by Dr. Vera Tarman
I’ve often been asked, “How can I tell if I’m addicted to food, or if I just enjoy eating? Are all people who enjoy eating ‘addicts’?” These are very good questions.
Enjoying food is definitely not the same thing as being addicted to food. Our brains are wired to enjoy food — that is a primal survival mechanism. In fact, we enjoy foods that are high fat and high sugar for that very reason — these foods are energy dense and ensure our survival by making us want to eat more for immediate energy and storage purposes. Even the food addict who is in recovery still enjoys their food.
What makes the enjoyment addictive is the key question. When the enjoyment has become so large that it dominates other natural pleasures, a problem is flagged. We are either in a deficit so we need the excess food ( i.e. we’re very hungry) or we are in a disordered pattern of eating. The natural ebbs and flows of pleasure are misaligned: Notice that when you are hungry, the plate of brussels sprouts and glass of water is very enjoyable, but when you are full, you no longer desire them. The desire to eat ebbs when it is no longer necessary to ‘fuel up.’ But when you are not hungry and you still desire to eat, something else is operating that keeps you wanting to continue to eat or to ‘enjoy’ the food.
There are many neurochemical and hormonal reasons for this disorder, and one of them is the neurochemistry of addiction. The person may be rooted into an addiction loop that makes them crave food even when they no longer need it – in fact, even when they are no longer enjoying it. They still want it anyway.
The primary way an addiction doctor can determine if a person has a food addiction is by looking at the patient’s eating patterns and food behaviour. The doctor is looking for a dysfunction in the normal ‘ebbs and flows’ of wanting and not wanting food. We use questions from the DSM IV which determine addiction. Here are just a few:
- Do you crave and obsess over food, even when not hungry?
- Have you tried to abstain from food and found that you could not (i.e. a diet)?
- Have you ever eaten foods that you know are bad for your health? Even when your health is deteriorating (i.e. diabetes)?
- Have you ever found that you could not control your food intake? Could not stop after the first bite?
An excellent questionnaire that you can use is the 20 questions that the Food Addicts in Recovery group uses. If you answer yes to just a few of these, you might be a food addict, rather than just enjoying your food.
- Have you ever wanted to stop eating and found you just couldn’t?
- Do you think about food or your weight constantly?
- Do you find yourself attempting one diet or food plan after another, with no lasting success?
- Do you binge and then “get rid of the binge” through vomiting, exercise, laxatives, or other forms of purging?
- Do you eat differently in private than you do in front of other people?
- Has a doctor or family member ever approached you with concern about you’re eating habits or weight?
- Do you eat large quantities of food at one time (binge)?
- Is your weight problem due to your “nibbling” all day long?
- Do you eat to escape from your feelings?
- Do you eat when you’re not hungry?
- Have you ever discarded food, only to retrieve and eat it later?
- Do you eat in secret?
- Do you fast or severely restrict your food intake?
- Have you ever stolen other people’s food?
- Have you ever hidden food to make sure you have “enough?”
- Do you feel driven to exercise excessively to control your weight?
- Do you obsessively calculate the calories you’ve burned against the calories you’ve eaten?
- Do you frequently feel guilty or ashamed about what you’ve eaten?
- Are you waiting for your life to begin “when you lose the weight?”
- Do you feel hopeless about your relationship with food?
Copyright © 2014 Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous
The Yale Food Addiction Scale
The Yale Food Addiction Scale is an attempt to diagnose food addiction from a scientific and clinical perspective. A diagnosis of food addiction from the medical or psychiatric framework does not yet exist, but a scale such as this marks the first step towards professional credibility of this disease. This is based on the DSM lV criteria of addiction (substance abuse/dependency)
If you answer yes to three or more of the following criteria, you could be suffering from a clinical addiction to food.
- I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than I had planned.
- Not eating certain types of food or cutting down on certain types of food is something I worry about.
- I spend a lot of time feeling sluggish or lethargic from overeating.
- There have been times when I consumed certain foods so often or in such large quantities that I spent time dealing with negative feelings from overeating instead of working, spending time with my family or friends, or engaging in other important activities or recreational activities I enjoy.
- I kept consuming the same types of food or the same amount of food even though I was having emotional and/or physical problems.
- Over time, I have found that I need to eat more and more to get the feeling I want, such as reduced negative emotions or increased pleasure.
- I have had withdrawal symptoms when I cut down or stopped eating certain foods. (Please do NOT include withdrawal symptoms caused by cutting down on caffeinated beverages such as soda pop, coffee, tea, energy drinks, etc.) For example: Developing physical symptoms, feeling agitated, or feeling anxious.
- My behaviour with respect to food and eating causes significant distress.
- I experience significant problems in my ability to function effectively (daily routine, job/school, social activities, family activities, health difficulties) because of food and eating.