Eating disorders plague people of all ages, especially college students. One eating disorder, which has faced scrutiny in the medical community, is food addiction.
Food addiction has not yet garnered a concrete diagnosis, Allison Childress, assistant professor in the Texas Tech Nutritional Sciences department and chief clinical dietitian at the Nutrition and Metabolic Health Institute, said.
“There’s a lot of research on food addiction right now trying to establish a definition,” Childress said, “but as of now, it’s not a true disease.”
However, Childress said people can use the Yale Food Addiction Scale to identify factors that go into food addiction.
“The closest definition that I have seen in the literature about food addiction is that it is an addiction mainly to highly palatable foods,” she said.
Highly palatable foods include foods that are highly processed, Childress said. They contain large amounts of sugar, fat and/or salt.
This condition has been labeled as an addiction due to the brain reward one receives when eating food, Childress said. However, medical professionals do not know if the addiction stems from the reward or from the behavior itself.
Food releases a very small quantity of brain reward when compared to highly addictive controlled substances, Susan Cowden, a therapist who works with people suffering from eating disorders, said. Food addiction faces scrutiny within the medical community.
“We get dopamine from lots of different things,” Cowden said. “We get dopamine from listening to music, we get dopamine from being with loved ones, but would we ever say we are addicted to those things?”
When discussing food addiction among students, many people can draw parallels to compulsive overeating or binge-eating disorder, Childress said.
“Some people, I think, equate binge-eating disorder with an addiction,” Cowden said, “but it’s different and the treatment would be different than what you would see for substance abuse disorder.”
When one suffers from substance abuse disorder, they can follow a 12-step program and maintain abstinence, Cowden said. When struggling with food, one cannot abstain from eating.
Overeating tendencies varies from person to person, Amy Hampton, a registered dietician who specializes with chronic overeating, said. Typically, binge eating is defined as one eating past the point of fullness.
“It can have short-term and long-term effects,” Hampton said.
The short-term effects include unwanted weight-gain and an overextended stomach, Hampton said. When the stomach overextends, other organs can be shifted within the body, creating discomfort that can manifest as lethargy.
Long-term effects can include obesity and other issues, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high-blood pressure, sleep apnea and an increased risk for cancer, Hampton said.
“Some of the things that would lead to overeating are just generally American lifestyles,” she said. “The foods that most Americans are eating are going to be highly, highly addictive foods.”
The food industry makes foods that are highly processed, containing a large amount of saturated fats, salt and sugar, Hampton said. These foods are designed to increase one’s desire for more food; they do not have the proper nutrient density required to make one feel full.
In addition, Americans, particularly college students, live fast-paced and stressful lives, Hampton said. Stress can result in searching for comfort foods.
“Usually when you’re looking for a reward from food, you’re not looking toward carrots,” Hampton said.
Several methods to avoid overeating exist, Hampton said.
“Some things that could help would be to slow down while you’re eating,” Hampton said. “Pay attention to how much you’re putting into your body. Don’t use food as a comfort or soothing agent.”
One also can try to avoid highly addictive foods and can look for hunger and fullness cues, Hampton said. In addition, one can prepare meals for the future and can drink water before, during and after meals.
Overall, chronic overeating can affect anyone, especially those in high-stress environments, Hampton said.
“You really have to relearn your relationship with food,” Cowden said.