An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Food Addiction

What it is and what you can do about it

Chocolate, potato chips, French fries — many of us find it difficult to eat just a bite or two of a sweet or salty food. But at what point does eating unhealthy foods excessively actually become problematic?

The compulsive desire to eat salty, sugary or fatty foods is a concept known as food addiction. “Human beings are genetically programmed to gravitate toward these types of foods,” explains Shreela Sharma, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., associate professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. “When our forefathers were hunter-gatherers, they didn’t know when they would get their next meal. These foods provided the essential nutrients needed for survival. While humans still have the hunter-gatherer gene, making us like and crave these foods, our lifestyles and environment have changed.”

Luca Lavagnino, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, says many factors can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors, including food addiction. They range from traits such as impulsivity and poor self-control, to lifestyle factors such as stress or tiredness, to circumstances that hinder good self-care, such as having enough time to buy or prepare healthy foods.

“The abundance and marketing of foods with poor nutritional value, combined with psychosocial factors, create the ‘perfect storm’ for food addiction,” Lavagnino says.

Sharma, a faculty member at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth School of Public Health, agrees. “Food addiction has been perpetuated by society, which has great access to unhealthy foods,” she says. “It makes it easier for an addict to stay addicted.”

People with food addictions find themselves spending excessive time overeating. As with other addictions, they have to eat more and more to feel satisfied. Oftentimes, food addicts become obese. Food addiction can affect quality of life, including physical, psychological and social aspects.

Research findings

Approximately 20 percent of Americans struggle with food addiction, which is more common in women than men. But Sharma believes food addiction is underdiagnosed and underreported. Like obesity, it can be a mental health problem. However, unlike obesity, which can be diagnosed, physicians don’t typically screen for food addiction.

Food addiction is more common in people who are obese. It’s also associated with higher body mass index in women and older people, Caucasians and those with lower incomes.

Studies by Lavagnino and his colleagues at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth show that difficulties in the ability to maintain self-control and control impulsive behaviors is correlated to increased body weight and obesity. These functions are dependent on the part of the brain that deals with self-control. In fact, symptoms of food addiction are often associated with mood disorders (e.g., major depression and bipolar disorder).

Many unknowns remain

Despite many researchers currently investigating the concept of food addiction, much remains unclear about it — including a way to make an official diagnosis and having a proven method of treatment. Screening for this condition most often includes asking the person about their eating habits using what is called the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Treatment includes psychological treatment from a mental health professional, nutritional counseling and/or treatment with medication, depending upon the individual.

General lifestyle changes regarding how food is prepared and consumed and how stress is managed might also be helpful, Lavagnino says. Some psychotropic medications that have been proven to be helpful for binge eating disorder might be beneficial as well, including lisdexamphetamine (Vyvanse) and fluoxetine (Prozac).

Researchers continue to work to understand and find treatments for changing unhealthy eating behaviors. A preliminary study of experimental treatments suggests that forms of cognitive training, such as participants being trained to block a movement when viewing pictures of food, and non-invasive brain stimulation techniques can increase a person's ability to resist the temptation of eating unhealthy foods, Lavagnino says. These techniques modulate brain activity, but don't require surgery and can be applied externally on the scalp or by positioning a device close to the scalp (such as transcranial magnetic stimulation). These techniques are still experimental and being studied.

The best food choices

When looking to overcome food addiction, in addition to treatment, eating a varied diet including foods from all five food groups in appropriate amounts is important. Nutritional specialists can help tailor diet to individual needs.

Some foods in particular are best eaten in moderation, including those that are high in calories, fat, and sugar and poor in nutrients (e.g., fast foods). “These foods can give so much immediate gratification that we can override our self-control especially in certain situations, such as being hungry after a stressful day at work and eating fast food because it’s quicker than making something at home,” Lavagnino says. “It’s helpful to control access to these types of foods when you’re hungry so you don’t place too much burden on your ability to self-control. At those times, when your energy and capacity to stop impulsive behavior is low, you are more at risk of making choices that jeopardize your goals for healthy eating and weight control.”

Sharma says eating fresh foods are ideal. Avoid processed foods and beverages high in salt, sugar and fat. “They trigger reward centers in the brain similar to opioids, thus creating further cravings for these foods,” she says. “Think of a potato chip laced with salt. You can’t stop at one chip because of the signal the salt sends to the brain, which creates a craving. These foods also increase the risk for other chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes and are nutritionally empty foods.”

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