Is Food Addiction a Real Thing? What’s the Controversy?
What I Cover In This Episode:
- Why is the concept of food addiction so controversial?
- A story about my own professional fears related to talking about food addiction in the health space
- 3 crucial questions to ask yourself today about food addiction
- Suggestions for how to promote productive conversations about nuanced topics (Hint: Social media ain’t involved)
Are You New Here?
Welcome! I’m so glad to have you. You might be wondering what this blog and podcast are all about.
We relate everything in this podcast back to motivation, but not the hustle and grind kind. Truly sustainable motivation that keeps you feeling energetic and engaged in your life for the long haul. We talk about why “I’m just not motivated” is a myth, and why the TYPE of motivation you have is so important to fully understand. If you are ready to learn about motivation and respecting your body in an effective way so that you can live a life you truly love, you are in the right place.
Check out the Foundational Episodes of the Motivation Made Podcast here!
- Introduction: What is this podcast all about?
- Episode 1: Want to Get & Stay Motivated? A Crash Course on Motivation, Weight Loss, and Health
- Episode 2: How Dieting Steals Our Motivation
- Episode 3: How To Get Motivated To Improve Your Health (Motivation 101)
- Episode 4: How to Transform Health Fears Into Forward Progress
Do you ever worry that you are wasting your life?
I definitely did. In fact, I wrote that in my journal many years ago when I was in the middle of the diet-binge roller coaster ride.
- I woke up every day thinking about food, my body, and what I would eat that day to “be healthy”
- The notebooks I had filled with calories and points could fill up a spare bedroom
- Social events and vacations immediately prompted the thought “they will notice I gained weight” or “I need to lose weight by then”
- Deep down I knew I wasn’t living life the way I wanted to, but I didn’t know how to pull myself out of it.
If this is you, I want you to imagine what it would feel like to feel empowered in your body and proud of your choices on a consistent basis. I promise you, it isn’t too late.
Dieting steals our motivation. It makes us ineffective. It keeps us spinning our wheels in a system that was never built to work.
If you are ready take the first step to motivating yourself with what matters to you, download my free Create Powerful Motivation guide (which is quite beautifully designed if I do say so myself), and walk through the 3 simple steps to create motivation that works for YOU in 15 minutes or less. You will get a simple formula to write ONE SENTENCE you can use to motivate yourself on a daily basis.
You can write it on your bathroom mirror, put on the background of your phone, or just read it and repeat it in your mind.
Look, I know how much it hurts to live a life worrying you are missing out, not stepping into the person you were truly meant to be, vibrant, passionate, curious, vulnerable, and brave.
You can listen to the podcast all day, but taking that first step, putting pen the paper (or typing on your phone) is required for true lasing change. It’s time to start living my friend.
It’s 100% free, so what are you waiting for? Grab your free copy of the guide today at DrHondorp.com/Motivate
Food Addiction: What is the Controversy?
Until recently, I didn’t realize just how controversial food addiction was. You see, I read the book Health at Every Size® several years ago now, and I agree with it very much. So I joined a Facebook group where Health at Every Size® practitioners could meet and connect.
Very early on, I saw a post in the group that was getting a flurry of comments. The post was about a counselor who was doing a talk that used the term food addiction in the title. The Facebook group members were outraged and saying quite cruel things about this person giving the talk. They eventually got the talk cancelled.
Frankly, I watched all of this in horror, and still have anxiety when I think of it. I thought to myself, “Um that could have easily been me. Or my colleagues.” And yet, I am sad to admit that besides asking a question to try to understand the outrage, I didn’t stand up for this speaker (who wasn’t even in the group by the way) in the way I’d have liked to.
Understanding the Outrage
In response to this post, I did what I typically do. I started reading. Some of the people in the post shared articles with me about why and how the concepts of food addiction were offensive, harmful, and, in their opinion, not evidence-based.
Based on my reading, I get why people don’t like the term. I wrote a blog post a while back about how I don’t think abstinence is the answer to food addiction, or at least certainly not the only or most appropriate option. And my first thought was, “gosh if they saw that post they would probably eat me alive”.
The Cons of Considering Food an Addiction
The main thoughts about the term or concept of food addiction relate to not wanting to promote more diet culture and diet mentality, good versus bad foods, and potentially fueling further disordered eating or eating disorders. Clearly diet culture gives us enough of that, and it’s incredibly damaging to our health.
Additionally, proponents of throwing out the concept of food addiction also argue that you cannot be addicted to something you need to survive. Of course, we don’t need highly processed, nutrient poor foods that our food industry has engineered to keep us coming back again and again for more.
For that reason, some people have termed it “processed food addiction” to try to be more specific.
Do I Really Belong Here?
“Diet culture gives us so many screaming messages of rigidity, that it’s almost hard not to scream back.”Dr. Shawn Hondorp, PhD
After reading this post, for better or worse, I started to really question myself and where I “belonged” in terms of the health space. I had for years really disagreed with many of the traditional ways we approach weight management (e.g., diet mentality, restriction, calorie monitoring). And when you think you found a new home of individuals who “get you” it’s very comforting.
But in that Facebook group I thought, yikes, these aren’t my people.
The Truth is in the Nuances
The reality is, I’ve never been one to firmly stake myself in one side of an argument. And yet, I’ve seen nothing in the Health at Every Size® movement that I don’t agree with, at least nothing officially.
That said, I certainly did not agree with the way the strong emotions in this particular group were handled.
Shutting Down the Conversation
The main issues I see with the way we are currently having these conversations, is that we are making many assumptions about one another, and shutting down the conversation.
This leaves the camps far apart, and no one learns or benefits. It creates fear, blame, and shaming which makes people hesitant to speak up for fear of ostracism and cancellation. I know I felt that way for weeks after just witnessing that post.
No one wants to be shamed, or have their talk cancelled. We absolutely need to hold people accountable for crappy diet culture BS messages. But we also need to hold people accountable when they unnecessarily shame someone who clearly had intended zero harm.
The Risk of Not Talking
The main risk I see of not having the Health at Every Size® community talk to people in the weight management world, or those who use the term food addiction or study it, is that we get no where. No one learns, and we fall into traps of assumptions about what others think and believe.
I was willing to read the articles on food addiction and why many in the Health at Every Size® community don’t want to use that term. And you know what, I mostly agree. I think the term food addiction for many can fuel all-or-nothing thinking and disordered eating.
Personally, I felt very addicted to food and now that I’m out of diet mentality for good, I don’t feel that way at all. So I think restriction, body shame and mistrust, and rules play a MAJOR role here. Maybe for many of us, it’s the only role.
AND I think for some, the term food addiction is validating of their experience. And it removes shame from them and helps them move towards a lifestyle that they feel great about.
Additionally, I 100% think there are foods with addictive properties that some people are more susceptible to than others, and they are not at all good for our health.
A Personalized Approach
I recently listened to a podcast with Dr. Yami on The Veggie Doctor Radio and Dr. Ashley Gearhardt. It was excellent, and breaks down these issues and the research on it better than I can. I’m actually interviewing Dr. Yami on this podcast soon and I couldn’t be more excited about it!
In their discussion, Dr. Gearhardt talks about the harm reduction model in substance use disorders like alcohol use disorder. She talks about how for some, avoiding all alcohol is the best option, but there’s also good evidence that that isn’t necessary for all. For others, avoiding liquor or avoiding drinking alone is enough, and they can feel in control with other forms of drinking.
It’s true, we don’t need alcohol to live, and we do need food. However, we do NOT need food in the forms that it is designed and modified to hook our brains to keep eating. The highly processed “food-like substances” (I think this term was coined by Michael Pollan) can absolutely be addictive for some.
Parsing Apart the Role of Dieting and Restriction Versus the Content of the Food Itself
I know that the HAES® community, and myself included, think that we vastly underestimate the role of dieting and restriction in promoting further food addiction.
I 100% agree. I used to feel very addicted to foods, I’d highly anticipate having them, and wanted more and more to feel good.
Currently, I do not feel a strong draw to foods. However, I do still think there are foods that have more of an addictive pull on me. For me this is foods and drinks like processed cookies or snacks, or carbonated ice drinks with artificial sweeteners, or Skinny Pop. I don’t restrict these foods, I have absolutely zero guilt, I will eat an entire bag of Skinny Pop and feel fine emotionally about it, but when I do eat them or drink them it’s sometimes hard to stop.
We Can (and Should) Call Out Both Sides
I’m all for calling out the diet and weight loss industry and them profiting on insecurities they are perpetuating. AND, I think the food industry is doing the same thing, often to our children. Unfortunately, kids and families in economically disadvantaged environments are likely to be most at risk, due to lower access to healthy foods and more convenience foods.
Questions to Ask Yourself about Food Addiction?
- Does thinking of myself or others having an addiction to food make me trust my body (or theirs) more or less? Typically the answer is less, though this isn’t universal. Many people I talk to feel that there is something genetically or biologically wrong with their body and it will never change. The idea of food addiction can increase this belief, when the reality is that even if the process going on in the brain looks similar to addiction (reward centers lighting up like crazy in anticipation of eating food), it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. In fact your brain is doing what it’s designed to do. But if thinking of some foods as having a strong pull over you and keeping them out of your home is helpful to you, then that’s also fine. It’s just important to be truly honest with yourself about why you are doing it.
- How much is fear of weight gain part of it? Fear of weight gain is pervasive. Regardless of body size, it’s one of the things that impacts my clients the most. And it makes sense, because we live in a culture where we are told over and over that gaining weight and being in a bigger body is bad, and when this happens you may be treated differently, with less respect, and have less social privileges. However, fear of weight gain often makes us judge foods as “bad” and although we might be saying they are “bad” and thinking we me “not healthy” or “not nutrient dense” what we often truly mean is that WE are bad, or that eating those foods means something is wrong with our character? It’s true that eating a donut wont give us much of any nutritional benefit. It’s also true that eating one donut wont cause weight gain. But calling the donut bad, restricting it for a period of time, and then bingeing on it or another food late is much more likely to lead to increased stress and possibly weight gain over time.
- Can you shift towards eating in a way that will positively impact your mood? One of the largest places I see untapped potential is looking at how foods impact our mood and energy levels, regardless of body size. I often hear, “well I’ll bring healthy foods to the family picnic because there are others there that would benefit from that” or “I need to have candy around for the kids.” The reality is that we all pretty much universally could benefit from more veggies and whole unprocessed foods regardless of our body size, and most of us could benefit from having free access to tasty candies from time to time, without judgment or guilt. BOTH are part of a healthy lifestyle. If we started eating a way that supported our mood and energy levels, and worried much less about what happened to our body weight, I think our mood and overall health would improve. And frankly, it’s possible that over time we may lose weight (again this depends on the person and their biology, mostly).
What I Hope People Will Consider About Food Addiction
- Don’t shame anyone for using the term. Can we stop publicly shaming and cancelling people for using terms we don’t like? I realize in some instances cancelling might be holding accountable when people are doing intentional harm, but in others it’s incredibly unhelpful. Instead, let’s try to start a conversation where we “call them in” and understand their viewpoint. Then maybe we we actually make some true progress.
- Social media isn’t the place to have these nuanced conversations. Lets try, when we can, to have them face to face, or via video chat in a productive helpful way. Or even, via a podcast I think can be more useful. Lets keep an open mind to other’s experiences. I think there’s a lot of emotion charged up with these topics, I get it, but being triggered isn’t a reason to shame someone. It isn’t useful and it doesn’t move us towards a more unified view of how to help people promote positive health behaviors and figure out what that looks like for them.
- Food addiction probably isn’t a useful term for most. I think it’s useful to describe what we see. Some foods have addictive properties and are designed to hook us, and some people are more susceptible than others. Restriction, shame, and guilt make this worse. But even when we remove the shame and guilt, you may still feel a strong draw to highly processed foods. Nothing is wrong with you, your brain is designed to be drawn to those foods because it thinks its helping you survive, and the food industry is spending billions trying to hook you.
- There isn’t a one sized fits all. As always, this is nuanced. If it’s helpful to you to think of yourself as being highly drawn or addicted to certain foods, and you want to keep them out of your home, go for it. I think the problem comes in when any of us assume we know what’s right for another person. If you are super caught up in diet mentality and restriction, however, I don’t know that you are a very good judge of whether or not you are addicted, versus just biologically and psychologically deprived.
Support Independent Bookstores Near You!
Did you know that that if nothing slows their momentum, Amazon will have almost 80% of the book market by the end of 2025?
Look, I love the convenience of Amazon, but I got a super cool way that you can support local bookstores and my blog and podcast simply by buying books like you already do! You can choose any bookstore on the list in the US and Canada (they plan to expand to other counties in the future) OR you can just let the donation get split between all stories. As of this recording, they have raised 15 million dollars for local bookstores. On my bookshop, you will see my absolute favorite books related to health and wellness, courage and vulnerability, and even my favorite fiction and kids books!
My recent favorite related to improving the quality of our lives was Digital Minimalism. Our family actually has decided to do a optional screen free August to re-evaluate the role of screen time in our lives.
So if you believe in support local business, please consider buying your books through Bookshop from now on!
The Psychology of Wellness Bookshop Link.
Disclaimer: This blog and podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for individual professional advice or treatment, including medical or mental health advice. It does not constitute a provider patient relationship.
Disclosure: Using the Bookshop.org links in this post means that I would get an affiliate fee if you purchase from the online bookshop (this supports my business, and local bookstores too!).
Sample Block Quote
Nam tempus turpis at metus scelerisque placerat nulla deumantos sollicitudin delos felis. Pellentesque diam dolor an elementum et lobortis at mollis ut risus. Curabitur semper sagittis mino de condimentum.