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Food Addiction: Fact or Fiction


My blog on food addiction called Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted to Food…Or Are You? recently posted caloriecount.com. I had to keep it short, of course, but would be remiss if I didn’t share more on the topic from the oh so brilliant David Katz, MD, Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center and Editor in Chief, Childhood Obesity.

When asked if he believes in the actual concept of ‘food addiction,’ Katz said “I don’t think it matters whether or not food addiction formally qualifies as a ‘physiologic’ addiction.” He went on to describe ‘addiction’ as “A word we invented to describe a particular experience that involves 1) wanting something very badly; 2) wanting or needing more of something the more of it you get; and 3) developing withdrawal symptoms when you stop getting the thing you want or need.” According to Katz, “The common experience with food is that it can certainly satisfy the first two and possibly the third. People want, need, and crave sugar, salt, perhaps fat, and starch. The more sweet and/or salty food people consume, the more they tend to want, need, and crave it.” He adds “While there’s no clear withdrawal ‘syndrome’ per se, many people do experience unpleasant effects when they wean off the food elements we most associate with addiction.”

Katz then went on to say “If there’s clear evidence that dietary elements are being manipulated in a way that exploits an ‘addiction’ comparable to that with nicotine,  it might serve—like in the case of tobacco—as an iron clad argument for more regulation. Findings from brain imaging studies can certainly contribute to the idea that people can become addicted to food.

Katz says we know too well that our diets pack in too much sugar and too much salt. He adds “We already know that people like/want/crave sugar and salt, and that the more people have, the more they tend to prefer it.” He feels we don’t really need brain imaging studies to establish a robust basis for action and that the mandate is already there.

Katz says some people might benefit from knowing if, in fact, they have an actual ‘food addiction’ –but for those who want to improve your diet, and don’t find doing so to be too tough a challenge, knowing whether or not they have a food addiction is irrelevant. Katz believes the true value in defining ‘food addiction’ is the role that may play in advancing public policy—not personal progress.

That being said, for those who think they may be addicted to food, Katz offers a few suggestions. He encourages people to use ‘skill power’ instead of ‘will power’ to dial down exposure to food components—like sugar and salt—that may someday prove to be addictive; reading food labels to identify stealth sources of added sugar and sodium and to replace usual picks with lower sugar, lower sodium options. Katz adds “When you systematically remove sugar or sodium from your diet, it won’t be long before you find the taste of things you used to love to be too sweet or too salty.” He recommends you ask yourself if you turn to food to fight stress, boredom, loneliness, or anxiety. If you find the answer is yes, he recommends finding non-food ways to manage stress or seeking out a stress management to empower yourself.

He sums things up by saying “A food ‘addiction’ must be viewed in the context of what else is going on in your life.” He adds “We are not helpless victims—we can direct our behaviors where we want them to go.” Says Katz. He says we can practice more healthful habits, get used to them—we may even find that health and vitality can be addictive too! The better you feel, the more positive reinforcement you have to take better care of yourself. Smart words from a smart man, I’d say.

Your thoughts?

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized registered dietitian nutritionist, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books and is currently working on her first novel. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook.

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