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Dr. Nicole Avena Unpacks the Dependence-Like Relationship With Food & Diet Culture

Updated: May 15

Episode 9: Sugar Addiction is Real...And Its Not Your Fault From the Food Addiction: The Problem and The Solution podcast


Host, Susan Branscome:

You have a definition in your book on food addiction, which is pretty simple, but I like it.

Food addiction is a dependence-like relationship with highly palatable foods such as those high in sugars.

And I would put carbs, flour, other trigger and binge foods in there. So it's a dependence-like relationship with these foods, right?

Dr. Nicole Avena:

Yes. And I think that when people start to really evaluate their relationship with food and start to think about the reasons why they eat certain foods, their emotions around eating certain foods, they start to realize that it is a dependence -like relationship. It's not a healthy relationship.

I mean, the purpose of food is essentially to fuel our bodies and to give us nourishment and calories and to give us nutrients that we need to stay well and to function throughout our day. And I think when people who are struggling with eating a healthy diet start to reflect on what is happening and their relationship with food, they start to see that they're not using food as a way to nourish themselves.

In many cases, they're using food as a way to self -soothe, as a way to make themselves feel better because of some other issue in their life, and also as just a way to cope. And I think that food, for many people, can unfortunately become a coping mechanism for dealing with stressors.

In some cases, for overcoming other addictive substances, food can simply become the replacement substance because it's socially acceptable, it's legal, and it's considered to be innocuous to most people.

But the reality is food addiction can be just as dangerous and deadly as drug or alcohol addiction.

Host, Susan Branscome:

Sure, yeah. I experienced some of what you're talking about, which is my husband used to say, why can't you just eat in moderation? And I'm like, I don't know why can't you eat in moderation? I dieted for 43 years. I was really successful on them until I started to use food again, which I did because of what you're talking about, which are the stressors. I was working really too long, which is another addiction, work can be an addiction, and I was working 10, 12 hours a day to be successful.

And yeah, I was using food to calm myself. In the book, you say, many of the diet programs out there should work, but they don't. People go on a diet, then quit. Weight regain and yo -yo dieting have become common in a vicious cycle for too many Americans.

And you say, if you were psychologically and chemically dependent on added sugars and excessive amounts of carbohydrates, your addiction may lead you into a vicious cycle of overeating, withdrawal, and craving for these foods. We're going to talk about tolerance, withdrawal, and craving, but talk about the diet programs. And we're going to talk about dopamine as well and neurotransmitters. But these diets, I mean, I was really good at it. I could lose 50 pounds, but I would gain it back and more, right?

Dr. Nicole Avena:

Right. And I think that's the problem. It's an industry. The whole purpose of being on a diet is so that you'll go off of a diet, gain weight, and then the industry can continue to exist. I mean, if you think about it, if people were to successfully be able to navigate their food journey and eat healthy, there'd be no diet industry. So they'd be out of business. And so it's in the best interest of the field for there to be multiple diets. And that's kind of how it works.

And many people get caught in that trap of diet after diet after diet, where they'll feel like they're quote unquote successful because they lost the weight. And then suddenly the weight creeps back on and then they have to try a different diet. And it's not only a vicious cycle of weight loss, weight regain in many cases, but it's a vicious psychological cycle of shame and guilt and then being proud of yourself and then shame and guilt. And that is so unhealthy and contributes just negatively in so many different ways to people's mental health.


About Dr. Nicole Avena

Dr. Nicole Avena received her Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience from Princeton University and is uniquely qualified to address the biology of food addiction as well as its psychological aspects. She has published over 90 scholarly journal articles on topics related to diet, nutrition and overeating. Her next book Sugar Less furthers the discussion around the prevalence of sugar and the addictive response in our society with 80 percent of grocery store products containing sugar. She is on the faculty of The INFACT School.


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