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By: Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, Author,  The Small Change Diet  Date: 2/15/12

Recently, I was a guest on the Doctor Oz Show to discuss whether or not a person can become addicted to food. To prepare for the segment I searched for conclusive science-based evidence pointing in that direction.  An important and recurring question was whether or not the body goes through physiological withdrawal in the same way it would for drugs and alcohol when we stop eating a particular food.  My research into controlled human trials on the topic left me unconvinced.

 So I am going with my opinion here, and claim that NO, you cannot be addicted to food, BUT you can have behavioral and emotional reasons that may lead you to overeat.  In my more than 12 years of experience in private practice I have seen a lot of people who thought they were addicted to various foods. But after working together over time on changing their behaviors and recognizing their emotions, they no longer felt the same way.

 It is not surprising that at a very young age, our intake of food and our emotions become  intertwined. How many small children are given ice cream as comfort when they are crying or a cupcake because they were “good” and deserve a reward?  Then when you get older and you are feeling sad, stressed, angry, happy, etc… wouldn’t it make sense to reach for these same foods?   They are familiar to you, but the problem is now that you are older you might also use these foods to cover up your   feelings instead of focusing on why you’re feeling that way.   

A 40-year-old male patient stated during his initial consult that he had been a “sugar addict” for as long as he could remember. His food journal revealed that he ate way too much ice cream, cookies and cakes than one should. He admitted to reaching for these foods in times of emotional distress, especially when he was sad and lonely. Initially we excluded these foods from his diet completely and tried to get him to simply eat better and increase his physical activity. He also started to work with a therapist to combat his emotional issues without using food.  Unlike an addict, he did not experience any physical withdrawals but started to just feel better because of the new foods he was choosing and his overall healthier lifestyle.  Many months later and many pounds lighter, we were able to reintroduce the occasional high sugar food.

Another patient of mine, a 28 year old female, reported that she grew up in a household with foods labeled as “good” or “bad.” No cookies, cakes, or candy were ever allowed in her home. As she got older she found that whenever she ate these foods she couldn’t have just one piece. Does she have an addiction or did she simply never learn to incorporate these foods in a healthy manner into her diet?  We worked together to help her learn a new behavior, giving herself permission to eat these so-called “bad foods,” instead of feeling guilty.  When she stopped totally depriving herself, she was able to start enjoying the food.  

A common characteristic of the patients just described, as well as many others who have come to my office claiming food addiction, is they do not possess overall healthy habits. They skip meals, engage in little physical activity and do not get enough sleep. They don’t plan meals, they do not keep healthy stocked kitchens and they are full of excuses.  But the longer we work together, incorporating small changes weekly to improve their behaviors, the less they complain of food addiction and the more they begin to take command of their lives.

In the end, whether we can all agree that one can be “addicted” to food is not the main issue. What is more important is that we can agree that obesity and overeating is a problem in our society and that we all should work toward eating better and maintaining a healthy body weight. Call it what you want and let’s agree to disagree.





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