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Is Food Addiction for Real?: Part 1

Sugar. ‘Carbs’. Fresh French Bread. Chocolate. French Fries. Ice Cream. Chips. Soda. What happens when you have these types of foods around? Perhaps you find yourself distracted by them or unexplainably drawn to them. Could you be someone struggling with food addiction? 

The Yale Food Addiction Scale was first published in 2009 to help measure-to make sense of- addictive like eating behavior, and was updated to the Yale Food Addiction Scale 2.0 in 2016. Criteria in the updated food addiction scale was mapped to (or is representative of) the criteria for substance dependence in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5). Although food addiction is not considered (at least yet) a diagnosable clinical disorder, food addiction is often discussed and characterized by intense cravings for hyper-palatable foods as well as other typical symptoms of substance-related and addictive disorders (e.g., tolerance and withdrawal symptoms).

Here are just a few of the criteria included in the YFAS 2.0 scale: 

  • I ate certain foods so often or in such large amounts that I stopped doing other important things
  • When I cut down on or stopped eating certain foods, I felt irritable, nervous or sad
  • My eating behavior caused me a lot of distress
  • Eating the same amount of food did not give me as much enjoyment as it used to
  • I needed to eat more and more to get the feelings I wanted from eating. This included reducing negative emotions like sadness or increasing pleasure.
  • I had such strong urges to eat certain foods that I couldn’t think of anything else.
  • I had significant problems in my life because of food and eating. These may have been problems with my daily routine, work, school, friends, family, or health.

If you identify with these and other similar traits or habits, you are not alone. In a group of studies analyzed using meta-analysis from the original YFAS, the average percentage of adults meeting criteria for food addiction was 19.9% (source). That means: about 1 in 5! Other researchers argue that this idea of ‘food addiction’ is in fact better represented as an ‘eating addiction’: the concept of eating addiction  stresses the behavioral component of eating and suggests that these challenging eating patterns about less ‘about the food’ and more about the individuals relationship with eating.

There is plenty of controversy about this topic, so my goal here is to simply offer my perspective. When it comes to the question of whether certain foods can cause addictive-type eating patterns with withdrawal type symptoms when removed, my vote is yes. When it comes to the question of food addiction versus eating addiction, my perspective is that out-of-balance eating deserves our attention to both biology and behavior. 

Many times, the type of eating patterns that would be associated with food addiction, or ‘eating addiction’  are even considered ’normal’-we are surrounded by the types of foods that are considered to be ‘highly palatable’. These highly palatable foods can also be thought of as highly rewarding foods: typically discussed as processed and quickly absorbed foods which impact blood sugar levels, contain added sweeteners and fats, and foods which activate reward circuitry and create strong learned preferences in our brains. 

From my perspective, it is not uncommon for individuals struggling with food and eating to experience preoccupation, short-lived satisfaction, and a feeling of loss of control, which are all recognized as characteristics of addiction (source). Negative consequences for out of control eating behavior could include health consequences, but one of the things that is most distressing to those that i work with is the amount of time and energy that is spent worrying about food and eating. Wasting all of that unnecessary time stressing and worrying about food and eating, as well as a sense of not being able to ‘get it together’, can be exhausting.

If you are trying to make sense of your eating patterns, check out my Cravings IQ quiz to access a Cravings Mastery Blueprint based off of your results. 

About Sarah Ferreira

Sarah Ferreira,MS,MPH,RD,CDN,CNSC,IFNCP,CHWC is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with complementary certification as an Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She is the owner of Mindfully Nourished Solutions, where she uses a whole-person, whole-food approach to explore the impact of nutrition on mood and cognition. Her individualized approach integrates an assessment of nutritional, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors into a collaborative nutrition care plan using cutting-edge research designed to facilitate meaningful and restorative changes based around client goals and priorities.

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