Food Addiction

Real Talk on Food Addiction & Recovery

It was an adjustment at first but I soon found myself really benefiting from their program of healthy, prepared meals, classes, meetings and counselling sessions. I learned for the first time in my life that I’m not a bad person, but that I have a disease. I learned that I’m not like other people. I learned that when I eat my trigger foods, my mind and body undergo actual physical changes that are chemically induced abnormalities or illnesses. I learned that it is a progressive disease and that it only becomes worse without treatment.

I learned that unless I abstain from these trigger foods, I cannot recover.

Excerpt from Renascent Food Addiction Alumni post, November 2017

Food addiction is real and recovery is possible. Just like with drugs and alcohol, people can experience an addictive effect from eating certain foods, which in turn can lead to food compulsions, serious addictions, and related health conditions. At Renascent, we know food compulsion and addiction are often misunderstood, minimized, and misdiagnosed.

As an accredited national leader in treating addiction for nearly 50 years, we offer Canada’s only intensive inpatient and outpatient programs specifically for food addiction. We’ve helped almost 50,000 people recover from addiction. We can help you too.

In this article, we’ll help you understand food addiction, the signs and symptoms you should watch out for, how a food addiction can be treated, and the best steps for lifelong healing and recovery.

Your journey to recovery from a food addiction starts here.

What is Food Addiction?

Have you found that dieting isn’t the right approach for you? Are you struggling with your weight, obsessing about eating, or compulsively eating? Do you feel completely out of control?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. It’s estimated that 1 in 20 Canadians, or 5% of our country’s population, have a food addiction. And research shows that more than 40% of people with binge-eating disorders are also addicted to certain foods.

The science behind food addiction tells us that highly palatable or good-tasting foods, like sugar and white flour, can activate an addictive response in certain people. Studies have also found that certain foods like sugar can create the same reaction in our brains as alcohol or drugs like cocaine. And just like a person with an alcohol or drug addiction is only addicted to a specific substance, food addicts are only addicted to specific types of foods.

We’re all tempted at times by good-tasting foods and treats, but if you reach a certain point where your behaviour with food is mimicking other addictions, with no ‘off’ button for your cravings or compulsions, this is a signal you might need help.

Food addiction and compulsive eating are real problems, and major contributing factors to several chronic health conditions including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Like with any other substance-use problem, food addictions need to be taken and treated seriously.

Are you Addicted to Food?

We’re often asked, “How can I tell if I’m addicted to food, or if I just enjoy eating?” and “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 person with a food addiction who is in recovery still enjoys their food.

The Brain & Body Connection to Addiction

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 and 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.

Diagnosing a Food Addiction

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 ebb and flow of wanting and not wanting food. We use questions from the DSM IV handbook, which determines 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 a different way 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 also based on the DSM IV criteria of addiction (substance abuse/dependency).

According to the Yale Scale, if you answer yes to 3 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.

Food Addiction Treatment

As addiction is a chronic condition, avoiding triggering foods and learning the tools to help you identify and prevent a relapse are essential to your recovery. For example, at Renascent, we use an abstinence-based model that integrates 12-step facilitation with other best practices in clinical and medical approaches, which has been shown to help people achieve long-term success.

In a typical treatment program with individual and group counselling, you will learn how food addiction affects your body, how to develop and maintain a food plan without feeling deprived, how to follow calorie restrictions, and how to maintain your whole mind and body health. Weight loss in a quality food addiction treatment program is inevitable, and at Renascent treatment centres, we also give you the tools to keep it off for good.

Steer clear of any treatment centres that rely on gimmicks, unusual foods, or magic pills. Instead, you need a program that uses a balanced food plan to support your hunger cues. Eating should continue to pleasurable as you learn how to eat to achieve a happier, healthier you.

Renascent offers Canada’s only exclusive inpatient and outpatient programs specifically designed to treat compulsive eating and food addiction. These programs are designed and delivered by our specialized team, including a registered psychologist, registered psychotherapist, registered dietitian, and certified food addiction counsellors, as well as our board-certified addiction medical doctor.

Intensive Primary Care – Why it’s Important

An intensive treatment program is like a kick-start to your recovery. A quality program grounded in evidence and a client- and family-centred approach will be like a reset button for your healing and success. Add in around-the-clock counselling and support, and education in practical recovery skills, and the right treatment program can help you get to the underlying issues of your addiction and empower you to manage your weight and eating once and for all.

The overall goal of any primary treatment program for food addiction is therefore abstinence from triggering foods and other mood-altering substances to improve your quality of life. After completing an intensive program, you’ll have learned:

  • How food addiction affects your body, mind, and relationships.
  • How to manage feelings of guilt and shame, maintain your self-esteem and set healthy boundaries.
  • About grief and the stages of recovery.
  • How to shop, chop, and prepare healthy meals.

Lasting Recovery from a Food Addiction

“I was helped by counsellors to make changes that have literally saved my life. I have been able to remain abstinent since leaving treatment by using all the tools that were given to me. I work this program every single day and it has become a way of life for me. I have a plan of eating that I follow each day. I have a sponsor who helps me and I have a support system of people in my life that have gone through the same experiences, and who are also in recovery. I now have freedom from the mental obsession and physical cravings that used to plague me relentlessly.

I’ve lost at least 100 lbs. and I feel better than I have ever felt in my life. I’m active and I can do things I only dreamed of doing before. I believe in this program. It has worked for me. The key for me was willingness. I am so grateful that I have been helped to understand that recovery from eating compulsively is possible.”

Excerpt from Renascent Food Addiction Alumni post, November 2017

Research shows that people are particularly vulnerable to relapse during the first three months following intensive treatment for an addiction. The challenges of returning to everyday life present significant stressors and it can be difficult to apply the skills learned during intensive treatment without ongoing support.

Continuing Care and Alumni Programs

Finding an after-care program, like the Continuing Care and Alumni programs offered at Renascent, extends your counselling support, peer support, and education following your primary intensive inpatient or outpatient treatment period. The goal of a program like Continuing Care is to support you to maintain your abstinence, and help you re-establish it if you struggle with relapse.

Typically, an after-care program is available to clients as an in-class format or over the phone. And you don’t have to have a referral or have completed your primary treatment at the same centre to enrol. Alumni programs go an addition step and provide a healthy, safe, and strong social community foundation for long-term recovery to thrive. From group meetings to social events and volunteer opportunities, an alumni program can be a vital part of your personal growth and long-term recovery.

Your Road to Recovery Starts Here

Your addiction recovery journey begins with “I need help.” We’ve helped almost 50,000 people recover from addiction. We can help you too.

For a free and confidential consultation with one of our counsellors, call 1-866-232-1212 anytime, day or night, or contact us today.

About the Authors

Dr. Vera Tarman ( Medical Director )

Dr. Tarman, MD, FCFP, ABAM, is the Medical Director of Renascent. As an addiction specialist, she also works as consultant for Salvation Army’s The Homestead and The Harbourlight treatment programs. She has worked in the field of addiction medicine since 1992 and is committed to her patients’ care and full recovery. Dr. Tarman is a strong advocate for recovery from all addictions and has a special interest in promoting a better understand of food addiction. She is author of “Food Junkies: The Truth about Food Addiction” and has been instrumental in launching Renascent’s ground-breaking Food Addiction Program.