Is it Food Addiction or Restriction?

Brandy holding Milk Duds in one hand and broccoli in the other, shrugging her shoulders

Do you ever worry that you are addicted to food? Some describe themselves as never being able to get enough food; always thinking about food; or having strong cravings for certain foods like sugar or fast food. In this article, we’ll be answering the question: is it a food addiction or restriction?

What is a Food Addiction?

Food addiction is a hot phrase these days. It is likened to a drug or alcohol addiction and is said to be an intense desire to consume specific foods which are difficult to resist (content warning for bmi numbers and stigmatizing language). A person may describe feeling out of control around food and feel shameful about what or how much they are eating.

That being said, there is no formally recognized definition for a food addiction. Research is still in the beginning stages and is unfortunately quite biased towards people in larger bodies (more on this later). So while researchers try to decide if food addiction is real or not, I’ll share with you what I know about food addiction and why we need to be cautious about the current research.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you cannot feel like you are addicted to food. Many people (my past self included) feel like they have an addiction; sometimes to specific foods, sometimes to all food. Every attempt to stop “overeating” or to “clean up” their diet is short lived and they feel immense shame about that.

Take Gale for example. Gale would try to eat “right” all day, but in the evenings, she had a strong desire to snack. She would try to keep “bad” foods out of the house so she wouldn’t be tempted but the cravings were so strong. She would hold off as long as she could and then eventually binge on the foods she craved. This left her feeling very guilty and mad at herself. She referred to herself as a food addict.

Food Addiction or Chronic Restriction?

Food addiction research comes from a desire to understand why people are fat and figure out how to control weight (which isn’t really in our control as it turns out). The narrative is that people in larger bodies cannot control their eating – that they are addicted to food. If fat people didn’t eat “so much” they wouldn’t be fat. This statement couldn’t be further from the truth and is a bias held against people in larger bodies.

It is so easy to internalize this bias. I can recall having thoughts such as “why can’t you just stop snacking. You would actually be able to lose weight if you did” when I thought I was addicted to sugar. This kind of thinking was not helping me to reduce my bingeing.

It actually made it worse.

The More You Restrict, The More You Want It

When you restrict your food, it makes you crave it all the more. Just like if you tell a toddler they can’t have your phone, the toddler will try to grab it any chance they have. So if you told yourself you couldn’t or shouldn’t have sugar, that makes you really want it.

And when you do let yourself have it, oh! There was no way you can have just one “portion.” You eat the ENTIRE box of candy. The ENTIRE chocolate bar. The ENTIRE pan of brownies. You sometimes can’t stop eating even when you get physically sick. You feel out of control.

Think about this

Picture of candy next to a bowl of peppers and celery but in a grayer hue. Classifying foods as good or bad can lead to feeling addicted to food.

This picture shows candy and vegetables. Do you automatically think that vegetables are “better” than the candy? Do you equate candy to being “unhealthy” or “bad”?

When you do this, you create a mental restriction which is just as bad as a physical restriction. Try to move your thinking from black and white, and into the gray where all food is neutral.

The Problems with Food Addiction Research

Food restriction makes us want food more. One incredible problem with food addiction research is that restriction is not accounted for. To date, the Yale Food Addiction Scale is the most widely used measure in research but it doesn’t ask people if they have been restricting their food, or have a history of dieting (a form of restriction that is often seen as healthy…).

When I read a paper on food addiction and the researchers don’t ask their subjects if they have a history of dieting, that’s a red flag. If dieters aren’t excluded from the study, the conclusions don’t mean much.

The Lights Are On

What about the study with the brain scans that light up when people eat sugar? One study (again, content warning) had 48 women of all sizes score themselves on the food addiction scale. Next, researchers showed them a picture of a chocolate milkshake and promised to provide a real one. Then researchers watched the women’s brain activity on a MRI scan.

The conclusion of the study was that the women who scored higher on the food addiction scale tended to have more brain activity in the same areas of the brain that are implicated for drug cravings. Let’s break down some of the flaws of this study.

First of all, dopamine (one of our happy hormones) naturally increases with eating. If we didn’t enjoy food, we might not be motivated to eat enough to keep us nourished. This mechanism is extremely protective for us as human beings to ensure long-term survival! When the brain lights up on a scan at the thought of food, that’s a natural occurrence. A good occurrence! Our brains also light up when we see puppies…does that mean we’re addicted to puppies?

Next issue: remember how food restriction makes a person crave food even more? If any of the women in this study had ever dieted, it would have been expected that their brains would be excited by the idea of eating a dessert – something normally forbidden. The study did not exclude participants who diet or restrict sugary foods regularly, so it can’t say for certain the results mean sugar is addicting. This data could be showing that the behavior of dieting caused the participants to feel addicted to sugar.

Lastly, the food addiction scale is self-reported so the results can be extremely variable and subjective. Lots of room for error.

What Can You Do If You Think You Have A Food Addiction

Currently, the mainstream solution to a so-called food addiction is restriction. Common advice includes: don’t let yourself keep those foods in the house; don’t go to restaurants that are too tempting or don’t have “healthy” options; don’t eat anything after 7pm. There are even programs (that cost money of course) that teach you how to restrict and try to get a handle on your cravings.

What I have found in my own experience and when working with clients is this: restriction doesn’t help. It certainly didn’t help me. Restriction doesn’t help you feel in control of your food cravings long term. Sure it might work for a while but when you can’t take the cravings anymore, you go off the deep end. Eating feels chaotic and unsafe. It feels like you are broken.

So instead of restriction, give permission! Intuitive eating means all food fits. All foods are allowed. Try to incorporate previously “off limits” foods into your day on purpose.

When all foods are allowed, the cravings are not as strong. When all foods are allowed, food isn’t triggering anymore.

Conclusions

Food addiction may or may not be real but we know for certain restriction can cause us to feel out of control with food. It’s time to let go of your diet and restrictions and give intuitive eating a try.

You don’t need to feel guilty for eating or enjoying food – you’re supposed to! You don’t need to feel bad about your food choices. If you’re ready for your relationship with food to feel peaceful, intuitive eating is your solution.


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Read more about intuitive eating in my book The Anti-Diet Workbook

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