DOES FOOD ADDICTION REALLY EXIST? UNDERSTANDING THE SCIENCE OF HABITUATION

87 Shares

When it comes to food, is there really such a thing as addiction? Let’s dive more into the existing science, and explore the more likely explanations.


BY: KATHLEEN MEEHAN, MS, RD

If you’ve ever felt like you need to control your food intake, you might identify as a person with a food addiction. While the topic has attracted much attention in our current culture, it may come as a surprise that there are many health professionals who question the validity of the current science of food addiction.

Although we’ve been studying food addiction for decades, many believe the science is still in its infancy.

Much of the research is either inconclusive or limited, and while food is fundamental for survival, drugs and alcohol are not. In a review of all the scientific literature, researchers concluded that we cannot come to strong conclusions at this time, and they cautioned against drawing parallels between food and drug addiction.  Let’s explore what this actually means.

Feelings & Narratives

First, it’s essential to acknowledge that the lived experience matters and is not meant to be discredited. When we talk about the current state of food addiction research and its limitations, it’s important to recognize that feeling out of control around food often feels like it aligns with the narrative of food addiction. So, while the concept of food addiction may be controversial, the experience of feeling distressed around food and concerned about food behaviors is understandable. The narrative of food addiction can definitely feel disempowering and leave you feeling hopeless.

Rats & Deprivation

Much of what we understand about food addiction comes from research in rodents, and it’s not clear how much of the rat research translates to the human experience. However, some of the behaviors exhibited by rats have interesting implications. As a recent review of the science points out, rats only show addictive-like behavior after they have experienced a period of restriction.  

When the rats were repeatedly deprived from food for 12-16 hours, they responded to sugar in a frantic way that resembled the behavior of those addicted to drugs. To completely understand the research, it’s essential to recognize that the animals did not display addictive-like behavior when they had consistent access and had never experienced deprivation or restriction.

Pleasure Centers & Brain Scans

Food lights up the pleasure center of our brains. Food addiction proponents suggest that because we see this response in both food and drugs, there must be some sort of addictive quality to food. What’s often missed is that our reward centers also light up when we engage in a number of pleasurable activities, including laughing, recognizing loved ones and listening to music.  So, while the brain responds positively when a person consumes delicious food, this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an addictive response occurring. It’s normal to have a positive response to food, and this doesn’t mean sugar is akin to cocaine.  

Plus, much of this research is from studies involving rats. And again, their reward centers lit up with an addictive-like response only when they had been restricted from sugar.  When the rats had unlimited access to sugar, their dopamine response resembled the natural reaction we see in response to other pleasurable things that we’d never consider addictive, like music.

Dieting is a Confounder

Another concern regarding food addiction research in humans is that the studies did not control for dieting. Given what we know about dieting and restriction, this is likely a major confounder.  As decades of dieting research has shown, a person is more likely to binge when they are restricted from sufficient and enjoyable food. This has nothing to do with food addiction, but rather is a response from the brain that serves as a survival mechanism. When a person is hungry – either as a result of inadequate intake, or because they’ve been restricting specific foods, it’s common to seek out food.

Some of the screening tools used within the research have also been called into question. One tool called the Yale Food Addiction Scale has been considered as the gold standard for self-reporting food addiction. It’s also been critiqued for strongly resembling a questionnaire that would identify disordered eating or dieting behaviors. Experts have questioned whether the scale suggests true food addiction, or rather highlights the side effects of dieting, as dieting can cause a person to become disconnected from their cues, eat in the absence of hunger and develop a preoccupation with food.

So what does this all mean?

When reviewing the research on food addiction, it’s essential to acknowledge that rodents who aren’t restricted do not display addictive-like behavior. This critical, but little-discussed phenomenon may be explained by the theory of habituation.

The habituation response suggests that we adapt to what we are repeatedly exposed to. New toys, cars, and even new, exhilarating romances eventually become less novel as a person experiences repetition. Habituation of food is often made possible through a non-diet approach to eating, such as Intuitive Eating.

A person experiences habituation after working to make peace with food, and allowing permission to enjoy all types of food without guilt. By legalizing food and avoiding deprivation, a person might begin to heal their relationship with food and feel less out of control around food. With permission, even the most alluring foods lose the power they once held. Habituation becomes possible as the eating experience becomes less charged, and a wide variety of foods are included without criticism or self-judgment.

So, rather than focusing on the narrative of food addiction, it’s logical to treat the deprivation rather than further encourage restriction.

The desire to eat pleasurable food is normal, and some researchers have concluded that food addiction theory takes a normal desire and turns it into a medical problem. Plus, it’s likely that the theory of food addiction increases weight stigma, which has a known influence on a person’s health and wellbeing.

Food is meant to be pleasurable, and it’s incredibly normal to enjoy the taste of something sweet or highly palatable. Granting yourself permission to explore your story and experience can be an incredible gift.

Seek to make peace with food, free yourself from restriction,

And honor your experience.

HEADER IMAGE: AMY SHAMBLEN

Kathleen Meehan MS, RD is a Houston-based dietitian with a virtual private practice. She specializes in Intuitive Eating and uses a weight-inclusive approach to help clients manage conditions or concerns. Kathleen partners with clients to help them rediscover the pleasure and satisfaction of food, while exploring unhelpful beliefs to reduce the stress of eating. Outside of counseling, Kathleen enjoys a good book or podcast, spending time in the great outdoors (especially Vermont!), and being with loved ones. See more at KathleenMeehanRD.com.  

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.