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Can You be Addicted to Food?

separator For so many of us, it’s common to feel out of control about food at some time or another. Sometimes this feeling makes us eat too much, even though we know better. Sometimes it makes us eat hardly anything at all, even though we know we need to eat to live. Other times, it makes us binge and then try to get rid of the food by purging—in other words, by vomiting.

It might seem like we’re addicted to food when we feel like we’re out of control over it. “I can’t stop eating chocolate, no matter how hard I try. I’m addicted!”

But in fact, there’s no real evidence that there’s such a thing as a food addiction. According to the American Psychiatric Association, when you’re addicted to something, you experience withdrawal symptoms when you’re no longer able to have that particular substance. For example, people who are addicted to heroin experience serious symptoms when they stop using that drug. The same is true for many different substances—nicotine, alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, etc.

There have been no large studies showing that withdrawal from food causes withdrawal symptoms. But there’s no question that thinking about food, or trying to limit our food, can drive us crazy. And while there’s no evidence that you can be addicted to food, there are groups with names like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, which are similar to recovery groups for addictive substances like drugs and alcohol.

So even if it’s not addiction that’s causing our problems with food, there’s something going on, for sure.

What’s your relationship with food?
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous has a quiz on its Web site that’s designed to give people an idea of whether they could have a problem with food. It asks questions like:
  • Have you ever wanted to stop eating but couldn’t?
  • Are you always thinking about your weight and about food?
  • Do you try one diet after another without success?
  • Do you binge and then purge?
  • Do you eat differently when you’re alone than you do with others?
  • Are loved ones or your physician concerned about your eating habits?
  • Do you eat when you’re not hungry?

If you answer yes to these questions, or even one of them, it’s an indication that thought about food may have more control over your life than they should.

What are these issues with food about?
It’s impossible to pinpoint one specific reason why people feel out of control about food. Some possible causes include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sexual abuse
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Oral fixation
  • Physical problems, such as thyroid disease

Many people who overeat or under eat aren’t even sure themselves what the cause is. If you’ve been struggling with food issues, you know how complicated the whole thing can be. Food has a lot of importance in our culture. We use it for comfort, for health, for celebrations and of course for basic survival. These are all healthy reasons to eat.

But if you’re using food for reasons that may not be so healthy, it’s probably a good idea to talk with your doctor or a mental health professional about your problems with food. Unlocking the key to your unbalanced feelings and attitudes toward food is a good first step towards figuring out how you can change your habits.

It’s not easy to break old patterns and create new, healthier ones. But it can be done, with a lot of hard work and the desire to change.

The American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Washington, D.C., 2000; H. Kaplan, B. Sadock, J. Grebb, Synopsis of Psychiatry, Williams and Wilkins, 1994; The National Mental Health Association
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