Recovery Messages & News

Food Addiction

By Ms. Sue Newton,

Often food-related issues arise during adolescence and young adulthood and can range from anorexia, binging, purging and persistent overeating as an “escape” or reward-seeking response to emotional stressors. This compulsive behaviour may lead to obesity over a short or long period of time, loss of weight, or overall feelings of poor health. Food Addiction is Addiction that is manifested by a compulsion to repeatedly engage or act out with food until it causes negative consequences to the person’s physical, mental, social, and/or financial well-being. Behavior persisting in spite of these consequences can be a symptom of addiction.

According to new Canadian research from Newfoundland’s Memorial University, 1 in 20 Canadians may be a food addict. Using diagnostic criteria for food addiction, as “compulsive overeating in harmful and unhealthy ways,” these researchers used a measure known as the Yale Food Addiction Scale to assess symptoms of food addiction in 652 adults from Newfoundland and Labrador. The scale asks people how often they engage in certain eating habits, such as, “I eat to the point where I feel physically ill,” “I find myself constantly eating certain foods” and “I need to eat more and more to get the feeling I want.” According to these researchers, food addiction was present in about two per cent of participants, who were underweight or normal weight, and in eight per cent who were overweight or obese. “

The concept of food addiction remains controversial. Many still see it as a way of “pathologizing” normal human behaviour and removing personal accountability.  But the Memorial research team says there is mounting evidence that some foods activate the brain’s reward system in vulnerable people in ways similar to cocaine or alcohol. Mounting neuroscientific brain research as well as brain imaging have allowed us to get a more understandable picture of how specific parts of the brain may or may not be functioning well in an effort to explain behavior in terms of the activities of the brain. Abnormal or “problem” behaviours arise when one part of the brain is under-functioning or over-functioning. Some people develop an obsessive-compulsive relationship with food, or experience anxiety, agitation and other withdrawal symptoms when they cut down or stop eating certain foods.

Through counselling, the goal is to work towards abstinence from compulsive behaviors with food and a new approach to food that is non-destructive and non-compulsive. Goals are set around behaviors that can be done without shame and behaviors are practiced and discussed. Slips into compulsive behavior are to be expected and are used to re-draw boundaries and re-establish goals. This work may be done in residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient or outpatient settings, and participation in food-specific 12-step groups is very useful.