First of all, what’s a habit?
Research shows that non-habitual actions (things you do that aren’t habits) are goal-oriented; meaning you have a specific reason for doing it and you have that reason in mind while you’re doing it. But when you do something over and over, your brain starts to treat the action differently. The action becomes a reflex; or more precisely, it becomes a reaction to a contextual cue.
And what’s food addiction?
Some argue that food addiction is akin to drug addiction, but there isn’t quite enough evidence to confirm that argument just yet. However, there’s plenty of compelling research suggesting that food addiction is a real condition.
One study compared a group of people profiled as non-food addicts to a group profiled as food addicts. The groups were compared in the three main areas associated with addiction: (1) clinical co-morbidities, (2) psychological risk factors, and (3) abnormal motivation for the addictive substance. In the end, researchers found that “food addiction is an identifiable condition with clinical symptoms, and is characterized by a psycho-behavioral profile.”
And what does that mean? That study and similar findings suggest that certain foods (sugar and fat are the most common focus) may have an effect on the brain that leads to a change in thought and behaviour patterns.
So, what’s the difference?
Habits are something you do without thinking about it. Your body carries out the action with minimal input from your brain. But addiction is far more cognitive. Whatever it is that an individual is addicted to, the brain yearns for it. And in a way, it makes the body yearn for it, too. Addiction is compulsive and dominates your mentality.
But they’re not totally separate.
Research suggests that habitual behaviour can escalate into compulsive and/or addictive behaviour. According to a study from the University of California San Diego, “Not all habits are bad. Some are even necessary. It's a good thing, for example, that we can find our way home on 'autopilot' or wash our hands without having to ponder every step. But inability to switch from acting habitually to acting in a deliberate way can underlie addiction and obsessive compulsive disorders.”
What does that mean for you?
There’s no point in talking about this if you can’t apply it to your life. If you’re concerned about some of your food-related habits, make a plan to change them. Vow to get five servings of fresh vegetables and two servings of fresh fruit every day. Cut refined sugar from your diet for a month. Avoid any packaged food with artificial ingredients. Food addiction is rare, so it’s more likely that you just need to establish new eating habits. After trying to make healthy changes, if you still find that the desire to eat certain foods is dominating your thoughts and behaviour, you could consider speaking to a doctor about behaviour modification therapy.