What a Food Addiction REALLY Looks Like

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Food addictions – with Nutritionist Rhaya Jordan

This week on the Get A Drip Podcast (in case you missed it, yes we have a Podcast now!), we talked to Nutritionist, Naturopath and food addiction specialist, Rhaya Jordan all about food addiction. We talked about what a food addiction actually is, how a food addiction can manifest itself and what the path to recovery looks like. It was fascinating and extremely eye-opening to say the least!


Listen to the podcast episode on Spotify


Thank you so much for joining us today! So Rhaya, you are a nutritionist and a naturopath, and one of your specialties is food addiction. So what is food addiction?

There are a number of different definitions and the definition I quite like comes out of Kelly Brunel and his team at Yale (he’s moved on now). And they talk about a pattern of eating, that is compulsive and makes you unhappy that essentially that there’s a deep internal feeling of dis-ease about your relationship with food and I really like that definition. I really like the fact that it puts it into your own body and your own experience of eating, but there are more formal definitions as well, because the critique of that definition is that it’s too broad. Lots of people can be unhappy with their eating and not necessarily addicted.

But the more formal definition is an addiction, whether it be food or anything else is a behaviour that’s compulsive, and you continue regardless of the consequences. So a lot of people picture addiction is, I’m doing the thing that makes me happy and people who are eating compulsively eating will say it makes them happy, but very often they’re eating and crying at the same time, this is not something that makes people happy, but it is often something that they feel really compelled to do, regardless of the fact that they don’t want to do it.

So it’s a much bigger issue and experience than ‘I can’t stop eating, I love food so much.’

It’s interesting because you just said that it’s something that you do when you’re crying and you’re eating and that this reminds me of when you watch the movies and someone’s eating a bucket of ice cream and they’re crying. It’s like an emotional response, an emotional crutch. And so is that what it is, is that something that we do when we’re trying to alleviate emotional discomfort?

Absolutely, absolutely. It’s all an attempt at mood modification, you know, so you’re trying to medicate yourself and make yourself feel better and that’s one of the deep hooks. They talked about hope, happy, angry, lonely, tired, you know, all of these things can be triggers to eat food that you don’t want, and your body doesn’t want.

It can affect your life people can spend a fortune on food, and can feel deeply, deeply ashamed about it and very often. What techniques that they bring to try and deal with food addiction is just petrol on the fire, so if you had a heroin addiction for example, one of the key things you need to do is move away from people taking heroin in places you could really easily, which isn’t an overwhelming task in this culture. But if you are really compulsive around sugar, you really lose it when you begin to eat it, and you get a bit wild eyed, where are you going to go? It’s absolutely everywhere. We know that sugar has this compulsive element, it’s not just sugar, it seems to be a combination of sugar, salt and fat, which is very unusual in the wild or what’s left of the wild.

Humans haven’t been in the wild for a long time but all of these things are really primal signals to us that this is a really good food, and you should go for it with this food because it’s really high in calories. And there’s a famine coming, or it’s really salty there’s a lot of sodium in the wild so quickly, eat it because it’s salty. If it’s crisp, that signals freshness to us and there are a lot of really deep primeval wiring that the food industry plugs into when they’re designing a product, so they will specifically design a product to be ideally irresistible.

There is something called the bliss point, which is this point where salt and sugar and fat crossover to make this food just fantastic. For me, that will be Haagen Dazs pecan and caramel ice-cream. If I have it in the house, I finish it. Some people have a more creamy, savoury palate. Some people have a sweeter palate. People’s bliss points are different and triggered by different foods.

So there’s a lot of individuality, when you’re talking about compulsion and that food. There is a billion dollar industry trying to get you to eat as compulsively as possible because it relates to mass sales, so you don’t have an easy escape, you don’t have an easy time of it. And there’s a lot of baggage around addictive behaviour there’s still this huge myth, no matter what your compulsion is that really it’s just a character flaw, and that you just need to buckle up, rather than a really really complex marriage about the stresses in your own life your genetics and the environment you find yourself in.

It’s really interesting what you were saying how we have this primal instinct, because we think we’re modern humans living in cities, and as far from the caveman as we’ve ever been, in most societies anyway. We still have this innate instinct that when we see some sugar, our caveman brain just says ‘we’re not going to say this for a long time. I need to eat that now and I need to eat as much of it as possible because I might not get it again for X amount of days or weeks or however long.’ It is fascinating that we still no matter how advanced we are or how advanced we think we are, we still have these drives and it can manifest itself in different people in different ways.  You did mention that though sugar and salt and fatty addictions, but is there a spectrum of food addiction?

Absolutely. It’s probably more useful to think of it as a spectrum of behaviour. So, earlier you talked about you know sitting in a sad movie eating popcorn and crying is not necessarily anything to do with food addiction or just being mindless eating. So, I think that there’s a time when nearly every single person in the developed world has engaged in comfort eating. And that’s not necessarily food addiction and the mechanisms might be the same, but it’s not shredding your life and it’s not pulling your health to pieces and it’s not a constant grinding obsession, but it might be similar behaviour and. And we see that behaviour, really promoted a lot in schools and small children and babies, you know, give them a dummy or give them a sweet treat so we can hook food and emotion in very very quickly and for some people that never really moves much past, I’m having a sad day, I’ve had a break up I’m going to go and buy some ice cream and then when they feel better.

They’re eating is just less problematic for them- it’s not an issue, but for some people that can’t get out of that, like they wake up and their first thought is right, I’m going to diet today. And then, as the day goes on, they usually crack at about four o’clock and start eating foods that they’ve forbidden themselves from eating. And the minute that you forbid yourself from eating something, guess what happens to that food? It just becomes the only food you want, like, ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant.’

It’s actually crazy to hear all of this because but it sounds like food addiction is very, very closely tied to capitalism and brands making money and getting into your head psychologically. We’re constantly flooded with images all day every day, you go for a drive and you’ll see about five different billboards or advertisements of some form. ‘Go to McDonald’s get this, that and the other.’ You’ve literally got burgers in your face! If you have a food addiction, it must be extremely difficult to try and heal that addiction when you’re bombarded constantly all day every day. 
How does someone know they have a full blown food addiction or just perhaps problematic eating habits that they may need to address?

So, the only validated questionnaire that I know about was developed at Yale; the food addiction scale, which you can find on the internet. It’s a professional tool so what if you’re worried that you may be eating in a way that’s really catastrophic for your, your finances and your peace of mind and your health.

I would say as a nutritionist, you just need to be sufficiently unhappy and unwell, not necessarily to say that you’ve got an addiction. The word addiction is a double edged sword and there’s lots of jokes about food externality, and it plays into a kind of level of helplessness which you can feel when your behaviour is really compulsive and you’re constantly being triggered to eat and triggered to eat.

We know that being constantly exposed to food makes everybody equal. We know that when we add more salt and MSG to food, we’ve learned since the 20s, MSG will increase the amount of food that you eat at one sitting by about 30%. We know that when you eat without paying attention, you’re not sitting down with a plate in front of you, you’re actually enjoying the meal in front of you that if you don’t remember you’ve eaten it, you don’t feel satisfied, and you’re more likely to eat more. So, eating in front of the television is probably one of the key behaviours and it’s going to drive the amount of calories you eat right up because you’re never really going to be satisfied by that food and cause hunger hasn’t been the trigger to start eating, there’s no absence of hunger to trigger you to stop eating. It gets very complicated quite quickly. And so, if you’re concerned, you can look at the Yale food addiction scale, if you want to.

If you are really worried about your health, and you’re worried about eating sugar and sweet treats and keep trying but then keep going back to problematic eating habits. Don’t diet. Don’t diet!

So it’s a continuum of a behaviour that everybody recognises, and that behaviour might be more acute at some times in your life, and less acute in others but for people who would, I would recommend to go and see an addiction specialist. It’s an everyday reality and it’s sucking the life out of their ability to be happy.

Recovery is really possible. You can be free from obsessing and, and that’s probably the most important message to get out that you can absolutely be free, and it’s not easy. It’s a lot of work and it might even take a couple of years but it’s possible.

It’s like if someone had a problem with alcohol or if they’re addicted to drugs. You can’t just say, ‘don’t do them anymore’. And at the time they might say ,’actually yeah I’m done, I don’t need you anymore.’ But you’ll almost always find that, unless they get professional help or they really do the deep, deep work, they’re going to keep going back to that to the alcohol or to the drug so it sounds very similar in that sense.

I’m one of one of the things to talk about, you know, even though alcohol is also everywhere. If you’ve got somebody who feels really compulsive around food. It’s like an alcoholic who lives inside a pub, giving up alcohol. So that’s the extra burden.

Yeah, that’s it we don’t need alcohol to survive. We do need food. So they’ve got to completely rewire their brain and change their habits. 
Rhaya, if you could only get one piece of health advice, what would it be?

Be kind to yourself.

It’s the point at which all change is possible when you start being kind to yourself. You can never hate yourself well. So, if you’re not well or you want to improve your health, you have to start from a place of kindness, which is a point of real strength and resilience. It’s a really really powerful thing.


Listen to the podcast episode on Spotify


Want to get in touch with the lovely Rhaya? Request a consultation with her or watch the full interview here.


Food addiction resources:
Yale Food addiction scale: https://www.midss.org/content/yale-food-addiction-scale-yfas