Is Food Addiction Really an Addiction?
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I am a registered dietitian who works with severely obese patients going through gastric bypass. Most believe they are addicted to food. Do you know of any good resources to help them with this?
— Sally, Virginia
First, it is very important to help your patients understand that the strong desire for food that they are experiencing is not an addiction in the traditional sense of the word. Often when people talk about addiction, they are saying that the substance to which they are “addicted” has some independent quality that when ingested removes their control through a strong — and oftentimes insurmountable — physiological response. This thinking may leave them feeling disempowered and out of control. Although there is some growing evidence that reward systems of the brain may respond differently to food cues in some overweight folks compared with non-overweight people, food does not have the same properties as drugs and does not necessarily result in the same level and type of physiological response and subsequent addiction as, for example, crack cocaine or other substances of that type.
However, the urge to control your emotional experiences using substances may be similar with both drugs and food. Overweight people often report using food to numb negative feelings or enhance positive ones. We begin to learn this early in life, because food is often used for this purpose and our mind learns early on to associate food with feeling better. So I recommend that folks learn new ways to self-soothe that do not involve food. Moderate physical activity (taking a walk) has been linked to improved mood. So have relaxation exercises like meditation, yoga, and other mind-body activities. Connecting with other people can also be an excellent tool in the battle against negative emotions, so encourage people to talk with family and friends. Also, attending bariatric surgery support groups or connecting with local community organizations can also be great ways to step outside of one’s own negative emotions and feel better — without food.
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