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Addiction versus Habit

What’s the difference between having a habit and having an addiction? It’s important to distinguish between the two, which I don’t think disregulated eaters always do. I say this due to how often I hear them say that they’re addicted to food when I think they really mean that they’re habituated to it.

Here’s an example. Recently I had some medical tests that required abstention from coffee and lactose products, which meant not having my morning cup of java or nightly yogurt while watching the late news. I knew from experience that I’d have a wicked withdrawal headache without the coffee which is addictive, so I started cutting down gradually a few days before and voilá, no headache on testing day. And, although I felt a pang for the yogurt, I felt physically fine without it.

Let’s look at the difference in not consuming these foods, noting similarities and differences. I missed them both. Something just seemed a little off without them. That’s because, being a creature of routine, I’ve been habituated to them at certain times of the day for decades. Of course, skipping yogurt was not going to give me a withdrawal headache the way going cold turkey with the coffee would have, but they left both left a mini-hole in my day.

How many of you have been in this same situation, craving a food because you have it frequently or every day? All of you, I bet. Does that mean you’re addicted to it or are you merely habituated, that is, cued in to having it at a certain time or place in association with certain other foods or activities? Watching a TV movie and eating popcorn, in the stands cheering for the home team while munching on a hotdog, on the way home from your evening run ducking into the frozen yogurt store. Think about it, are you really addicted to popcorn, hotdogs, or frozen yogurt or is it more likely that specific behaviors or sights—TV movie watching, enjoying a ballgame, nearing the end of run or spotting the yogurt store—trigger a food craving?

My point here is that it doesn’t serve you well to say you’re addicted when you’re not. The word makes it seem as if you can’t stop eating a food without suffering dire physical consequences. The jury is still out (as far as I’m concerned) on whether sugar is addictive, so I’m not speaking of sugary foods. With other foods, isn’t it better to recognize that you’re habituated and that the major disturbance you’ll feel not eating them is emotional, not physical? Isn’t it better to be merely habituated than addicted?