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The Difference Between Food Cravings and Food Addiction
When an Itch Becomes a Scratch

Tom Jordan, MS, RD

Registered Dietitian

I start with a profound facebook post on our FHA Wellness Group Page by one of our clients when we did a survey about food cravings. I think it merits reviewing again and again.

"I've been thinking a lot about the brain and the body as two separate entities. The brain has foods and other triggers that can fire up different chemicals and synapses and neurotransmitters that can bring the brain instant gratification. Eat a big hunk of chocolate, and the neurons are practically exploding with pleasure.

The body is the more passive of the two. The brain controls the body. The things that are good for the body are often things that the brain wants no part of. Exercise? Great for the body, but the brain wants to sleep in. The body loves vegetables, but the brain says "that hunk of broccoli isn't doing squat for my serotonin production, so I'll have this pizza instead".

The problem, or at least my problem, is that the brain continues to seek pleasure, while the body continues to suffer. What I want to do is make my brain more cognizant of how good the body has been to this partnership throughout the years. The body runs, which brings pleasure. The body walks and sees and climbs and plays, which are things that make me happy and that some people are never able to do. My brain should be more grateful.

I need to find a way for my brain to start treating my body better. I need to give my body a break. It's time for this relationship to stop being so one sided.”   ML


Almost everyone has food cravings at times. Cravings are natural. Having a desire for a iStock_000010198798XSmall.jpgcookie is a craving, eating a box of cookies is a loss of control and characterized as a food addiction, one of many eating disorders. We are finding more and more that struggles with weight are frequently tied to food addictions.

The amazing combination of biochemistry, environmental cues and psychology that goes into dealing with food cravings before they become an addiction has fascinated me for some time. We have been extremely successful in helping our clients shed substantial weight. Once the pounds are shed weight maintenance becomes our new goal. Weight maintenance is often sabotaged by unchecked and unrecognized emotions.

While cravings are common, and held in check for some people, when we start hearing ourselves say things like the statements below, we are following a pattern of addictive behavior:

“I’ve completely lost control over food. I feel like once I have 1 piece of chocolate, I have another, and another, until I’m completely out of control.”

“I’m fine all day, but then I lose control at night. I feel so terrible after I’ve eaten, why do I continue to do this?”


Engagement in overeating, past a normal means of intake (having just 1 cookie) results in a surge of brain chemicals called Dopamine and Serotonin (these are the feel good neurotrasmitter chemicals that Michael wrote about in his Facebook post above). These chemicals have 1 immediate and powerful result—THEY MAKE US FEEL GOOD! This is how binge eating starts, after all, if a little feels good, a whole lot will make me feel great.

The problem with this scenario is that this process almost directly parallels the exact chemical reactions and behaviors that we see with other certain controlled substances that make us feel good. These include alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, etc.

The first time we take in the substance we get an artificial “high.” However, as is clearly demonstrated in substance abuse problems, repeated engagement creates a desensitizing effect to our dopamine transmitters and is the first step in the addictive process. Not only do we want more, but we need more to attain the same level of satisfaction.

Food is no different—actually it’s worse. With all other substances we can completely abstain, with food not only do we have to engage in it 3-5 times per day, it’s completely socially acceptable to consume the addictive components of food (processed sugars, refined carbohydrates, salts, and processed fats) in public at any time of the day!


iStock_000001722653XSmall.jpgThe good news is that binge eating can be treated and controlled. There are two components: First, balance your body's various chemistries, and second, learn the mental triggers that you are attempting to gratify through the use of food. If we provide our bodies with what they need (good nutrition), treat our bodies appropriately (sleep, stress reduction, exercise, etc.) and understand the gratification behavioral triggers we can overcome this addiction.

The last part is important. We typically start all our weight loss patients with an eating patterns assessment to help identify psychological needs and barriers. The fact is most Americans don't eat because they're hungry. 

Below are 5 indispensable ways to control food cravings and thus help in breaking a food addiction and experiencing the freedom of becoming an “intuitive eater”:

1) ExerciseWorking out naturally increases the amount of serotonin and endorphins produced by the body

2) MeditateMeditation is an exceptional way to shut off the stress response (or what I like to call the dopamine draining response). We also will see serotonin levels in the brain increase in response to 10-15 minutes of quiet breathing and reflective thought

3) Add Dopamine Boosting FoodsThe addition of foods high in the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine will naturally increase Dopamine levels (leaving us less likely to attempt to self medicate). Focus on quality protein foods early and often throughout the day (egg white omelet, whey protein shake, chicken, turkey, salmon, tofu)

4) Dump SugarSugar hits us with a triple whammy. Not only does it feed the addiction, it also replaces the nutrient dense foods we should be eating instead, AND triggers an insulin surge and inflammatory response that drains energy levels and makes us less likely to do #1-3!

5) Learn Your Triggers – while your body will try to convince you that the cookie or piece of chocolate will solve your craving, it is a lie. It is clearly demonstrated with addictions that feeding the craving furthers the stranglehold that the addiction has on you. We all have unresolved conflicts, its human. Once the "WHYS" are understood the "HOWS" come easy.

I think Michael expressed it best when he said:

"I need to find a way for my brain to start treating my body better. I need to give my body a break. It's time for this relationship to stop being so one sided".   ML