Food Addiction is Real (and 6 Ways to Deal)

By , Dr. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
Greetings to everyone. I'm thrilled to share this guest blog on to share my wit and wisdom on all things healthy living. The SparkPeople community is a powerful and potent network of wonderful folks supporting one another as they strive to achieve mental and physical fitness through a healthier lifestyle. Kudos to all of you for doing your best to live the rich and rewarding life each of you so deserves.
This blog is all about the brand new science of food and addiction. As a physician and scientist and Pew Foundation scholar in nutrition and metabolism, I have devoted years to studying this issue and am thrilled to see that scientists around the globe continue to produce brilliant work to help people manage what is now emerging as a major problem in the field of weight management. Even the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, noted in a recent pronouncement that a new and significant cause of overweight and obesity is food addiction.
SparkPeople has done a masterful job of enlightening the community about this cutting-edge new science. I've been following the personal journeys of so many people who are struggling with cravings, binges and addictive urges for what we now call the hyperpalatables--sugary/fatty/salty/refined/processed food combinations.
Let's meet Samantha, one of my patients, who is featured in my book, The Hunger Fix,  which described the new science in consumer-friendly terms.

The beast never went away, it was just hiding, waiting to strike. I was blindsided, and by the time I really consciously realized what was happening, it was too late. A clear consciousness of what was happening didn't emerge until real physical terror— I woke up choking, because stomach acid was running up my throat into my mouth from my anxiety. I had bought bags of candy, intending to make Christmas cookies for everyone, but suddenly I had to feed the beast. I hid candy in the freezer, the car, even wrapped in a sock strategically placed through- out the house. I felt ashamed, tricked, embarrassed, mortified, and angry. The anger fired me up and gave me strength to face the beast. I'm nauseous just admitting my darkest moments of addiction— my friends, family, and husband would be shocked to know!  The Hunger Fix, pages 166-167

Thanks to the advent of specialized scans that allow researchers to peer into the brain, we've discovered what is now believed to be the basic mechanisms underlying all addictions. This is what is happening inside your brain:
  1. Your Reward Center is Hijacked: In any addictive state, we now know that the reward center in your brain undergoes organic changes. In the case of food, it's usually the hyperpalatables that cause most of the problems. Overexposure to them causes too much dopamine (the brain chemical that helps you feel reward and pleasure) to flow, overwhelming the brain. The brain can't handle this long term and a primal mechanism kicks in resulting in a decrease in the total number of dopamine receptors (the only way to feel reward is when dopamine bonds with its receptor). The bad news is that as a consequence of this downshift in receptors, your own perception of reward significantly decreases. One cupcake is not enough. 2, 3, 20 can't do it. There's no period to the end of that sugary/fatty/salty sentence. This is how the addictive cycle begins. If you have addiction genetics in your family line, this entire process is magnified. You do not have to have addiction genetics to become food addicted. You just need that overexposure from your living environment.

  2. Your Executive Center is Impaired: People with food addictions are constantly told "just use moderation for heaven's sake!". The problem is that the brain center that controls impulses (prefrontal cortex or PFC) is also where your willpower and discipline is housed. Scientists have discovered that in all addictions, the PFC is damaged and impaired. Try telling a food addict or an alcoholic in the middle of their respective binges to use moderation. This is not an excuse to stay out of control. It's just a scientific fact that is taken into consideration when a detox and recovery program are created.
What does this mean to you? Here are some tips to help you get started on your own path to lifelong recovery.

1) Are you a food addict? Something to keep in mind is that people who struggle with food and addiction come in every size, from skinny to obese. The skinny folks have just learned how to rein in calories enough to allow them to continue their addictive behaviors. They're not healthy or fit. Appearances can be quite deceiving.  Binging on a particular food(s) is very common. To help you, Yale University researchers have created a validated quiz to help you determine if you do indeed have this problem. Take the quiz. You have two options, the longer version  or a quick quiz.

2) Reclaim your brain. For all addictions, it's imperative to do what it takes to heal both the reward and executive centers in the brain. In order to do this, you need to tell your true truth and make a list of any foods that, after consuming, leave you feeling out of control and launching into overeating. Pitch them now. Will you ever be able to have them down the road? That's not possible if they keep lighting up your reward center and knee jerking you into the fridge. If you're cross addicted, the answer is a firm "no." Brain healing can only take place in the absence of the addictive food products.

3) Use an integrative approach. In my work, I use the pillars MIND MOUTH MUSCLE. In each category there are so many easy steps you can take to detox and pop into lifelong recovery from food addiction. Here are some highlights:

a) Meditate: Science now shows that when you regularly practice meditation (especially mindfulness and transcendental meditation) you activate and promote healing in the executive center of the brain. You also increase vigilance and stay present as you live through each day.
b) Switch Foods: I call addictive foods False Fixes. Switch out False Fixes with Healthy Fixes. Bag the salty fatty corn chips and bake some kale chips. Get smart and curb cravings by combining protein and fiber throughout the day. The brain perceives fullness and your appetite is reined in. Works like a charm and you're less likely to cave to the crave.

c) Grow a Bigger Brain: Get up and be more active throughout the day. When you do, scientists have shown that you actually stimulate the brain (including the executive center) to grow more brain cells and new circuits to duke it out with the addictive ones. That's why my Hunger Fix motto is "Big Brain, Small Waist". The bigger and more powerful your brain, the better your decisions and the smaller your waist.
4) Practice the 24-hour rule. Biggest Loser celeb Tara Costa wrote the forward to my book and helped promote our 24-hour rule. Here's how we teamed to make it work for you:

a) Study your own eating patterns throughout a 24-hour period. Identify the "red zones" when you're more likely to cave to the crave--morning, lunch, 3 p.m., dinner time, after dinner, any or all of the above.

b) Start every day by saying "Today I will______" and keep to your daily goals. "Today I will eat my mid-afternoon snack on time and be mindful at dinner."

c) Be prepared for the red zones by making certain you have the foods you need throughout the day (healthy meals and snacks), staying physically active, getting sleep and practicing better stress management.

d) Take it hour by hour and keep saying to yourself "I'm doing well and I can do this." Stay present and mindful. Keep a food log to stay honest. Keep a vision of your goals.
5) "A Square it" every day. I made up this verb--A2 -ing it means adapting and adjusting to life's stresses without resorting to self-destruction. Stress is the Achilles heel of people who have addictions. By preparing ahead of time for predictable stresses and by practicing meditation, getting enough sleep, creating a strong support system around you and strategically reducing as much stress in your life as possible, there's less of a tendency to crumble and cave.
6) Create a Healthy Voice. People with addictions often listen to what others say about them and believe those voices above their own. It's time to stop that and instead create your own Healthy Voice. SparkCoach is a wonderful way to learn how to support yourself as you work through each day. So are the helpful comments from your SparkPeople support system. Dump the unhealthy voices and develop your own "You Can Do This" affirmations.

There's so much more, but this is a good beginning to help you understand the gist of what's known about food addiction science and treatment. I welcome your thoughts, comments and stories and look forward to sharing more. Congratulations to everyone as you embrace each day to its fullest, remembering to live, laugh and love.

Do you suffer from food addiction? Which of these tips will help you the most?

Dr. Pamela Peeke is an internationally recognized expert, physician, scientist and author in the fields of nutrition, fitness and integrative medicine. Dr. Peeke is the New York Times bestselling author of Fight Fat after Forty, Body for Life for Women and her new book, The Hunger Fix: The 3 Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction (Rodale, 2012), which presents the groundbreaking new science of food and addiction, noting the latest NIH based research showing that food addiction is real.
Dr. Peeke is a Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland and Fellow of the American College of Physicians. Dr. Peeke has teamed with the US Surgeon General to create the Surgeon General Walks for a Healthy and Fit Nation. She is a member of the Maryland Governor’s Council on Fitness, and is national spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise is Medicine global campaign.
In her laboratory at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Peeke’s original research helped establish the scientific foundation for the relationship between chronic stress and belly fat. She was also the first senior research fellow at the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine where she explored the new science of holistic and mind-body modalties.
Dr. Peeke is a regular in-studio medical commentator for the national networks and is a monthly columnist and contributing editor for numerous national magazines  including Prevention, O, Fitness, and More Magazine.
Triathlete, marathoner and mountain climber, Dr. Peeke is founder of the Peeke Performance Center for Healthy Living™ where she conducts her Peeke Week Retreats teaching her Peeke Performers how to mentally and physically challenge themselves in magnificent outdoor destinations including hiking the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce National Parks.

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LOSER05 5/17/2018
thanks. Report
NASFKAB 2/24/2018
Great article very helpful Report
ROCKS8ROX 12/21/2017
I do believe that certain foods can be addicting. Good article. Report
when it comes to trigger foods, my motto yes one bite will hurt. Report
NELLJONES 8/7/2017
I don't know if food is a true addiction, I'll leave that to the biochemists, but you treat it as if it were. By the time science has figured it out, you'll be at goal. Report
LSIG14 7/26/2017
Interesting article but the links to the quiz to find out if someone has a problem did not open. I wish they had worked because that would have been helpful! Report
JVANAM 7/24/2017
We can never get enough of what we don't really need.
- Matthew Kelly Report
TINYTONI4 7/23/2017
Couldn't take quiz because links don't work. Interesting article. Report
Very informative! Thanks! Report
KATHRYNGC 7/23/2017
Very informative. Guess its all in our heads in more ways than one. Watched a documentary showing the brain of an addict and one of a drinking addict, and one of a person after eating a mass amount of sugar. All three were lit up in the feel good area of the brain. Sugar would be the hardest due to its in pretty much all processed foods. Report
MBPP50 7/23/2017
Great article. Thanks. Report
Neither of the links for food addiction quizzes seem to be working... Report
AUNA_VISTA 7/22/2017
Great article! The links to the food addiction quizzes are broken now, meaning that they don't work. I don't have a food addiction, but I'm thinking about starting a daily meditation habit. There's something called 'urge surfing', which is the mindfulness practice where you just notice the thing you want and just feel that for a while, without trying to placate the urge necessarily. And if you are really, truly hungry eat something, but try to make it healthy food that you eat. I know it's really hard sometimes. I eat sweets sometimes until I get a headache, but that's very rarely. Then I remember for a long time that that will cause a headache and to be wary. Also, another thing that can help, is if you indulge in something sweet, but you don't want to eat too much of that, then eat some protein along with it. It's better for you that way, especially if it's a lean protein. Even drinking some cow milk can help you to add protein, but be mindful that milk also contains some sugar naturally. Low fat or nonfat cottage cheese or yogurt would be even better! Report
Great article Report
JAJONESCPA 7/22/2017
Great information Report
LBSPOERL 7/22/2017
The biggest thing that helps me break a food addiction "flare" is making sure I'm eating enough fiber - especially if I catch myself wanting more of something that is higher in fat. Usually when I balance it with extra fiber in during that snack or meal, my body is much more balanced and I don't fog out or crash. Report
AQUAGIRL08 7/22/2017
Thank you for your insight! Report
NEPTUNE1939 7/22/2017
great Report
Thanks Report
CED1106 6/6/2017
My "red zone" is midnight snacking, but what I've "adapted" to is planning a meal around that time (and skipping breakfast and daytime snacks). Report
I came to the realization that I was a food addict when I pulled off the lid of a gallon-tub of Cookies 'n' Cream ice cream, intending to sneak a few spoonfuls -- and ate the whole thing! One GALLON of ice cream in a single sitting!! I also habitually sneaked/pilfered snack foods at work and tried to hide my eating from my husband.

Early in April, something happened that catapulted me into a full-blown mid-life crisis. While I am still taking stock of my life and struggling with some difficult issues, one POSITIVE result is that it motivated me to lose weight and become healthier.

I decided to quit cold-turkey: no more ice cream, snacks, desserts whatsoever. Instead, I focus on how good it actually feels to walk around with an EMPTY stomach (instead of that bloated, sluggish feeling I get from overeating.) It's funny: after 6 weeks of this, I no longer even desire my previous addictive foods. Report
The quiz link in this article is not working. Report
I'm confused. I read another article that said there was "No such thing as a food addiction." It said they were really bad haits. I know for a fact, that if I have trigger foods in the house, I can't leave them alone until they are all gone. I try to ban these foods from the house, but I will just find another food to replace them. I'm trying so hard. I have lost 70 lbs, but continue to mess up and binge. What can I do? Any good ideas out there? Report
I've always known that the key to my weight problem is what's buried down deep inside in the mind. I have to stay away from my trigger foods if I want to be successful in weight loss. This was an interesting read. Report
A most-excellent blog! Report
This is an excellent book - based on research....extremely enlightening Report
Your book sounds interesting and I have just put it on hold at my library. Though I'm already confused by what you wrote. You talk about this being an issue for skinny people as well and make a point to dispel the myth that skinny equals healthy yet you make the motto "Big Brain, Small Waist". This seems to reinforce the myth. Report
The links for the quizzes are not working for me either. I get a page not find kind of thing for the short one and I go to a the UConn Rudd Center for the longer link, but no quizzes.

I do believe I found them using a google search. Short one.

Long one (linked at bottom of page after explanation, the links work):
I would have liked to take one of the quizzes but the links are no longer working and I can't take the quiz. I am pretty sure I have food addictions, so I might get the book and read it. Report
I have dealt with food addiction in the past. I was formally diagnosed with binge eating disorder. I think these are some great tips but the actual cause still needs to be addressed. At the root of any addiction, be it food/drugs/gambling/etc, is an emotional or psychological issue which needs to be addressed. The best way to do that is with the help of a qualified therapist. I would not be able to say I am binge free for over 9 months now without the help of my therapist. Mindfulness and meditation are some great options with getting more in tune with your emotions but if they are not enough to stop the addictive behaviors therapy should be considered. Report
REALLY constructive article. I agree with the person who comments that the food problem is often in the head. Love the idea of the 24 Hour Rule to identify my specific problems and help me practise mindfulness. From that I would hope to create my own 'Healthy Voice'. This blog has given me some realistic help and have printed out what I feel are the key points for me. Report
REALLY constructive article. I agree with the person who comments that the food problem is often in the head. Love the idea of the 24 hour Rule to identify my specific problems and help me practise mindfulness. From that I would hope to create my own 'Healthy Voice'. This blog has given me some realistic help and have printed out what I feel are the key points for me. Report
Very interesting article; thank you. Report
Interesting article, but the links to the quiz are no longer active. I'm pretty sure I'm a food addict. I can't eat one, I have to eat them all and the treat calls to me until I do, which is why I generally don't buy packages of things. If I want a cookie, I go to the bakery and buy one cookie. If I want ice cream, I go to DQ and buy one cone. I realize I shouldn't be feeding the beast at all, but it's hard when I really want something sweet. It will continue until I just stop feeding it. I have cut back and continue to work to eliminate it completely.
My partner doesn't crave sweet things, so he just doesn't get that I do. When he offers me chocolate or something, I know he thinks he's being kind but I just want to scream at him 'do you hate me?' I know that after dinner is my worst time, somehow I'm conditioned to eat something sweet after dinner, even if I feel full. I need to work out a strategy for what to do, given that I feel tired and want to veg out at the end of the day, not go for a run. Report
As long as I stay away from trigger foods, such as, potato chips, candy, cookies, any sweets, etc., I'm good. No cravings.
If I indulge, then the cravings begin .... I want more, more, more. Report
I was VERY pleased to see the part where she said a food addict shouldn't be eating their trigger foods. So many articles on here keep saying "you shouldn't ban certain foods entirely... there is no good or bad food... you can eat whatever you want as long as it's in moderation... ect" But that just doesn't work for everyone. It surely isn't for me. I eat healthy and delicious foods now, and I don't see why it should be a problem that I banned pizza and donuts. ;) Report
Once I learned about addictions I knew that is why I was so heavy. I would cope with lives anxieties by shoving them down with food so I did not have to face them or feel what was necessary to heal. It is a constant struggle. And I stupidly bring trigger foods into the house. I am going to have to apply the rule if it does not go in the cart it will not be in the house. Not in the house means not in my mouth. Report
This was a very informative and helpful blog. Although I don't have any type of disorder (that I'm aware of), if I get lazy and don't have the gumption to fix a meal, I will just eat what is there. Although most of the time I weigh and measure all my foods, it could get out of control if I didn't have my Plan B in place. Great article. Thanks so much... Report
I suffer from BED (Binge Eating Disorder). It isn't a specific food that will trigger. If I had to remove 'trigger' foods from my home, there would be nothing left in it. The biggest factor in keeping my BED under control has not been managing my environment or keeping certain foods out of my home but learning how to rewire my brain. It isn't easy, but it is possible. Report
Yep. That's me exactly. I cannot have any trigger foods around or else it's all I can think about until it's gone.
I am so glad I found this article. It was helpful to read and what a relief. At least I know that I am not crazy. Report
This is awesome. Yes, people who think it's all about willpower 100% of the time drives me nuts. This article helps me to understand the addiction to food and real steps on how to start chipping away at it. Thanks! Report
I was glad to see this. Sometimes I just feel like screaming every time I read someone say just eat everything in moderation! Report
Great blog!!!! Report
Hope ya'll will join The Hunger Fix team/group here on SP:
Very informative! I have learned a lot about myself from reading it! Report
Wonderful insight. Excellent ideas to help overcome my addiction. Report
This article is super helpful. I never wanted to admit that in order to get past my addictions I needed to completely give up the items I am adicted to. Life can be great, even without chocolate. I don't need it. Report
Very enlightening. I have always suspected I had a food addiction because of the binges. Even with SparkPeople sometimes I find myself binging on something that is I just can't enough, when I know I'm feeding something other than hunger. You give some great advice in places to begin. I have realized since I started exercising the binges are further apart and not so severe. So, growing your brain must really work. Thank you. I may check out your book. Report
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