Food Addiction Information & Treatment

There are two main categories of addiction: process addiction, in which a person compulsively engages in a behavior(s) that become unmanageable; and substance addiction, in which a person compulsively consumes a substance to the point that they have lost control. Food addiction falls into this latter category.

A term such as heroin addiction has a high level of specificity; by definition, the person is addicted to one substance: heroin. The term food addiction is somewhat broad, yet equally valid. The woman or girl with this condition is addicted, with all the corresponding challenges and negative consequences associated with any addiction. However, this individual is usually not addicted to all foods, because only certain foods possess addictive qualities. These are often referred to as calorie-dense foods. Such foods are typically very high in sugar, fat or salt. It is this high level of these substances that can affect the brain in a profoundly negative fashion and cause dependency that is not unlike what we see with drug addiction. The reality of food addiction has enormous implications for those who struggle with compulsive overeating and/or obesity, and even some people with binge-purge anorexia and bulimia.

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Food Addiction? 

Researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy developed a questionnaire to identify people with food addictions. The Yale food addiction scale includes the following:

  • End up eating more than planned when you start eating certain foods.
  • Keep eating certain foods even if you’re no longer hungry.
  • Eat to the point of feeling ill.
  • Worry about not eating certain types of foods or worry about cutting down on certain types of foods.
  • When certain foods aren’t available, go out of your way to obtain them.
  • The behavior continues despite negative medical consequences.

The questionnaire also seeks to ascertained the impact of food on an individual’s personal life by asking if the following applies:

  • You eat certain foods so often or in such large amounts that you start eating food instead of working, spending time with the family, or doing recreational activities.
  • You avoid professional or social situations where certain foods are available because of fear of overeating.
  • You have problems functioning effectively at your job or school because of food and eating.

What Causes Food Addiction? 

Those with binge eating disorder (BED), eating disorder-not otherwise specified (ED-NOS), bulimia, a family history of substance abuse, a personal history with substance abuse, or early life trauma are most vulnerable. Often, they have identifiable binge foods such as sugary dessert or salty snack items. Once such individuals start consuming these binge foods, they find it nearly impossible to stop. In fact, if thwarted for any reason, they become extremely anxious until more can be obtained, just like a person addicted to alcohol or drugs. Food addicts continue to binge despite negative health and relationship consequences. Often, they want desperately to stop consuming these foods, but are unable to do so without help. It is not unusual for them to hide food, destroy the evidence such as wrappers, or eat in secret.

Food addiction frequently co-occurs with a mood disorder like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Co-occurring dependency on alcohol or abuse of such substances as stimulants, cocaine, marijuana, benzodiazepines, or nicotine is also common

The prevalence of such co-occurring disorders is what makes the professional care at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center so valuable. As our clinical team helps a woman or girl break her addiction to food, the depression, trauma, substance abuse, or other co-occurring conditions are also addressed. At Timberline Knolls, we treat all disorders and addictions simultaneously, knowing this offers a resident the best possible chance for sustained recovery. This approach proves highly beneficial on a number of levels. A woman or girl may admit to our program due to an addiction to alcohol or prescription medication. Only while in treatment, may it become clear to our clinicians that she also has a food addiction. Perhaps she had hidden this addiction for years due to shame or guilt. Once identified, she can receive the therapy required to break the addiction.

How Does Food Addiction Occur In The Brain? 

The human brain is one of the most intricate, complex and impressive organs in the body. However, when it comes to food, it is actually quite simplistic. The brain was designed to seek out those foods that the body required to advance health and sustain life. Because the brain goes back thousands of years, by default, these were natural foods – foods derived exclusively from plants and animals.

Enter the modern age of manufacturing. Our senses are assaulted daily with desirable, highly processed, hyperpalatable and convenient food. It is everywhere and usually inexpensive. The problem is, so much of the fast, cheap and very available food is not nutritionally sound at all — it is an edible, manufactured product. These products are called hyperpalatable foods, which mean they contain inordinate amounts of sugar, fat, or salt; this food is highly processed or manipulated to attract consumers and increase product sales. Unfortunately, these hyperpalatable foods cause nothing short of chaos in brains of individuals who are predisposed to addiction. Once the path to addiction begins, it ultimately results an actual rewiring of the brain’s reward system and related areas. The chaos begins when the brain is over saturated with these calorie-dense foods. This triggers an enhanced release of dopamine, a neuro-transmitter that motivates people toward food, sex, alcohol, etc. It is dopamine that provides the incredibly positive feeling when calorie-dense foods are first consumed. But here is where the brain’s original wiring enters the equation. The human brain wasn’t created to cope with a constant onslaught of hyperpalatable foods. In certain people, it simply cannot tolerate that level of stimulation. To protect itself, the brain reduces the number of available dopamine receptors. This means that though large amounts of dopamine flood the brain, the chemical is not picked up or received. This receptor reduction doesn’t apply to all foods. Rodent studies prove it isn’t just high quantities of food, but large amounts of calorie-dense food, leading to increased dopamine release, which causes the eventual reduction in dopamine receptors. Unfortunately, what is beneficial for the brain ultimately proves problematic for the consumer. In order to receive the anticipated positive reinforcement from the food, more of the food must be consumed to replicate the reward. Over time, the individual eats more and more as the reward becomes less and less. This is often referred to as “chasing the high.”

At the same time the reward center is being hijacked, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for control, decision making and exercising judgment, is also being affected. The decrease in dopamine receptors causes decreased activity in this important part of the brain. This means that as more calorie-dense food is consumed to achieve the reward, these women and girls are less able to exert control over the behavior. Moderation in consumption is no longer possible without help. In fact, studies funded by the National Institutes of Health have shown that the brain scans of food addicts show the same changes and impairments as those of a person with cocaine addiction.

What Are The Effects of Food Addiction? 

An addiction to food, especially if long in duration, results in negative consequences to all aspects of a person’s life.

Physical consequences: 

The short-term physical effect associated with dopamine and endogenous opiate release in the brain reward center is low level euphoria, a decrease in both anxiety and emotional pain. This calming, sedation experience is often referred to as a “food coma.” The long-term physical effects vary. If the person engages in compensatory exercise such as purging or restricting, the health consequences can be severe. if a food addict has obesity, it can be associated with the following: diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides, osteoarthritis in the knees, hips and back; fungal infections in skin folds that are hard to clean, congestive heart failure, shortness of breath, coronary artery disease, and ultimately death.

Psychological consequences:

The psychological and mental effects can prove intense and plague an individual for years. These include hopelessness, powerlessness, isolation, shame, depression, self-loathing, guilt, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and/or self-injurious behaviors.

Relational consequences:

Food addiction impacts relationships, especially those within the family. This is because the person with the addiction is vastly more involved with food than with people – it becomes their safest, most important and meaningful relationship. Other connections to friends and family take a back seat. This often leads to a deep sense of isolation from others. For people with obesity, strangers and even loved ones often engage in bullying and shaming words and actions due to the tremendous problem our culture has with weight stigma. Many times loved ones experience anger and frustration, since they are completely unable to understand why their sister or daughter just won’t stop eating, especially when it is clearly jeopardizing her health. Spouses often misperceive their wife’s behaviors, believing her actions indicate she is no longer committed to their marriage. Such comments as “if you loved me, you would stop bingeing on all that food,” are not uncommon.

Treating Food Addiction

Living with any addiction is difficult and potentially life threatening. The ramifications to a person’s health, career, family, and future are tremendous and often severe. In addition, an addiction rarely resolves on its own. A food addiction is no exception. That’s why early intervention and treatment is imperative. Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center provides the care a woman or girl needs to find freedom. Our treatment is designed to help reestablish a healthy relationship with food and allow her to return to a life of recovery.

To learn more about food addiction treatment and recovery at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, call one of our experienced admissions counselors today. We accept women ages 12 and up for admission seven days a week.

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