The latest episode in UCTV Prime’s “Skinny on Obesity” series is all about the science of sugar addiction and, if you’re anything like those of us working on the series, it’ll probably cause you to think twice when you instinctively reach for that afternoon snack.
We asked the experts at the UCSF Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment (COAST) for a little guidance to help gauge just where you fall on the food addiction scale. Here’s what they shared:
In jest, we call someone who loves and eats a lot of chocolate a “chocoholic.” But what if that could actually be true? What if we could be addicted to food much like alcohol or drugs?
Currently in the scientific community, there’s growing support for the concept of “food addiction.” Highly palatable foods activate the “reward circuitry” in the area of the brain that makes us experience pleasure. It appears that certain people, primarily those with obesity, may have less — not more — of that pleasure response from eating, and that may induce an overwhelmingly strong biological drive to eat more.
Although there is no official definition of food addiction, we can think of it much the same way as other drug dependencies, with symptoms like:
- eating too much despite harmful consequences
- inability to stop thinking about food
- repeatedly trying and failing to cut back on your food intake
- feeling guilty about eating and overeating
It’s easy to believe that it’s simply a lack of willpower, but that is not a helpful or accurate description of the phenomena. Food addiction is associated with a compulsive and obsessive relationship with food. People with this condition may binge eat, but that is not a necessary part of the condition. They may feel out of control and will often eat past their point of fullness. Food addicts can be any size and any age, but we largely see this disorder in the overweight to the obese.
Research suggests that the largest difference between “food addicts” and “non-food addicts” is that palatable food cues are more powerful (e.g., able to trigger cravings, enhanced motivation to seek out food, etc.) for food addicts. This is very similar to what we see in other addictions.
Take this quiz to see if you might be addicted to food—but know that this does not provide a diagnosis. Rather, the quiz can give you an idea of whether or not you score high on this food scale. If you do, you might want to seek treatment from a professional therapist with experience in this area. Resources are listed below.
QUIZ: ARE YOU ADDICTED TO FOOD?
The following questions ask about your eating habits in the past year. People sometimes have difficulty controlling their intake of certain foods such as sweets, starches, salty snacks, fatty foods, sugary drinks, and others. When answering these questions, please keep these certain foods in mind.
Answer Yes or No:
In the past 12 months…
- I kept consuming the same types or amounts of food despite significant emotional and/or physical problems related to my eating.
- Eating the same amount of food does not reduce negative emotions or increase pleasurable feelings the way it used to.
Select one of the following options indicating how often you experience the feeling described:
0 – Never
1 – Once per month
2 – 2-4 times per month
3 – 2-3 times per week
4 – 4+ times per week
- I find myself consuming certain foods even though I am no longer hungry.
- I worry about cutting down on certain foods.
- I feel sluggish or fatigued from overeating.
- I have spent time dealing with negative feelings from overeating certain foods, instead of spending time in important activities such as time with family, friends, work, or recreation.
- I have had physical withdrawal symptoms such as agitation and anxiety when I cut down on certain foods. (Do NOT include caffeinated drinks: coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks, etc.)
According to Yale University’s Ashley Gearhardt, who developed the scale, research suggests that if you answered 3 or 4 to three or more questions, it is suggestive of eating problems that might need professional help. Here are some resources if you find yourself in that category.
- More from Ashley Gearhardt in these UCTV programs:
Sugar Highs & Lows: The New Science of Sugar Addiction
Food and Addiction: What is Food Addiction and How is it Measured in Humans?
- Overeaters Anonymous
- Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, by Jan Chozen Bays, MD (includes a CD of guided exercises)
- Eating Mindfully, by Susan Albers
- Food Addiction: the Body Knows, by Kay Shepard
- Crave: Why You Binge Eat and How to Stop, by Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D.
- Why Can’t I Stop Eating: Recognizing, Understanding, and Overcoming Food Addiction, by Debbie Danowski
- Fat Boy Thin Man, by Michael Prager