Food Fight: Is eating addictive? Experts are divided

Jodie Banaszak helps her daughter Mackenzie, 2, left, eat while talking with her daughter Cassidy, 10, right, over dinner in their home in Toledo. Jodie has lost 50 pounds since undergoing surgery for a gastric sleeve, which reduced the size of her stomach by 90 percent, two months ago.
Jodie Banaszak helps her daughter Mackenzie, 2, left, eat while talking with her daughter Cassidy, 10, right, over dinner in their home in Toledo. Jodie has lost 50 pounds since undergoing surgery for a gastric sleeve, which reduced the size of her stomach by 90 percent, two months ago.

Jodie Banaszak always told herself she could do anything she put her mind to.

To help out her family, she got her first job when she was just 14. At 29, she wrote her master’s degree thesis while pregnant with twins and caring for her toddler daughter. But when it came to food, Jodie just couldn’t win.

“I couldn’t put the fork down,” said Mrs. Banaszak of Toledo. “No matter what it was, I couldn’t eat a regular portion.”

The notion that food can be addictive has been debated for years by nutrition and medical experts and addiction researchers. The May release of the fifth edition of the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual of mental and psychiatric disorders, has further fueled those debates.

Scientific research on the topic has been mounting for years, and Dr. Pamela Peeke, author and national expert on food addiction, says new technology has linked food to addiction.

“We’ve learned that the brain center is very responsive to sugar, fatty and salty foods. It would prefer that over a bowl of berries,” Dr. Peeke said. Like drugs, “sugar [overly engages] the brain’s reward center — the parts that involve pleasure and self-control. You can give up celery without a craving, but can you say that about a cupcake?”

Mrs. Banaszak says she got hooked at an early age. By age 5, she was already sneaking food, especially sweets. Once she started eating cookies, candy, cake, or other treats, it was hard for her to stop.

“As a kid, I didn’t have access to money, name brand clothes, or anything like that, but I had food,” she said.

Mrs. Banaszak grew up as an only child with divorced parents. Being overweight made her a target at school, and looking back, she suspects she used food to numb her frustration.

“Food was a companion for me. It was always there,” said Mrs. Banaszak, 37. “It didn’t pick on me or call me names.”

Signs of possible food addiction
* Unintended use — eating more food and for a longer period than planned.
* Unsuccessful efforts to cut back or quit altogether.
* Going to extraordinary measures to acquire your food of choice.
* Sacrificing social and professional obligations for food.
* Continued use despite knowing ill effects.
Source: Dr. Pamela Peeke

Critics of the research argue that food addiction isn’t real, because you need food, unlike drugs or alcohol. The DSM-5 acknowledges binge eating and says that those who are “food addicted” may have “symptoms resembling those typically endorsed by individuals with substance-use disorders, such as strong cravings and patterns of compulsive use,” the manual says, adding that the resemblance is because of “the involvement of the same neural systems.”

But it also says that “the development and perpetuation of eating and substance-use disorder remain insufficiently understood.”

Nick Piazza, a University of Toledo professor who is a psychologist and a licensed professional clinical counselor, said he doesn’t agree or disagree with the research, but over time, “I think we’re going to discover that there are some foods out there that could lead to compulsive use and we’ll find that some people eat compulsively.”

Stress is one of the main challenges that leads to addiction, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, or some other self-destructive behavior, experts say. In the case of food addiction, Mr. Piazza says the term is a metaphor for a number of things that could be going on.

“It could be that some people have food allergies and they self-medicate by eating certain foods,” Mr. Piazza said. “Patients with bulimia have certain trigger foods. Those foods set them off on a binge and it could look a lot like an alcoholic on a binge.”

Crystal Dupler started binge eating on chocolate, potato chips, and snack cakes as a child. She grew up in an area where it was common for kids as young as a year old to drink soda and where homes had a snack drawer or cabinet. Most cooked foods were covered with flour and cooked in lard. It was cheap and available, she said.

“You eat what you have and it tasted good,” said Mrs. Dupler of Oregon. “I remember eating food so fast I had to think about what it tasted like because I couldn’t remember.”

"My kids aren't overweight but I could see them developing my bad habits," Crystal Dupler, of Oregon, said. "I didn't want to see them go through this." Crystal and her husband Brandon have been working for the past year to change their family's editing habits.

Mrs. Dupler, 36, carried those same eating habits into adulthood, eventually passing them on to her children. Her husband tried to prepare healthy meals for the family, but Mrs. Dupler said she and the children preferred fast food and ate out several times a week.

“He could see that letting me go to Taco Bell at 10 o’clock at night made me happy,” Mrs. Dupler said of her husband. “It felt good. It was like an instant relief.”

Both Mrs. Banaszak’s and Mrs. Dupler’s eating habits led to obesity. The women underwent weight loss surgery at Mercy Weight Management Center to get their weight under control.

Obesity doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is “food addicted,” and binge eating does not necessarily mean that someone is obese, Dr. Peeke said.

“Food addiction comes in all sizes and affects both men and women,” Dr. Peeke said, adding that she’s seen patients who eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, but binge on unhealthy snacks often. “It’s not like you have to hang out at 7-Eleven to be a food addict.”

Treatment for alcohol and drugs “is obvious — you’re either on them or you’re not,” Dr. Peeke said. “With food, you have to let the tiger out of the cage three to four times a day, but you have options. You have to know what to eat and what not to eat.”

Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: or 419-724-6133.