Food addiction

Originally Published: October 7, 2011
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How is food addiction similar to drug addiction?

Dear Reader,

This is a great question!  Emerging research show that there is an addictive component to eating behavior. In fact, it appears that chronic overeating, compulsive eating, and/or binge eating all meet the behavioral criteria for addiction (often termed "dependency"). Addictions, similar to compulsions, can offer relief from stress or anxiety, but are characterized primarily by an inability to discontinue a harmful behavior despite its negative consequences.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV criteria for substance use are commonly used to determine whether or not an individual has an addiction. In order to qualify as an addiction, a person must show three or more of the following behaviors within a 12-month period:

  1. Take larger amounts of the substance over time
  2. Have unsuccessful efforts to cut down
  3. Over-invest time in the behavior
  4. Give up important social activities to participate in the behavior
  5. Continue to use despite negative consequences
  6. Experience an increased tolerance over time
  7. Use the substance to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms

If we define food addiction using the same criteria as substance dependence, then recent behavioral and neurobiological evidence increasingly show that a person can actually be addicted to food. Food addiction and drug addiction are similar in the following ways:          

  • The neural circuitry linked to addictive drugs can also be linked to appetite. Eating stimulates neural activity in the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway, which also mediates cocaine and nicotine addiction.
  • The sight of food may stimulate over consumption by a Pavlovian stimulus-response, observed with other addictions. Such environmental influences on food consumption suggest that loss of control — a key element of addiction — is present.
  • Glycemic index(GI) is a measure of how fast and how much a food can raise plasma glucose (blood sugar) levels following ingestion. Interestingly enough, GI is predicted to be a key mediator of the addictive potential of food. Subtle withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, poor concentration, and urges may accompany abstinence from high GI foods (such as high starch carbohydrates). The threat of such symptoms may subconsciously prompt a person to eat addictively.

If you feel that you have an addiction to food, it may be helpful to speak with a health care professional. Speaking with a nutritionist may help you figure out a meal plan that works for you and fits your lifestyle. Columbia students can make an appointment with a nutritionist through Open Communicator or by calling x4-2284. Moreover, students at Columbia can contact Counseling and Psychological Services to set up an appointment to speak with someone. While the road to behavioral change may be long and arduous, taking care of your health is worth it in the long run!

Alice