About 8% of adults display symptoms of an addictive relationship with food. This increases in clinical populations, particularly people who are overweight, have disordered eating such as binge eating disorder or have type 2 diabetes. This equates to over 4.3 million adults in the UK alone.
The modern food environment is very challenging for people who can’t moderate their consumption of certain foods and they tend to fail repeatedly with weight loss efforts. Be able to recognise food addiction and give people the right advice can be life changing for them.
How to recognise food addiction
These are the kind of statements people might make if they are struggling with food addiction
- I am addicted to sugar, sweets, carbs, snacking, processed food, hyper-palatable, ultra-processed, industrial foods. Examples include: pizza, chocolate, crisps (chips), biscuits (cookies), ice cream, chips (fries), cheeseburgers, fizzy drinks (sodas/ pop), cake, (unnatural) cheese, breakfast cereals, breads etc.
- I am a life-long ‘Chocoholic’ or ‘Carboholic’ and it is harming me / damaging my health.
- I have no control over certain foods / I am unable to control my consumption of certain foods.
- I can’t stop myself bingeing on certain foods.
- I know what to eat but can’t stick to it.
- I have tried so many diets but can’t ‘stay stopped’ with certain foods, once I reach my target (weight / blood glucose / size etc)
Here are some specific screening questions.
These questions are derived from ICD classification of substance use disorders by Dr Jen Unwin & Heidi Giaever.
Patient first needs to consider which foods they feel unable to control or moderate. Then ask: How many of the following statements are true for you or have been true at some time in your life? (* Based on ICD-10 Criteria for Pathological Substance Use)
- Have you ever had such a strong desire or sense of compulsion at the thought of eating these foods that you could not resist the urge to eat them? (Compulsion)
- Have you ever noticed that you need to use increasing amounts of these foods to get the same effect compared to when you started? (Increased Tolerance = Reaching for more)
- Have you ever noticed a growing neglect towards planning of activities because you were too tired /hungover/ sick due to overeating these foods? (Growing Neglect of Activities)
- Have you ever used more of these foods than you intended on more than one occasion?
(Loss of Control = more Volume)
- Have you ever experienced at least two of the following withdrawal symptoms (see i-list) when you cut down or stopped using these foods? (Withdrawal symptoms from stopping or cutting down = Exclusion of foods causing withdrawal symptoms)
- Have you (ever) continued to use these foods despite you or someone else believing that your memory and concentration challenges, anxiety, unexplained mood swings, depression, panic attacks etc or other physical/mental health problems were likely to be due to your use of these foods? (Continued Use Despite Damage awareness)
More than 3 ‘Yes’ mean likelihood of Addiction / Pathological Use (*)