is food addiction a problem

Is Food Addiction a Problem for You?

August 18, 2015

Is Food Addiction a Problem for You? In the world of medical doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other medical and mental health professionals, there’s a debate (of course) about the concept of “food addiction.” Without question, scientific research shows addictive behavior regarding sugar consumption in animals. But what about humans? Brain scans of humans specifically show similar patterns for people “under the influence” of sugar that are remarkably similar to brain scans of people when they are under the influence of well-known, highly addictive chemicals like cocaine.

Can Food be Addictive?

The answer is definitively YES. And the reason has nothing to do with brain scans. The fact is that substances and behaviors can be physically addictive or psychologically addictive – or both. If a person is physically addicted, their body literally craves the substance and has withdrawal symptoms when they don’t have it.

Psychological addiction happens when a person uses a substance or engages in a behavior:
• to change how they feel emotionally,
• to avoid dealing with their feelings or people or situations, or
• to distract their attention from life situations that upset them.

"Without getting into a lot of confusing discussion about the word “addiction,” let’s make this simple: If a substance (food, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) or behavior (eating, shopping, gambling) is causing PROBLEMS in your life, then it’s a problem. And it’s a PROBLEM if you know there are issues in your life caused by, or worsened, because of the use of a substance or behavior. It’s a PROBLEM if you have wanted to, and tried to, stop using the substance or engaging in the behavior - but you haven’t been able to… you would DEFINITELY consider this a problem."  ~Dr. Connie Stapleton

For example, let’s say a person has severe Type II Diabetes and is aware that losing weight would decrease the severity of the disease or completely put it into remission. They know they need to change their eating habits or their Diabetes will get worse and lead to things like limbs being cut off, kidney failure and death. And yet, they don’t (or can’t) give up baked goods and sugar-filled drinks and foods. This is a problem!

A problem is also seen when a person has severe co-morbid health conditions (heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep apnea) caused by, or worsened by the disease of obesity. They want to lose weight and have tried many times in the past, but can’t give up potato chips, cookies, and ice cream?

A major problem occurs when a person opts for weight loss surgery to help lose weight and alleviate some/all of their co-morbid health conditions but, after surgery, they return to eating “too much of the wrong foods,” and “return to old habits.” This results in weight regain and a return to/worsening of, the associated health problems.

If food/weight is causing problems in your life, and you’ve tried in the past to make changes but haven’t been able to… you would DEFINITELY consider this a problem. I would call it an addiction, as well.

The Problem is More Than What You Eat

The problem is more than just the food. In a way, you could say that food is only a symptom of the problem(s).

Many people think losing weight means they’ll finally be HAPPY. Then they realize their life circumstances are very much the same after losing weight as they were before losing weight. If a person has problems with relationships before weight loss, they’ll still have problems with relationships after weight loss. If they hated their job before weight loss, they’ll still hate their job after weight loss. If they were experiencing problems in their marriage or with their kids before weight loss, they will still have these same problems after weight loss.

After weight loss surgery, people are, for a time, unable to “use” food in the same way they did before. Some experience “dumping syndrome” if they consume too much sugar. If sugar is what they “used”/ate to feel better in the past, the person is left with a very large emotional void when they are no longer able to eat sugar. Over time, they may become painfully aware of the issues they were trying to run from in life. If people turn to food to avoid problems at work, with family, with friends, or with themselves, they are “using” food much like others use cocaine or marijuana or gambling.

Many people believe their problems in life were all about the food and the weight. They often learn that the food and weight were, in fact, diversions from the underlying problems.

I personally did the same thing, only my drug of choice was not food. It doesn’t matter if a person uses food, alcohol, pills, shopping or gambling to numb their emotional pain.

All addictions have some common denominators:
• using a substance or behavior to avoid unpleasant thoughts or feelings
• a feeling of deep, internal shame
• a feeling of being a failure
• most often, having experienced some sort of trauma in childhood
• having unresolved loss and grief

If You Struggle with Weight, is that a Food Addiction?

No! Just like most people who drink alcohol are not alcoholics, many people who struggle with weight problems are not food addicts. There are many factors that contribute to obesity including genetics, some health conditions, certain medications, environment (meaning learned eating of certain food and eating behaviors), and personal food and exercise choices. For some people, becoming educated about nutrition and the importance of exercise is enough for them to make the changes needed to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. These people aren’t food addicts.

The bottom line is – food addiction is real. If you think you are a food addict, then get professional help.  There is no substitute for a good therapist if you are struggling with any issue – addiction or otherwise! If you believe you are a food addict, seek a therapist who specializes in addiction or one who deals with “systems theory.” They’ll be able to help you!

For additional support, check online support groupsOvereaters Anonymous (OA) or reach out to other ObesityHelp members.

Do what each of us living in recovery has done to deal with our addictions and to live fully: Get Help and Get Happier! After all, it’s your health. And… Your Health is Your Responsibility. This Day. Every Day.

is food addiction a problem
connie stapleton


Connie Stapleton, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with nearly two decades of experience in the field of bariatric medicine. Dr. Stapleton is the author of three books, is a national and international speaker, and appears as the bariatric psychologist on three national television programs.  Read more articles by Connie Stapleton!

Photo credit: Daniela Brown cc