common diet plans today recommend!
Our bodies need nourishment and energy to sustain us every day.
Yet we turn to magazines, instagram influencers, and diet companies (that by the way made 72.6 billion dollars just in the US market in 2021) to tell us how much we “should” eat. And the amount they suggest is often way lower than the starved men in the experiment who lost their minds and obsessed over food. It is starvation level.
And we wonder why we can’t stop thinking about or eating food? Why we’re struggling with “food addiction.” Perhaps we’ve had it all wrong so far. Maybe the problem isn’t our obsession with food. What if the problem is we actually aren’t eating enough to begin with? And what if our bodies are merely trying to keep us alive?
While the MNSE couldn’t ethically be repeated today, many studies since then have supported this finding that restricting food creates increased obsession with food. Lindo Bacon reviewed over 75 studies that examine the differences between restrained eaters (people who restrict food/diet) and “normal” eaters. They found emotional eating simply doesn’t happen among people who don’t restrict food.1 Meaning- people who never dieted also never engaged in emotional eating. Again, issues with eating don’t occur until we begin restricting food.
But what about sugar addiction? And the science around it?
Maybe you’re thinking, “Ok this makes sense. But certain foods are still addictive right?” Hasn’t science “proved” that sugar is addictive. No, it hasn’t.
In her book Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well Being, And Happiness Through Intuitive Eating2, Christy Harrison talks about the ways research on sugar addiction have not controlled for disordered eating or weight stigma. This is very problematic because we only see compulsive and obsessive behaviors around food when it’s first been restricted. Likewise, research shows that animals only show addiction-like behavior when they have first been deprived of sugar. Christy also writes, “A 2016 review of the scientific literature found no convincing evidence in humans to support the belief that sugar is addictive.” p 235.
Another argument some wellness professionals use to say sugar and food addiction is real has to do with pleasure centers lighting up in the brain. We have reward and pleasure pathways in our brains, and eating foods with sugar lights these pathways up, causing a release of dopamine, serotonin, and opioids in our bodies. But before you get too panicked about this happening around sugar, understand this. Those pleasure centers also light up in our brain when we do things like listen to music we like, have sex, snuggle with a pet, talk to a friend, or even play a game. This does not mean we are addicted to such things. It means they bring us pleasure.
What is an actual addiction?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. If we’re talking about a physiological addiction- something like drugs or alcohol, dependence and withdrawal are a part of the experience. Meaning your body physiologically craves the substance, and needs more of it each time to get the same effect. This is called developing a tolerance. And it is not something that happens with sugar.
There are various kinds of sugar but glucose is the kind our bodies uses most. Everything we eat is broken down into glucose in our body. We need glucose to live. It’s the major source of energy for our body’s cells. When we eat sugar, we provide our body with a quick source of glucose.
The solution to most addictions is typically abstinence. Sugar or any food doesn’t fall into this category. It’s actually quite the opposite. You need food to live, so you can not abstain from it.
The Real Addiction (hint it’s not food)
So here’s where this gets interesting. As a society, we’re collectively obsessed with the illusion of control. We want to control outcomes. To do “everything right” so that we get our happily ever after.
We’re taught if we work hard, we can have the lives we want. Happiness. Health. Love. And the harder we work. the better our lives will be. This ignores the privileges and oppressions that surround us all. And it feeds the myth that we control all outcomes of our lives. When the truth is- there is so much out of our control.
It’s common for us to project our anxieties in our lives onto our bodies and food. We use dieting as an attempt to control outcomes. This doesn’t happen consciously, but affects many of us. It’s easier to focus on changing our food and body than on actual life events that are out of our control.
Rather than being a society that is addicted to sugar or food, we’re a society addicted to dieting. And to trying to control our life outcomes. So the next time you feel out of control around sugar or any other food, ask yourself this question. In what ways am I restricting this food from myself?
The only real solution to compulsive thoughts and behaviors around food feels counter intuitive. But it is to allow those foods into your life. Without shame. And without judgment. That is the real key to calming down around food.
- Bacon, L. Health at Every Size. Dallas, Benbella Books, 2008.
- Harrison, C. Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. Little Brown Spark, New York, 2019. Link
If you’d like more support in healing your relationship with food and body, check out my Work With Me page here.