Many of us believe that we are addicted to food. It explains away binges, obsessive thoughts about certain foods, our inability to say no when temptations are around. But the truth is that food addiction is a lie. We are not and cannot become addicted to food. What we can do, though, is respond to deprivation and restriction in ways that feel to us like addiction.
The basis for essentially every diet out there is deprivation – whether we are talking calories or carbs or meal frequency. This seems harsh to say, but the facts are that: adults need more than 1200 calories a day, our bodies need carbohydrates for energy, and our bodies tell us we’re hungry because they need food. When we choose to deny ourselves and our bodies the things they need, our bodies will react.
Our bodies have very distinct, powerful physiological and psychological responses to that kind of deprivation. On the physiological side, we have the compulsion to seek out food. We have cravings for foods. We have hunger pangs and consequences like lean mass loss. On the psychological side, we want those forbidden foods even more. We think about them frequently. We might even dream about them!
And what happens when we are finally faced with those forbidden foods? We overeat, feel out of control. In some cases, we binge. And the message that we too often take from that experience is that it’s proof that we can’t be trusted. That we have no self-control or will power. That we must be addicted to food. When in actuality, we aren’t addicted to food; we’re just having a normal human reaction to being denied the things we need and want. But the diet industry relies on us believing that we are the issue and not the restrictive diet plans in order to make money because, if we realized the diets were the problem, we would stop doing them.
Now, some will point to the fact that there is a dopamine reaction in our brain in response to food and that we can see this response in our brain when we take certain drugs as evidence of food addiction. But, dopamine is simply our feel-good chemical. In fact, there is a dopamine response to exercise, socializing, and to music, but we don’t talk about addictions to those like we talk about addictions to food, do we?
Studies have shown that unrestricted access to “forbidden” foods actually results in the end of binging on those foods. And studies that purport to show evidence of food addiction, actually seem more to indicate a response to deprivation when you really look at them (plus they haven’t been done in humans). So, while it may feel like you are addicted to certain foods or to food in general, it’s much more likely that you’re actually responding to deprivation. I suggest taking a look at your eating habits and your diet history to see, do you have a history of dieting and restrictive behaviors? Have you ever designated the foods you think you are addicted to as forbidden and off-limits? Have you ever tried to just let yourself have those foods?