To understand food addiction first we need to understand addiction.

Addiction is a disease

Can addictions be a disease? Afterall its the addicts choice to inject illegal drugs and overdose or drink too much alcohol and wrap their car around a tree or eat too much cake and lose a limb due to diabetes? Its their choice if they make that choice; they suffer the consequences; its their fault! It is not true. But I can tell you that every addict feels this way, along with their suffering family and friends – and this is because they do not understand addiction from a medical point of view and society stigmatise addiction.

For something to be classed as a disease biologically, there must be a defect with an organ showing symptoms which leads the health care professional to a diagnosis of a condition, which they then go on to treat.

This is known as The Disease Model

Disease Model Example:

Organ = Gallbladder

Defect = Inflammed cells and gallstones

Symptoms = Gas, nausea, abdominal pain especially after a meal and chronic diarrhoea

Condition = Gallbladder disease

Another Disease Model Example:

Organ = Pancreas

Defect = Beta islet cells

Symptoms = Extreme thirst, frequent urination, very tired despite lots of sleep, blurred vision, wounds not healing well, reoccurring thrush and fruity-smelling breath

Condition = Diabetes

Does Addiction fit ‘The Disease Model’?

Organ = Brain

Defect = Underactive Prefrontal Cortex and overactive Nucleus Accumbens (midbrain)

Symptoms = Loss of control, mood swings, increased temper and irritability, poor judgement, poor memory, defensiveness, paranoia, agitation, reduced self-esteem and self-worth, and increase in existing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Condition = Addiction

Yes, addiction does fit this model and in 1987 the American Medical Association declared Addiction to be a disease of the brain. We can see, through brain scans that an alcoholic or drug addict’s brain is severely altered compared to a non-addict brain. However, it is costly to put everyone through a brain scanner. Therefore, validated questionnaires have been designed to support a diagnosis of addiction.

Here we can see reduced activity in the part of the brain that supports us in making the right decisions.

Food Addiction is a Disease?

So with this in mind can we be addicted to food? Clinically there is no diagnosis for Food Addiction. The evidence base is increasing but there is not enough evidence to suggest what element of food that is eaten that is causing the addiction.

Lots of research has been done in asking those who feel addicted to food to rank in order the addictiveness of certain foods. It found that vegetables were least likely to be addictive and hyper-palatable processed foods with added sugar salt and fat were more likely to be addictive.

In other words, people found that cake was more addictive than cucumbers and crisps were more addictive than broccoli. No surprise there I’m sure.

Lots of research has been completed on how addictive sugar fat and salt are, however, there is a counterargument to this, as we have not yet ruled out that other components of our food are not addictive, therefore we cannot yet conclude that sugar, fat and salt are.

For example, until we find out that the addictive properties of our food are not fibre or the hundreds of additives and preservatives within our food, we cannot claim that sugar fat and salt are the components causing the addiction. In reality, to rule out all of these components robustly will take decades. And if you are like many of my clients – your life may have already felt like your life has been ruined by food and do not want to wait for science to catch up.

A food addiction Therapist or peer-to-peer support can help