I am overweight. Does that mean I am addicted to food?
Updated: Oct 17
The short answer is: you may be, but not necessarily. While obesity is the consequence of eating more that your body needs, there are several possible reasons for it. Addiction is one of them.
Besides lifestyle choices, other reasons for storing energy in the fat tissue may be: your genetics, hormones, some metabolic diseases (diabetes), some medications, lack of sleep, inactivity, age, sex differences, and even consuming too much alcohol. And, of course, the psychological reasons. Here is where the problem may escalate into an addiction.
What is food addiction?
Addiction to food is characterized by a person’s pattern of dysfunctional obsessive and compulsive thinking and behavior with regard to food—almost a sort of love-hate relationship they have with it. Although their behavior toward food is initially voluntary, after some time, they experience intense cravings and a loss of control surrounding food and eating. If they engage in specific behaviors involving food, like avoiding or excluding certain foods from their diet, starving themselves, purging, or eating to achieve a “sugar rush,” they may experience significant changes in their modes of feeling, thinking, and behavior, and warrant a diagnosis of addiction. Feelings of satiety and hunger are generated in the brain. For most healthy people, food is supposed to be the fuel we need to keep going, and hunger the physical signal that we need to refuel. Between meals, we ought not to think about food so much.
The point is, that eating – especially sweet and palatable food – releases dopamine, the hormone involved in the so-called reward pathway in our brain, making us want more in more of that pleasurable experience.
It’s called emotional eating: you’re not hungry, you may even be full to the point that it hurts, but you want more and more. You may even purge by vomiting to get rid of it, and then continue to overeat. The ingestion of sweet foods is followed by the release of dopamine, which induces the person to want more of those foods.
Why would you do that? To calm down the unbearable thoughts and feelings that most addicts feel deep inside:
Extremely low self-esteem and negative self-image or self-hatred;
Dissatisfaction with one’s appearance;
Distorted body image, wherein the person is convinced that their body weight is too high, while they may actually be seriously malnourished and skinny;
Obsession with efforts to achieve the desired “look” (which can sometimes be very bizarre), including extreme dieting, purging, fasting, and exercise;
Obsession with using tricks to rid one’s body of ingested food so as not to gain weight, including purging, abuse of medications to induce vomiting, and forced excretion of urine and feces;
Suppression of one’s emotions;
Self-induced isolation; and
Rejection of emotional and physical intimacy, or a fear of sexuality.
Eating disorders and food addictions, like all addictions, are not about eating, but about controlling emotions.
Stuffing oneself with food can help suppress unpleasant emotions, but cannot satisfy emotional needs. As they say, “You can’t get enough of what you don’t need!” And in the words of Oprah Winfrey, who herself admitted having suffered from compulsive overeating, “For most of us who overeat, extra pounds correspond to unresolved anxieties, frustrations, and depressions, which all come down to fear we haven’t worked through. We submerge the fear in food instead of feeling it and dealing with it. We repress it all with offerings from the fridge.”
TEST: Check out if you are addicted to food
Constantly thinking about or obsessing over food.
Devoting a lot of time and effort to maintaining a certain diet, and being extremely upset if you are unable to do so.
Obsessing over maintaining a certain body type.
Obsessing over your and others’ body weight.
Constantly commenting on or controlling your own or others’ eating habits.
Constantly comparing your body and eating habits to others’.
Planning meals well in advance, and becoming irritable if you are unable to stick to the plan.
Wolfing down food while alone, but eating little or nothing in public.
Eating enormous quantities of food in a short time, and even feeling unable to stop eating (bingeing).
Purging by inducing vomiting after meals or abusing large quantities of laxatives.
Trying the latest “wonder diets” to lose weight or achieve some other goal, but abandoning them after a few weeks or months to start another diet.
Becoming ashamed and angry at yourself for overeating.
Losing control over your consumption of food (e.g., being unable to stop after only one piece of candy).
Comforting yourself with food (emotional eating).
Gaining and losing weight rapidly (e.g., fluctuating up to twenty pounds per month).
Obsessing over exercise and becoming extremely restless if you are unable to work out.
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.