Food is a wonderful thing. Even though we need it for our survival, we can also have all kinds of fun with it. For most of us, our relationship with food is one of both necessity and enjoyment.
But for an estimated 30 million people in the United States, food takes on a completely different role, one much more stressful and potentially even deadly.
Food addiction and eating disorders are incredibly common in our society, and are the result of many internal and external factors. And often, they’re unfortunately misunderstood, causing further issues for those suffering with them.
So let’s look into exactly what these disorders are, what causes them, and the potential ways sufferers can learn to handle and even overcome them.
What is Food Addiction?
People have a lot of misconceptions about food addictions.
Their reasoning is that it’s equated to obesity itself – overweight and obese people must be food addicts without any self control.
But this isn’t necessarily the case.
Food addiction can manifest itself in a number of ways. Some people who suffer from food addiction must have certain foods, like certain beverages or desserts, on a regular basis as part of their routines.
If they don’t get these foods, it could cause them to become upset or angry.
For others, it’s an obsession with food in general. They constantly imagine what food they’ll eat next, trying to eat as often as possible. Sometimes they eat food when they aren’t hungry at all, eating simply out of boredom.
There’s much more to it.
What Causes Food Addiction?
New scientific research into food addiction the past few decades has provided us with information that counteracts a lot of the preconceived notions about the issue.
A UCLA College of Medicine study found that non-alcoholic people who binged out of control on foods, shared at least one gene marker that was exactly the same as that found in diagnosed alcoholics and drug addicts.
Experiments performed in humans and animals show that the pleasure centers of the brain are triggered by food in the same ways as they are by drugs like cocaine and heroin. Foods rich in sugar, fat, and salt tell the brain to release dopamine, which creates permanent associations between feeling good and eating those foods.
As with drugs, people can also develop a tolerance to food. As they move further into addiction, they may find that food becomes less and less satisfying. What might once have been a small snack becomes a marathon eating experience just to feel like you got your money’s worth.
People of all weight ranges may struggle with food addiction. Some people who eat just as obsessively as a person suffering from obesity may simply be more genetically programmed to better handle the extra calories. They may also be athletes or prone to exercise excessively to keep the weight off.
In any case, food addiction is misunderstood.
But thanks to science, we are learning more about what the root causes are, and we may find better ways of preventing it altogether.
What Are Eating Disorders?
If you have an eating disorder, you have an unhealthy relationship with food that can negatively impact your health, your emotions, and how you function in life.
Most eating disorders are the result of obsessive behaviors related to body image, focusing too much on your weight and body shape, and blaming it on the food you eat. This complicated, unhealthy negative association between your body and the food you eat can seriously impact your body’s ability to get adequate nutrition.
If you suffer from an eating disorder, you may be at risk of harming your heart, digestive system, bones, teeth, mouth, and you could be opening your body up to other diseases down the road.
There are three primary categories for eating disorders:
- Anorexia nervosa: This eating disorder, usually referred to simply as anorexia, is potentially life-threatening. It’s marked by abnormally low body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight, along with a distorted sense of the body called body dysmorphic disorder. Sufferers of anorexia tend to weight themselves repeatedly, portion food cautiously, and only eat very small quantities of the foods they choose. Anorexia is not only marked by avoiding food. Some people with anorexia may also binge eat, following it with more extreme dieting, which can become a deadly cycle.
- Bulimia nervosa: Bulimia is also a serious and life-threatening disorder. It is most commonly associated with cycles of binge eating and purging that typically ends with seeking to get rid of the excess calories in unhealthy ways, like vomiting, excessive exercise, or use of laxatives or other drugs.
- Binge eating disorder: Binge eaters have frequent episodes where they consume far more food than their bodies require, and usually feel a complete lack of self-control over their habits. They may eat when they aren’t hungry, or keep eating after they’re full. After bingeing, people with this disorder may feel guilty for what they’ve done, disgusted with themselves – but the disorder is characterized by their lack of purging or exercise to make up for their bingeing. As a result, people with binge eating disorder are usually overweight or obese.
People with eating disorders may be completely preoccupied with their weight and body image, refusing to believe they are at a normal size. They may judge themselves constantly and severely criticize their own appearances.
As a result of these eating disorders, particularly anorexia and bulimia, sufferers can develop a range of symptoms.
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Brittle hair and nails
- Swollen salivary glands
- Brain damage
- Heart damage
- Severe constipation
- Low blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Worn tooth enamel and tooth decay
- Organ failure
- Sore throat
- Severe dehydration
- Acid reflux disorder
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Mild anemia
- Growth of fine hair all over the body
- Dry, yellow skin
- Low body temperature
There are other disorders that do not quite fall under these three primary categories, some of which are quite extreme in their own right.
For instance, Pica is an eating disorder marked by sufferers persistently eating items that are not intended to be edible. They may eat soap, clothing, dirt, paint, or other substances with no nutritional value. It can be the result of mental or developmental disabilities, or obsessive compulsive disorder.
Rumination disorder is characterized by sufferers repeatedly regurgitating food after eating. While regurgitating is common in sufferers of bulimia nervosa, rumination disorder is not due to a medical condition or eating disorder but is instead more along the lines of a habitual behavior.
Avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder involves sufferers who simply do not have interest in eating anything. They do not avoid food because they are concerned with weight gain – they avoid food because of a dislike for certain textures, smells, colors, or tastes. While they don’t meet the common criteria for traditional eating disorder diagnosis, they are still individuals who are experiencing clinically significant struggles with their relationship to food.
These eating disorders are not simple habits to be broken. They are severe, though treatable, medical illnesses that should absolutely be taken seriously by those suffering them, and by friends and family members of the sufferers.
What Causes Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders tend to develop most commonly in the teen and young adult years, when people are becoming the most conscious about their physical appearance and its connection to their diet. It’s easy to turn on the television and see someone thin and beautiful and aspire to look that way.
What most people don’t realize is that the “ideal” body type is naturally possessed by only 5% of American females.
Still, women are far more likely to develop eating disorders than men. Only 5 to 15% of people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are male.
People with eating disorders don’t wake up one day and decide to completely alter their eating habits – normally it begins with eating slightly smaller or larger amounts of food, which over time spirals out of control.
Oftentimes, eating disorders coexist with other illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. The symptoms that these combined factors generate can be life threatening – which is why anorexia is associated with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.
Sometimes, eating disorders are the result of simple dieting.
People become interested in changing their appearance through dieting, and when the results are not exactly as they would have hoped, they resort to more extreme measures. 35% of “normal dieters” progress to something called pathological dieting – of that number, 20 to 25% progress to eating disorders.
According to The Mayo Clinic, the exact causes of eating disorders are hard to pin down, but there are three primary known causes:
- Genetics: Some people are actually genetically predisposed to suffering from eating disorders. If they have siblings or parents who have eating disorders, they could be more likely to develop one themselves.
- Psychological and emotional health: Psychological and emotional problems can contribute to the disorder, especially if a person suffers from low self-esteem, obsessive compulsive disorder, relationship problems, or perfectionism.
- Social pressures: People tend to associate success and self-worth with physical appearance. The media and peers put a premium on being thin, so people may become obsessive about attaining the ideal. That may be why 47% of girls in the 5th through 12th grades reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
Among experts, there are a lot of different opinions on what truly causes these disorders.
While most eating disorders seem to stem from concerns about food and weight, they can later be associated with coping mechanisms. People with eating disorders may use food to help them deal with feelings and emotions they could not otherwise handle, allowing them to feel in control of their lives.
How to Combat Food Addiction and Eating Disorders
Fortunately for people suffering from food addiction and eating disorders, there are ways of actively fighting against them.
In the past, I’ve laid out ways for food addicts to combat their intake and make healthier choices for the foods they do eat.
These tips are still relevant, including:
- Reading ingredient labels carefully
- Avoiding zero calorie and zero sugar snacks and beverages
- Swapping out unhealthy foods with more nutritious ones
- Starting the day with healthier morning beverages (no added sugar or sweetener!)
- Seeking expert advice
For eating disorder sufferers, certain goals can be established to help you overcome the disorder.
- Restoring adequate nutrition
- Returning to a healthy weight
- Exercising normally
- Ceasing binge eating and purging behavior
- Psychotherapy or talk therapy
- Antidepressant medications (be sure to talk to your doctor about this first)
- Medical care and monitoring
Because of the wide range of causes and symptoms of eating disorders, researchers have a lot of ground to cover in their studies. Many questions still need answers.
Thankfully, there are many ongoing efforts to understand what is happening in the brains and genes of sufferers, which can help doctors more easily identify people who may be at risk for these disorders. New, specific psychotherapies and medications are being developed that can help target areas in the brain that control eating behavior.
Food is a wonderful thing. And that’s why it’s important that we as a society recognize that some people may not have the same sort of experiences with it as the rest of us do. The way we talk about the relationship between food and nutrition must take into account those people who are more prone to falling into unhealthy behaviors.
We love establishing norms in our society that reflect our ideals – and sometimes these cause unexpected and inadvertent consequences. In order to combat food addictions and eating disorders, we need to recognize the importance of mental health, and strive to be inclusive and understanding in the ways we treat people with these issues.
What are your thoughts on food addictions and eating disorders? Have you ever suffered from either? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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