Bad Eating Habits or Food Addiction?

Updated:May 28,2014

Woman Eating Potato ChipsCould our national bad habit of overeating be blamed on food addiction?

Emerging studies have shown some similarities between people who have uncontrolled overeating and addictions to drugs or alcohol, including feeling unsatisfied and feeling the urge to consume more.

But labeling overeating as an addiction – even extreme overeating – is difficult because food and these addictive substances can’t truly be compared, said Gary Foster, Ph.D, Director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University.

“Technically, there is no such thing as food addiction,” said Foster, who is also an American Heart Association volunteer.

The biggest problem with the addiction model, Foster said, is that the chief treatment approach – abstinence – isn’t possible with food.  Additionally, food isn’t a singular item, like alcohol or drugs.

“Carbohydrates are in pizza, but they’re also in oranges,” Foster said.

More Access to Tempting Food

Many overeaters are driven not by addiction, but by a 24-7 food culture and limitless access to high-fat, high-sugar foods, Foster said. 

“The trouble with obesity is that the habit of eating high-fat, high-sugar foods is wildly reinforcing because they taste good,” Foster said.

Overeating is a dangerous habit when it comes to heart health. Obesity is its own risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but can also increase the risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and stroke.

“If we can cut the rates of obesity, we could reduce heart disease,” Foster said.

Getting Back to Healthy Eating

Breaking the habit of overeating can be difficult because it can be so tightly woven into our emotions and psychology, said Riska Platt, M.S., R.D, a New York-based nutrition consultant and an American Heart Association volunteer.

Platt suggests creating a food journal or diary that tracks what you eat and what is driving the decision at the time.

 “We need to refocus on what, where, when and why we’re eating,” Platt said. “Ask yourself if you’re really hungry. Are you eating because you’re hungry, or because it’s 12:30 and everyone else is eating?”

Platt also pointed out that the culture of using food for comfort can inadvertently be reinforced.
“Kids even get lollipops at the doctor’s office,” she said.

It’s All About Portions

Foster suggests focusing on portion size, which has ballooned over the years. The average adult consumes 300 more calories a day than he or she did in 1985.

To recalibrate what you think of as a serving, Foster suggests using visual cues, such as a deck of cards as a 3-ounce serving of meat or a small fist as a measure for a serving of leafy vegetables.

Using pre-portioned meals is another way to retrain the brain about what healthy servings should look like, such as lower sodium, frozen meals or even individually portioned of items such as oatmeal.

Foster also suggests for a short period consider using meal substitutes, such as a protein shake or bar for one or two meals on several days to keep calories under control while you are learning how to change your overall eating habits.  These are short-term solutions to help you get back to a healthier eating pattern in the long term.

Splitting meals when dining out, or asking for half the meal to be wrapped to go before arriving at the table, is another way to avoid overeating. We’ve got some great tips for dining out.

Double Check Those Portion Sizes

Measuring your food at every meal can become tedious, but it’s a good idea to check in to see how you’re doing once in a while, Foster said.

“Pour your cereal into a bowl, then measure it to see if you’re getting one serving or three,” he said. “Then use a place on the bowl to remind yourself what a serving looks like.”

For most people, simply reducing how much you eat, whatever it is, is a good approach, Foster said.

“Even if you’re eating a bunch of junk food, reducing your portions by 10 or 25 percent can have an impact,” he said.

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