Food Addiction: How do you know if you have one?

By Brigida Mack - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - You don't even need an I.D. to get it and you can be addicted to it. Everyone has to have it.

We all have those guilty pleasure foods where you can't get enough of it. Chips, chocolate or ice cream -- it doesn't matter.

But what if you were addicted to food? It's a story Jessica Davis, of Gastonia, N.C. knows all too well.

"If I'm fixing one meal, I'm thinking about what I'm going to fix for the next meal," said Davis. "You know, it's like the day revolves around what I'm going to eat."

Davis has been battling her addiction to food for years.

"If I have a good day, I want to celebrate by eating," she said. "What if I have a bad day, I want to sulk by eating."

Overweight all of her life, Davis ignored her addiction until a startling wake-up call from her doctor a few weeks ago.

"He was like, 'If you don't make a change, if you don't start doing something differently, you won't live the next 10 years,'" she recalled.

The single mom of two children is only 30 years old.

Now, Davis is grappling with how to conquer an addiction that's taken over her life. She points out, "Nobody wants to be big. Nobody wants to have food addiction."

Dr. John Cleek with the Carolinas Weight Management and Wellness Center specializes in treating those with food addiction.  He says it's not an easy problem to kick.

"It's not a matter of willpower and people need to understand that," said Dr. Cheek.

Furthermore, experts say food addiction isn't like binge eating or emotional eating. Binge eating only happens for a couple of hours at a time while emotional eating is typically in response to an event like a death in the family or a bad break-up.

For food addicts, it's an obsessive compulsiveness that drives someone to constantly think about food and plan the next meal and constantly eat, coupled with withdrawal symptoms you experience whenever you don't eat.

"They don't get their fix so now they feel bad," Cleek said. "They get shaky, jittery, sweaty, etc."

Another key fact: dopamine, the pleasure chemical in your brain that gives smokers a rush gives food addicts the same high.

Despite that powerful correlation, Dr. Cleek says the bias many have against the overweight and obese keeps them from believing addiction to food is an actual disease.

"You know what, if you just quit bending your elbow so much you wouldn't have this problem," he said. "It's not something I can just quit cold turkey and say I'm not gonna eat."

Instead, getting help involves intense, long-term cognitive therapy.

"We can still change the neuron connections to create new behaviors," said Cleek. "But we have to do it over time and repeat those behaviors over and over."

New behaviors Davis hopes to create so she can be around for her children.

"Even more than dying is I don't want my children to pick up my habits because I'm just setting them up to fail from the beginning," she said.

If you think you may be addicted to food, talk to your doctor. Experts say there is help available.

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