Food addiction, natural rewards, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

by Michelle

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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Warning: in this post I disagree with certain ideas and express opinions based on my own thinking, experience, and education. Ready your smelling salts.

In an earlier post, I wrote about why some people find food restriction comforting and reassuring. Today I want to talk about the idea of food addiction and why some people find it a helpful construct, but why I ultimately do not think it is accurate or helpful in the long term.

To begin with, I do not doubt that people experience feeling out of control with certain foods in a way that feels very much like an addiction.

I also don’t doubt that, at least partially or temporarily, banishing the particular foods that seem to trigger this feeling can result in feeling more in control.

But “addiction” is a specific thing, and feelings alone are not enough to make it a reality. In order for food addiction to be real (behavioural addictions like gambling aside, for the sake of simplicity), food should qualify as an addictive substance in and of itself. Indeed, several writers and researchers would argue that certain foods are indistinguishable from addictive drugs, but I disagree.

It is true that reward pathways in the brain are triggered by foods (some types of food more than others), and those same reward pathways are activated by the use of certain addictive drugs. But this does not mean, ipso facto, that certain foods are identical to drugs.

First, we need food to survive. We do not need addictive drugs to survive (except in some cases where the addiction has progressed to the point of very high drug tolerance.) Second, it is next to impossible to overdose and kill yourself with food (in the form of food, not a concentrated vitamin or mineral supplement) unless you have some disease, food allergy or intolerance – and in this case, it is the condition that is to blame, not the food. Third, while food can certainly impact your mood and give you pleasure, it does not produce altered states of consciousness or affect one’s judgment in the way addictive drugs do.

All of this should be obvious, but people seem to forget these important points in their desperation to compare fat people to drug addicts.

Even more importantly, I would assume that the reward pathways shared by both food and addictive drugs exist, in the first place, because of things like food. These are called natural rewards.

Food needs to be rewarding to eat, or we all would have died off long ago, because it requires a lot of effort to find and prepare. It requires far, far less effort now than ever before in human history, and even still, a lot of people find food gathering and preparation to be such a pain that they avoid it at all costs. Imagine how much worse those people would have fared as hunter-gatherers, or farmers, or even just home cooks before the rise of value-added/convenience/pre-prepared foods.

Even the foods people now think of as very basic staples used to cook from “scratch” are actually pretty highly processed compared to the raw article – dried pasta and legumes, canned tomatoes, bread or milled flour, pasteurized and homogenized milk, ripened cheeses, butchered and packaged cuts of meat, ground and dried herbs and spices. And still, we often complain about how much effort cooking is – meaning that food has to be pretty damn rewarding to make it worth even a moderate effort, while still remaining absolutely essential to survival.

Additionally, certain foods in the wild are more scarce, and more biologically valuable, than others. When food is hard to come by, stumbling upon a source of concentrated calories, such as sugars and fats, or stumbling upon a source of the very important electrolyte sodium, is extremely lucky and makes us more likely to survive and pass on our genes. Finding a stash of honey or a salt lick or seal blubber is like winning the biological lottery, and as such, it makes sense that we would evolve mechanisms to reward us for that.

Yes, it is true that we now live in a world where sugar, fat, and salt are available on demand. It’s also true that many of us have plenty of all kinds of food at our disposal – both macro- and micronutrient dense – provided we have enough money and access to stores and cooking facilities. And, lastly, it is also true that having too much or too little of any nutrient can directly cause disease or generally increase risk.

However, even in an environment where food is abundant and cheap, I believe humans do have the ability to self-regulate, even in the face of extremely naturally rewarding foods containing lots of sugar, salt, and fat. If we are well-fed and nourished on a regular basis, and if we include those extremely rewarding foods as part of our diets along with all the other foods we need to maintain good health, we are far less likely to go off the deep-end when presented the opportunity to eat a random Twix bar.

So why, in this food-secure world that many of us inhabit, do many of us still snatch after the Twix bar like it’s a life raft?

Because, with the rise of the accessibility of food to those who can afford it, also came the rise of food restriction, food rules, and a scarcity mindset around food. You can think of these things as a sort of induced food insecurity. Even if you have adequate access to food and eat enough of it on a regular basis, the continual messaging from both internal and external sources that you shouldn’t eat that food, that you shouldn’t eat that amount of food, that you will start dieting on Monday, that that delicious food will kill you, or even that you are too fat to deserve to eat at all, scares the very ancient and vulnerable part of you that still thinks starvation could be around the corner at any moment, and thus throws a little neurotransmitter party whenever a wild Twix appears!

Ellyn Satter says “permission is the paradox that gives control.” I’ve seen this at work in myself, and in dozens of clients.

With a truly addictive substance, permission and unfettered access would likely perpetuate the addiction and the feeling of loss of control. With food, in the context of eating competence, the opposite is true. The more permission you have, the less scarcity you fear, and the more responsible you become about feeding yourself in the ways that count, the more in-control you feel around food.

I used to have a bit of a fixation on sweets. Since childhood, they had been a mildly forbidden food, and even when I was allowed to eat them, it was always with the understanding that they were somewhat bad, and I assumed that I was somewhat bad for liking them so much, and I believed that I could never really be in control with them.

In adulthood, my experience with dieting only intensified this feeling, and when I stopped dieting and tried to learn to eat normally, it took several years of giving myself permission and sometimes overeating and feeling slightly out-of-control with sweets before I finally calmed down. What seemed to do it was 1) making sure that I ate dessert once or twice a day, usually with lunch or dinner, every day, and 2) keeping at least some basic sweet (like vanilla ice cream) in stock in my kitchen at all times, buying more when I ran out, and 3) acknowledging that part of human nature is to find sugar really attractive, because of the aforementioned biological value.

I feel quite happy now with sweets. I will occasionally eat too much in one sitting and feel a little bit off afterward, and I accept that. It only happens once every few months, and I think it is part of the human experience, and part of eating competence even, to sometimes make mistakes with eating and then let your body sort itself out. I learn from those mistakes because I don’t get caught up in the shame-spiral of judging myself. I usually end up feeling less hungry afterward for the next few meals or the next day, or I start craving a completely different type of food that seems to address the feeling of imbalance.

Most of the time, I eat an amount of sweets that feels fine in my body, even if it’s more than the serving size on the label, and I accept that. And sometimes I don’t think about or crave anything sweet at all, except for the sugar in my coffee, often for days at a time. Candy, cookies, and ice cream can sit in my kitchen without being eaten immediately, waiting for the time when I actually want them.

In my opinion, the model of food as addictive substance ultimately is a distraction from the real issue, which is a lack of eating competence or a rift in a person’s relationship with food. As one of my commenters pointed out in the previous post on this topic, sometimes people simply don’t have the resources to deal with the root problems, and some form of restriction can be a temporary work-around. I agree, this is true with dieting, and it can be true with the idea of food addiction.

However, my problem is that when people take on these temporary measures as a means of self-help, they often don’t leave them at that. They often start to generalize these measures into absolute truths about the nature of food and people, and reify concepts like “food addiction” into actual, concrete phenomena rather than useful metaphors for how they, personally, feel about food.

That is a problem because it adds to the negative, controlling discourse around food and bodies in our culture, and because people within this culture, who have internalized negative, controlling ideas about eating, are likely to take such a concept at face-value because it feels true, even if the biology of natural rewards vs. addictive substances, and the fact that food is essential to survival, say different.

The truth is, food is not an addictive substance, although addictive substances hijack the same reward pathways that were forged by food. That, combined with a fear of scarcity in a very food-negative culture, can very closely mimic an addiction. But the food addiction concept and the subsequent treatment of complete abstinence from that particular food are limited solutions, and they do not reach the roots of the problem, which are poor eating competence and fear of scarcity. If we continue to promote the concept, I believe that it will deepen people’s fear of scarcity, and subsequently their lack of control with food, and become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you call food an addiction often enough, it will scare people. When people are scared, they will have a harder time eating competently. When they are not eating competently, they will often succumb to binge eating and being out of control with “forbidden” foods, which we will then diagnose as a food addiction. So it goes.

The answer is to treat all food like it is food, calm down and manage anxiety about eating, make sure you are eating enough food at consistent times, and eat a variety of different foods, healthy and “unhealthy” alike, with lots of permission and a refusal to beat yourself up over it.

(Or we could just keep doing what we’re doing and see how miserable and food-preoccupied everyone becomes in the coming years.)

Cat Pausé just published a nice, nuanced post that goes into more detail about the research into food addiction. If you’re interested in hearing more than just my opinion, check it out.

Today, I’m not really hosting a debate, though respectful discussion and further points are always welcome.