Pink Floyd famously sang “Money is the root of all evil.”
But is money the root of food addiction?
I recently asked people on my email list what their biggest struggle was around food. I got quite a few responses.
Today I am writing to the person who said ” Obviously I must have some sort of addiction to think of food other than fuel is my thinking…. “
This person sounded confused about being a food addict:
- Why did he/she always fail to use food as fuel?
- Why were he/she the only ones who weren’t normal around food?
- Why were he/she a food addict?
Please continue reading if you recognize you are a food addict and want to know why.
This post will answer the following questions so that you can understand your food addiction:
- What is the definition and symptoms of food addiction and binge eating disorder?
- Why did you develop food addiction and binge eating disorder?
- Why do you feel such a compulsive desire to binge or act upon your food addiction?
Please note this post will primarily explore your brain’s biology and neuroscience to explain your addiction to food.
A deeper conversation on genetics, childhood, and cultural trends is great, but outside the scope of this article.
If you have follow up questions, please feel free to let me know anonymously using this link here, comment, or just email me.
Understand the root of food addiction (it’s not food)
Pink Floyd famously sang “Money is the root of all evil.”
But Buddha and many other spiritual traditions have a different respective.
For example, Buddha realizes that your mind and heart are what create suffering.
Buddha thinks that money is simply made out of paper.
Money is not good or bad. It is your mind and heart that makes money appear to be evil sometimes.
The reason your mind and heart are responsible for suffering (and food addiction) is because your mind and heart are where you first begin to have cravings:
- Cravings to seek pleasure
- Cravings to survive
- Cravings to disconnect
- Cravings to avoid
From craving, Buddha said that you will will inevitably (sometimes against your willpower) go through cycles of desire, compulsion and delusion.
Craving is why you’re a food addict.
Craving, Buddha said, was the root of all suffering.
When this person wrote to me that they were a food addict and we’re confused…
They also said asked “Why were they the only ones who weren’t normal around food?”
Before we dive into understanding food addiction, it’s important to realize that craving causes many other addictions too.
Many of these addictions you are surely familiar with:
- Alcohol Addiction
- Substance Use Addiction
- Pornography Addiction
- Food Addiction
In 2017, the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) for national indicators of substance use reported that 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2017.
Furthermore, binge eating – a form of food addiction – is conservatively thought to affect 3% of Americans.
So please, read this article with an open mind. Realize that addiction comes in many forms.
If addiction were easy then 19 million people would not be affected by it.
The fact is craving is a deep and powerful human problem. It’s been a problem for over thousands of years and it’s no surprise that craving is showing up in your life today with food.
Let’s define food addiction and then move on to exploring the causes and conditions behind food addiction.
Here is the medical definition and symptoms of food addiction and binge eating
Before we talk about the causes of food addiction, let’s get clear on the definition of food addiction is.
You’ll also see below that the word ‘addiction’ has it’s own definition as well because people frequently disagree on the meaning of the word addiction.
Food addiction – Food addiction refers to when the need to eat becomes compulsive or uncontrollable. This compulsive behavior may be in response to an emotion, such as stress, sadness, or anger.
Binge Eating – the consumption of large quantities of food in a short period of time, typically as part of an eating disorder, oftentimes experience as out of control and oftentimes experiencing shame or guilt after eating.
Symptoms of food addiction and binge eating:
- having intrusive thoughts about food
- continued binge or compulsive eating
- many attempts to stop overeating, followed by relapses
- loss of control, out of body experiences involving food
- eating food when feeling bad to feel better
- eating secretly
- eating far past the point of fullness to pain
Then after eating food, it’s very common to experience:
- lower self-esteem
- intensive food restriction attempts after
- compulsively exercising after to burn away those calories
- self-induced vomiting
A Quick Note About The Word “Addiction”
Please note in this article here I use the word “food addiction” because many people describe their symptoms in terms of addiction.
There is some research which suggests that individuals develop a chemical dependency to oftentimes sugary foods similar to alcohol, cigarettes or cocaine.
However, other research believes that there’s not enough evidence to say that food is addictive. This research believes that the word ‘addiction’ is misleading because the food ingredients aren’t addicting like nicotine or alcohol.
From this line of thought, food addiction is an addiction to the behavior of eating. This is my philosophy as well, although I do believe in certain, but limited, circumstances that sugar can addicting.
Basically I believe food ‘addiction’ is primarily a habitual behavior that can be unlearned, rather than a substance to be abstained from.
Now we have defined food addiction, are we on the same page?
If we are clear on our definitions, let’s move on to understanding why you are a food addict.
In this next section I will first describe a general causes of food addiction.
Then I will present a science based, brain view of food addiction and binge eating.
I believe that you will find the general causes of food addiction to be interesting, but not very practical or helpful. After all, the past is the past. You can’t do anything about a traumatic childhood or genetic factors.
But, you can rewire your brain now.
So let’s dive into the general causes and then the brain based reasons for food addiction and binge eating.
General reasons why you became a food addict and/or binge eater
Here’s a brief overview of the generally established reasons that contribute to food addiction and binge eating:
- Genetically inclined towards impulsiveness
- Hormonal imbalances
- Abnormalities in various brain structures
- side effects from the use of certain medications
- Having family members with addiction issues.
- Emotional or sexual abuse
- Being a victim or survivor of a traumatic event
- Having an inability to healthily cope with negative situations
- Chronic low-self esteem
- Experiencing grief or loss
- At risk group including modeling, ballet, dancers, gymnastics, wrestlers, etc
- Disturbances in family function
- Pressure from peers or society (perhaps to diet)
- Social isolation
- Child abuse
- Lack of social support
For the most part this makes sense correct?
I’m sure you realize that these conditions lead to not only food disorders but all sorts of substance abuse problems.
However, these general reasons are not practical.
The problem is there are many other people out there who have these struggles but are not addicted to food.
For example, you may know a person who came from a troubled background but didn’t develop a food addiction.
While it’s true that yes you may recognize these elements in your own childhood, it doesn’t explain why all people who had difficult childhoods don’t all have eating problems.
These general reasons above also failed to explain how normal people develop struggles with food as well.
Finally, these general reasons are all in the past. So these general reasons are interesting, but ultimately impractical.
Here’s a more practical explanation for food addiction and binge eating
The answer is simple. You started dieting.
It is dieting, in combination with the factors mentioned above, which are the primary causes behind your food addiction.
Let’s try to understand why in more detail. To begin, let’s examine a typical dieting cycle. Here’s how the pattern goes:
Does this pattern look familiar to you? When I was working as a Personal Trainer, I saw this cycle all the time.
People would say they’d lost weight before, but got lazy and undisciplined and then gained back the weight. I’ve heard this story countless times.
What people don’t realize is this dieting cycle is the cause food addiction, binge eating and oftentimes weight gain.
So in terms of practicality, we can go backwards.
Since dieting oftentimes starts this whole food addiction and binge eating cycle, oftentimes the very first step is education about how you may be restricting and dieting.
Your brain while dieting
Dieting triggers a survival mechanism in your brain. The survival mechanism in your brain is evolutionarily built into humans to prevent starvation.
1000’s of years ago, starvation was the number one killer of humans. So we evolved ingenious ways to survive from starvation.
One way we evolved was the ability to store fat on our belly and hips. When a cold winter came, we could draw from our fat stores.
Another way we evolved to survive starvation was the development of a brain organ, the amygdala.
The amygdala greatly enhanced our reflexes:
- Your amygdala will instantly recognize a tiger and run before you can even think to run
- Your amygdala is what makes you automatically shiver when you are cold.
- Try holding your breath for too long and your amygdala will automatically make you breathe
In life or death situations, the amygdala shuts down your “thinking” brain and goes into automatic survival mode.
By “thinking” brain I am referring to the classic difference between our emotions and thinking. Understanding these two different brains is critical towards ending food addiction and stopping binge eating.
Brain biology continued … dieting activates your amygdala … which makes you a food addict.
That’s right. Dieting is your amygdala turning on.
When you lose too much weight too quickly, your body thinks that it is dying!
When you are restricting food, your body thinks it is dying!
And when you are in a life or death situation, remember, the amygdala turns on and does its job. The amygdala’s job in this case is to stop you from starving!
To stop you from starving the amygdala shuts down your brain and makes you eat a ton of food. This is where you lose control. You, in fact, do lose control when your brain gets shut down.
But this is just your amygdala trying to do its job.
Then unfortunately, food and binge eating becomes highly addicting …
Frist, eating this amount of food after starvation is seen as highly pleasurable. After all, your amygdala thinks your dying and wants to keep you alive. So your amygdala sees this food as helping you survive and is very happy.
This is how you became a food addict.
When your amygdala eats this food, your brain will release tons of extra “happy” chemicals like dopamine to help you remember that this food is great for your survival!
Here are some other “rewards” that food addiction and binge eating can bring:
- Immediate relief from dieting
- Break from thinking
- Excitement, remove boredom
- Disconnect, relax, stop feeling emotions
- Stop dying from dieting!
From innocent dieting to food addiction
After you have first gotten this rush from food, your brain has a tendency to start a habit.
Your brain is great at repeating behaviors that make the brain feel good.
Indeed, after you first begin food addiction or binge eating after a diet, your habit can grow even if you aren’t dieting. Studies have clearly indicated that binge eating is not dependent on dieting alone.
After you begin to binge eat, the cues, environmental stimuli and bodily sensations can all trigger future urges in the future even without dieting.
Dieting is, in combination with one of the above factors, is most likely how you started binge eating.
And even if you are no longer dieting, your brain may still be conditioned to binge eat because of your first few experiences of binge eating back when you were dieting.
And lastly, please note that binge eating does not exclusively have to start with an official diet where you are restricting certain foods in an attempt to lose weight.
You may have innocently dieted without even knowing it
So far we know why food addiction and binge eating start.
But some of you may have experienced binge eating BEFORE dieting.
That is, dieting didn’t cause binge eating for you. You were binge eating first!
If this situation describes you, please note that the above information regarding dieting is still true.
Scientific studies have reported that the majority people who demonstrate binge eating disorder symptoms did not start with “official” dieting.
These studies have shown light into how accidental calorie deprivation can act as a substitute for dieting and also cause binge eating at a young age:
- Haphazard meal planning: as a child perhaps food was not available or scarce
- Irregular eating times: perhaps you learned that dinner was where you ate 90% of your calories and you essentially learned binge eating growing up
- Restrictive food rules: your parents may have innocently tried to stop you from eating foods, but the reward cycle pattern may still have been triggered
You may be dieting today too without even knowing it:
- Too restrictive calorie counting
- Can’t eat certain foods
- Have rules around foods
- Don’t let yourself eat some foods
- Skipping meals
- Obsessing about your weight
Concluding thoughts about being a food addict:
I hope this article has helped.
- Definition of Food addiction and binge eating
- General Causes
- Specific Causes
- How these causes apply to your life
With that being said, I understand you may still have questions and that’s totally to be expected!
I’m always trying to create the best content I can for my audience so please feel free to use this form and I’ll use your responses going forward.