(recently posted at Psychology Today blogs, 

Can we get addicted to food?  Lately, the question has absorbed researchers in fields from psychiatry to diabetes medicine.  We see headlines like “Addictive Tendencies Tied to Obesity” and “Cravings for Junk Food Mirror Drug Addiction.”   We still may not fully understand how food does and doesn’t work like other addictive substances in the brain.  However, it’s clear that some parallels exist, and that these are worth understanding.  If you’re an overeater, though, how does this information affect you?   In other words, do you need to know if you’re addicted to get control of your eating?  And if you are, what then?

To recap the emerging science:  brain scans show similar activity patterns in the brains of those seeking drugs and those seeking foods they tend to overeat.  Also, researchers note correlations between obesity and family addiction history.   Processed foods, with their sugar- and sodium-dense flavor enhancers, have been shown to increase the appetite for more of the same.  Indeed, they are “engineered” to do so.   In decades past, food was not thought to be addictive, and not all current research confirms the addiction hypotheses.  Still, it’s pretty clear that science can confirm what overeaters have long declared:  some foods are hard to stop eating.

In my work with overeaters, this information has practical applications.  It’s helpful to know, after all, if certain foods have a built-in tendency to cause trouble.  Thinking that it’s all about    willpower can discourage and sap motivation.  And thinking of such foods as you’d think about wine or whiskey can be useful, too, when thinking about diet.  After all, we know that alcohol has particular effects.  We are aware of this as we choose when and where and how to imbibe.

Quitting trouble foods, in addition, can at times resemble quitting substances.  This also can prove helpful.  You might remember how you craved those cigarettes, for example, then eventually forgot about them, as you work to break a candy habit.   And you might use some of the same tactics that helped then, too—like taking a walk, calling a friend, chewing gum, chomping on carrots.

In my work with overeaters, I note that some find the idea of food addiction empowering.  Often they aim to abstain from trigger foods, period.  Others dislike the “food addict” label.  Nevertheless, they may still use the addictions ideas to use more care with difficult foods.  They might learn to eat these foods in moderation, but realizing what they’re up against helps a lot.

So addictions knowledge can benefit your dietary efforts, whether or not you know if you’re technically “addicted”, and whether or not you decide that you are an addict.   In this regard, I like the work of Psychology Today addictions blogger Stanton Peele.  As he points out, what matters to us really isn’t whether or not science can prove an addictions brain pathway.  What matters is whether or not you behave like an addict.  If your behavior affects your health or relationships or self-esteem, and you can’t seem to stop, despite the consequences—well, that’s a problem worth facing, science or no.

To read more:

Eartheats, on Twitter, frequently posts national articles on food addiction science
Stanton Peele’s blog is at www.psychologytoday.com/blog/addiction-in-society
More of my blogs on food addiction are at tgig-beta.com/eatsanely.com/blog (click on Addictions tag)
“Well”, Tara Parker-Pope’s blog at www.nytimes.com has an addictions entry