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The psychology behind your food obsession

I bet you can think of at least one food that you love. You love it so much that you could eat it every day. If we don’t have it for a day that is OK, but for some of us, it can feel as if we do need it every day. It can feel like we are literally addicted to that food. We love it or even love eating it so much it, it makes us feel so good, so we can’t stop thinking about it. This is food obsession. We spend hours obsessing over eating and over what food to eat. 

This food obsession can end up taking over our lives. We can lose hours to food obsession and not get anything else done. It is frustrating and overwhelming. How do you stop? 

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What is Food Addiction?

The prevalence of food addiction is about 15%. This is about 18% for women. Eating triggers dopamine to be released in the brain. Dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters and is known as the feel-good hormone. When released it gives us this sense of pleasure.  Activities like eating, drinking, competing to survive, and reproducing all produce dopamine. This makes food very pleasurable. We are biologically wired this way to help us survive. Dopamine increases our brain activity in the pleasure center which motivates us to do more of these physical activities. 

Previous studies have been done that show the right amount of salt, sugar, and fat in food hits our dopamine reward center and gets us to a bliss point. This is too hard to resist and along with clever marketing, we find ourselves unable to resist these highly palatable foods. Just like a drug, we crave more and more and display this addictive behavior. 

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Signs and Symptoms You May Be Addicted to Food

The criteria in the DSMv for addiction falls under 4 categories; impaired control, physical dependence, social problems, and risky use. 

We notice that there are no criteria for food addiction listed in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders and that is because misuse of food does not have the same impact or life-altering events that a substance can have. 

There are 11 other criteria for substance use disorders. 

  1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to
  2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to
  3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
  4. Cravings and urges to use the substance
  5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use
  6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships
  7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use
  8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger
  9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance
  10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance)
  11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance

You may notice that some of these criteria apply to you, even though they are not referring to food. Food obsession is very similar to food addiction.

The DSMV, also notes there are three levels of symptom severity being, mild, moderate, and severe. 

What Are the Psychological Causes of Food Addiction?

There are many causes of addiction. Some of them may be

Trauma – You experienced trauma and neglect when you were younger. Our brain develops in a way to cope with the trauma instead of developing to grow and emotionally develop. Trauma can stay with us throughout our lives. As a way of coping we can find ourselves turning to food, because we may not have the emotional support that we need. 

Emotional Neglect/abuse – Similar to trauma only our emotional needs do not get met. These might not be met by our caregivers/ parents for a number of reasons. They may have their own emotional unmet needs going on, and they may not be tuned into the needs of their children. As children you may not have been listened to, constantly shouted at, told to go away, or been under pressure to behave properly. 

Genetics – We can be predisposed to a number of mental disorders and that includes addiction. Previous studies have shown that biological factors can contribute to 50% of addiction. 

Exposure – You may be predisposed to addiction, but also create the setup from a young age. For instance, you find your way to food to help give you the comfort you need or to help you cope with life. Constant exposure to highly palatable foods changes the chemical makeup of our brains causing us to seek out these types of food even more, leading to disordered eating and at times a feeling of a loss of control around food, also known as compulsive overeating.

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How Is Food Addiction Different from Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge Eating Disorder is a classified eating disorder, whereas food addiction is not. Patients with Binge Eating Disorder experience an urge to eat an unusually large amount of food in a short space of time. When you experience a binge eating episode, you tend to binge on different foods. Whereas food addiction tends to be with one particular type of food, for instance, chocolate or crisps. People with food addiction get food cravings at any time. The eating tends to be not so frenzied, but a slow overeating continuously on the food that is the addictive substance. That moment when you think about the food, to eating is where you may notice your food obsession because you cannot stop thinking about it until you eat it.

Further Reading – The difference between food addiction and Binge Eating.

Why Am I Always Thinking About Food? The Psychological Factors

Food addiction has nothing to do with the food. It is linked closely to emotional eating. Your relationship with food is a reflection of what is happening in your inner world. Just like alcohol is to alcoholics, food is a similar means to food addicts. It is a way of getting your emotional needs met, as a coping strategy, and helping you forget or not have to deal with negative emotions. 

Associations – At some point in your life you have paired feeling good with eating highly palatable foods which is not surprising seeing as these types of food are designed to be addictive. You may have started experiencing emotions, but your unconscious did not like it so you ate instead. You may notice that food helps to calm you when you are stressed. This is known as emotional eating. 

 Overcoming food addiction

You may need outside help, to help you overcome your pattern of compulsive eating. Organisations like overeaters anonymous. 

It is not as easy as reducing your food intake or abstaining from those High-reward foods. As much as you try, if you have not worked on your unconscious patterns and your negative emotions, the driver for your hedonic eating will always be there. 

Dieting is not going to help, nor will weight loss treatment because that is targeting your weight as opposed to targeting your eating patterns, such as your emotional overeating and compulsive overeating. 

Food addiction treatment involves exploring why you eat the way you do. It explores the amounts of food that you eat and why that satisfies you. Essentially it is working on the cause of your issues and your relationship with food. It is not about weight gain or your body weight. 

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How to Overcome Food Obsession & Constant Thoughts About Food

Know When to Get Professional Help

If you have been overeating for a long time and don’t know how to stop, it could be beneficial to get extra help. If you have tried many times to stop on your own, then professional help is going to help you. This is because we cannot see our own patterns of behaviour. We can’t see our own unconscious mind and a therapist is someone who is trained to see what is happening for you. 

Assessing Food Addiction

Most assessments for addiction are based on substance use and these would involve a behavior questionnaire and meeting specific diagnostic criteria. However, food addiction is not listed as an addiction in the DSMV, so that means there are no criteria to measure it against. An assessment would be based on subjective experience. 

You could take your own notes to measure your own level of food obsession. Note, how many times a day you think about food and what do you think about when not thinking about food?

Effects of being a food addict 

We know that if your eating disorder is left and you ignore it, the negative consequences can escalate in your life and slowly over time get worse. What is quite possible is that you have other addictive disorders, such as alcohol, or even internet use disorder.

Physical Effects of Food Addiction

Many people find they have an all-or-nothing mindset, where you either have to cut something out completely or you will binge on the item.  The physical effects of food addiction are feeling a loss of control over food, illnesses such as diabetes, and weight gain. 

Food addiction treatment and recovery 

Help is available. Some options include: 

Going to an organisation like overeaters anonymous

Seeing a specialised Eating Disorder specialist. You may have to be referred by your GP. 

See an Eating Disorder counsellor/Therapist. One who can help you get to the cause of your eating, so you can heal yourself for good. 

About Vanessa McLennan

Vanessa is an emotional eating expert with a passion for natural health, superfoods and psychology. She helps women from all over the world to successfully lose weight by escaping the diet cycle and end their emotional eating patterns. She holds a diploma in Hypnotherapy as well as qualifications in EMDR, EFT, Emotional Eating, IBS therapist. Check out her free guide to help you break free of the diet cycle