Food addiction occurs when a person feels a pressing need to eat, so much to the point that the need becomes out of control. This compulsivity is often a response to certain feelings or emotions that cause stress, anger, or sadness. Though food is a requirement for human survival, food addiction takes place when someone becomes dependent on a particular type of food. Generally, that kind of food is not healthy in nature and will likely include salty or sugary snacks.
Research has found that more than half a million teenagers are suffering from some sort of food addiction or eating disorder. Though girls are at the greatest risk, teenager boys often struggle for eating disorders as well.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is commonly and accurately associated with eating disorders. These disorders may include obesity, bulimia, or other binge eating disorders. In these cases, chemical dependency is developed within the person, and is similar to the type of addiction formed by those who consume excessive alcohol or those who smoke cigarettes. When we consume food, it triggers chemicals in the brain that serve as a reward and provide feel-good sensations for that person. Dopamine, this happiness chemical, often serves as a release from emotional distress.
When teens become addicted to that feeling of euphoria and comfort that comes when eating particular types of food, they will simply continue to eat even if they are no longer hungry. As a result, this creates a nasty progression which leads to the start food addiction. They will eat in excess. And, they will eat far more than they need to for proper nutrition and daily caloric intake. An ongoing abuse of food will lead to emotional, social, and physical costs such as obesity, depression, low-self-worth, and isolation, not to mention the additional physical effects.
Poor nutrition and a lack of physical activity and exercise are primary risk factors related to weight gain and obesity. Food cravings and overeating are addictive behaviors that may lie just below the surface of one of the many causes of obesity. And, on the flip side, there is growing concern that once obese, a food addiction can be harder and harder to beat, even for those who did not experience a food addiction prior to weight gain.
Foods that contribute to food addiction
Foods that are high in sugar, starch, and fat are most commonly associated with food addiction. Those foods include (but are not limited to):
- Potato chips
- French fries
- White bread
- Ice cream
The prevalence of food addiction in teens
Healthy eating can be a challenge for anyone, but it is especially challenging for teens. With hormones exacerbating insane food cravings, teens are also subject to so many readily available junk food items. And these unhealthy food items can be found anywhere. Today, you can find gas stations full of junk foods. Home improvement stores have added these impulse items in their checkout lanes. But perhaps worst of all, these foods are made available in schools across the country. This means that your teen doesn’t need to go far to find something sweet or savory to satisfy their cravings.
This all said, the most effective way to help a teen that might be experiencing a challenging relationship with food is to understand what is causing it. Here are some common reasons that teens are so highly susceptible to food addictions.
- Keep the presence of junk food in the home to a minimum. Junk food actually works as a stimulus. There is something about that link in the human brain from the crunch of potato chips, the bubbly carbonation of soda, and the cold sweet creaminess of iced cream that is lucrative to teens, and all humans alike. These correlations of joy cause humans to reach for these unhealthy foods over natural healthy selections. Thus, by keeping the temptations out of the house and stocking your refrigerator with healthier choices, you will help your teen to train their brain to reach for those better options.
- Emphasize the importance of healthy eating. When you eat a portion of sugary food, or even a salty snack, it sends a trigger to your brain which releases endorphins, which ultimately make you feel better. In teens, their brain is still developing and thus this release of endorphins is much stronger and sometimes more satisfying. For this reason and because teens are far more likely to live in the moment and not understand the long-term consequences of today’s actions, they will be far more likely to go for the tasty treat. Therefore, parents need to engage in regular dialogue with their teen to help encourage healthy choices and to show the long-term effects that poor eating will have on them in the future.
- Junk food is cheap. Though many teens today have part-time jobs, it doesn’t mean that they are ready to part with that hard-earned cash. And to be more specific, they are far less likely to fork out several dollars for a healthy snack when they can get chips or a candy bar for a fraction of the cost. Parents can help teens to save their money by sending along healthy snack choices so that teens don’t feel as tempted to head to the vending machines.
- Lack of sleep leads to poor decisions. The typical teenager needs between nine to ten hours of sleep per night. However, due to part-time jobs, evenings spent out with friends, time spent on electronic devices, and late-night homework sessions, most teens only get about seven hours of sleep per night. And we all know that when we are tired, we don’t make the soundest of decisions. Parents can help by implementing restrictions on electronic devices, supporting a week-night curfew, and encourage their teens to get the proper amount of sleep each night.
- Junk food can ease anxiety. To preface this statement, it is important to clarify that junk food doesn’t cure anxiety. Rather, the temporary satisfaction that these unhealthy foods provide can create a correlating temporary reprieve from anxious thoughts. Unfortunately, many teens do not understand that this feeling is only going to last for a short while. The anxiety will indeed return. Parents need to keep their eyes open and watch for other factors that could be leading to poor food choices for their teen.
Recognizing the signs of food addiction
There are a variety of signs that will show themselves over time if your teen is experiencing a food addiction. Unfortunately, some of those signs might not always be that obvious. As such, it is important that parents keep an eye on their teen’s activities. The list below provides some common signs that go hand in hand with a teenage food addiction.
- Otherwise unexplained weight gain
- Eating more food than seems normal
- Eating after everyone else at the table has stopped
- Food wrappers found hidden in the teen’s bedroom
- Complaints of heart palpitations
- Ongoing requests for chips, candies, etc.
- Evidence that your teen is going out of their way to obtain certain snack foods
- Lack of energy
- Insomnia or oversleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Complaints of headaches or migraines
- Digestive issues or stomach-aches
- Suicidal thoughts
- Compulsive exercise
- Self-induced vomiting or purging
- Extreme obsession with food, weight, and/or body shape
Effects of food addiction
The effects of a food addiction can have a negative impact on various aspects of your life. When left untreated, a food addiction will start to consume and ruin the overall life and health of your teen. Over time, your teen will begin to experience many of the following physical and psychological ailments.
- Continued unhealthy weight gain
- Headaches or migraines
- Excessive exhaustion
- Heart disease
- Kidney/Liver Disease
- Chronic pain
- Digestive problems
- Sleep disorders
- Increased feelings of anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Emotional detachment or numbness
- Panic attacks
- Feeling sad, hopeless, or in despair
- Increased irritability
- Suicidal thoughts
In addition to these physical and psychological ailments, you may also start to see a decrease in your teen’s school or work performance. They may become reclusive and may start to pull away from hobbies or activities that previously gave them joy. Further, they may start to avoid social events including family gatherings.
Treatment for food addiction
Food addiction treatment for teens needs to address the emotional, psychological, and physical needs. Treatment will generally focus on methods to break the habits of chronic overeating. In most cases, if your teen goes through treatment for food addiction, they will learn to replace the bad habits with healthier choices. Further, treatment will work to address larger concerns such as depression and anxiety.
If you feel that your teen’s eating is out of control and you have witnessed several of the signs mentioned above, it is time to consult a physician. A doctor can help suggest treatment methods and routines that will encourage healthier eating, regular exercise, and ultimately, weight loss.
Unhealthy eating patterns become more difficult to treat the longer they go on. Eating disorders and food addiction do not magically go away on their own. In fact, when left untreated, these disorders will often get much worse over time. If you perceive that your teen has an eating disorder or food addiction, it is important to start the conversation about getting them help before more time elapses. When your teen is able to get treatment, they will be able to develop healthy and effective coping skills. And with the right support system in place, your teen will be able to regain a healthy self-esteem and build the skills that they will need to support them through life.
The most effective treatments for food addiction include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – This approach aims to identify and change the thought patterns that have led to the addiction and to create new coping mechanisms for the related triggers. Teen CBT can be conducted on an individual basis or in a group with others.
- Medication – This may be used to relieve the underlying symptoms of depression or anxiety.
- Solution-focused therapy – This approach focuses on seeking solutions for specific issues in your teen’s life that are causing the stress and the resulting overeating.
- Trauma therapy – This aims to work with trauma that is associated with or can trigger a food addiction.
- Nutritional counseling and dietary planning – This approach can assist your teen to develop a healthier approach to their food choices and snacking habits.
In some cases, a teen will best benefit from a residential program. These programs allow the teen to get away from the other pressures in their life and to focus only on the specific ailment. During treatment, they learn coping skills that they can implement into their regular life when they return back home. Parents and siblings may also have the opportunity to participate in family counseling. This is often a wise approach as in many cases with food addiction, lifestyle changes need to be made at home for all family members.
Supporting your teen through food addiction treatment
As a parent, it can be very difficult to see your child struggle. And regardless of the reason behind your teen’s particular situation, parents play a substantial role in food addiction recovery and maintenance. In addition to participation in family treatment, parents can help to create a variety of lifestyle changes at home. When all family members adopt these healthier choices, the teen will stand a much greater chance of long-term recovery.
All family members should work to incorporate these behaviors:
- Replacing processed foods and sweeteners with healthier alternatives
- Avoiding or giving up caffeine
- Eating three balanced meals a day
- Drinking at least eight glasses of water per day
- Slowing down mealtime by encouraging conversation at the table
- Restricting the use of mobile devices at the table (which can create a distraction and lead to over or undereating)
- Preparing grocery lists as a family and ensuring healthy food choices comprise the majority of items on the list
- Cooking and eating meals at home
- Exercising three to four times per week for at least 20 minutes
- Getting enough sleep
- Reducing workplace and social stress (this may mean your teen will need to leave their part-time job, at least temporarily)
If you have a teen who is struggling to cope with food addiction, you have options when it comes to treatment. Here at Hillcrest, we know how to work with teenagers in order to help them develop healthy coping mechanisms and a course of positive action to help them manage eating. Reach out to Hillcrest today to find out how our facility can help your teen manage their issues with food addiction.