Food Addiction

When most people hear the word addiction, they think of substance use disorders. However, behavioral addictions, such as food addiction, can be just as dangerous when not treated properly.

While some people enjoy the occasional unhealthy treat or have a “cheat day,” there is a fine line between enjoying unhealthy foods and being addicted to them.

What is Food Addiction?

Food addiction usually involves a person experiencing a loss of control over their eating habits. Many individuals with food addiction eat more food than they should for their body type and healthy size.

Some people also experience food cravings, often for high-fat and high-sugar foods. If their addiction has become severe, they may experience withdrawal symptoms when eliminating certain foods from their diets.

Defining Food Addiction

Food addiction happens when someone becomes addicted to food. While you can be addicted to any food, most people who suffer from food addiction are addicted to “junk foods,” also known as “highly palatable foods.” These foods consist of fried food, fast food, or food high in sugar, salt, or fat.

These addictive foods trigger certain neurotransmitters in the brain’s reward system, similar to how abusing addictive drugs impact the brain. Over time, the brain will crave more of these food items until it has reached the level of dependency and addiction. Once that level has been reached, like drugs and alcohol, the brain and body will need more food items to achieve their desired effect.

According to a Yale food addiction scale, the following foods are most commonly associated with food addiction:

  • Chocolate
  • Ice cream
  • Pasta
  • White bread
  • Fries
  • Chips
  • Candy
  • Cookies

While these are the most common foods associated with food addiction, any food that can bring someone comfort or happiness can be subject to food addiction.

What is Behavioral Addiction?

While not formally recognized as an addiction by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), food addiction falls under the behavioral addiction category.

Behavioral addiction works similarly to how alcohol or drug abuse affects the brain. Substance abuse activates the receptors in the brain’s reward center, causing a release of dopamine, the brain’s “feel good” chemical. Certain foods or eating behaviors can also release dopamine.

Over time, a person can become addicted to this dopamine release. Food addiction can lead to overeating and sometimes contributes to developing eating disorders.

In addition to food addiction, other behavioral addictions include:

  • Sex addiction
  • Gambling addiction
  • Porn addiction
  • Video game addiction
  • Shopping addiction
  • Exercise addiction

Common Signs of Food Addiction

There is a fine line between enjoying certain foods and being addicted to those same foods. For many, experiencing a lack of control over their eating habits or food intake is a strong indicator that an addiction may be present.

Below are some common signs that you or someone you know might be suffering from a food addiction:

  • Eating more of a specific food than you intended to
  • Continuing to eat even after you are no longer hungry
  • Eating to the point that it makes you physically ill
  • Going out of your way to obtain certain foods even when they aren’t readily available
  • Eating instead of doing regular, daily activities
  • Constantly craving a particular food even when not hungry
  • Hiding food consumption from others
  • Continuing to eat despite knowing the harmful consequences
  • Not being able to stop eating even when trying to stop
  • Justifying your unhealthy eating habits
  • Spending money on certain foods, even if you don’t have the money

Causes of Food Addiction

Like other types of addictions, certain biological and psychological factors can impact whether a person develops a food addiction. The environment they grew up in, genetic makeup, age, and gender can play a role in their relationship with food.

While not everyone who enjoys junk food will automatically develop an unhealthy relationship with food, a variety of factors can increase a person’s risk of developing an addiction to food.

Someone with a history of addiction in their immediate family is more prone to addiction. The Mayo Clinic also found that people with an immediate relative (parent, sibling, etc.) with an eating disorder are more likely to develop one themselves.

Those who suffer from a mental health condition are also far more likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with food, including:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Additionally, those suffering from psychological conditions such as low self-esteem and impulsive behavior are at a greater risk of developing a food addiction.

Who is At Risk of Developing Food Addiction?

In addition to biological factors and family history, other factors like age and a person’s gender can also play a role in food addiction.

Below are some facts about those who might be prone to developing food addiction:

  • Food addiction occurs in roughly 2% of all people who are either average weight or underweight
  • Approximately 8% of all overweight or obese people suffer from food addiction
  • Women between the ages of 45 and 64 have the highest prevalence rate when it comes to food addiction at 8.4%
  • Women of all ages are more prone to food addiction than men

Harmful Effects of Food Addiction

When left untreated, food addiction can affect someone both physically and mentally. Eating large quantities of unhealthy food (i.e., junk food) even after no longer being hungry can lead to a wide variety of physical ailments, including:

  • Weight gain
  • Heart disease
  • Digestive issues
  • Type-2 diabetes
  • Sleep disorders
  • Headaches
  • Arthritis
  • Chronic pain and fatigue
  • Obesity
  • Malnutrition
  • Kidney and liver disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stroke

In addition to these potentially severe physical ailments, food addiction can also wreak havoc on the brain. Common psychological symptoms associated with food addiction include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Low self-esteem
  • Negative body image
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Guilt
  • Emotional detachment
  • Irritability

Food Addiction and Eating Disorders

While food addiction is considered a behavioral addiction, it also shares many characteristics of eating disorders. The most significant difference between food addiction and eating disorders is that a food addict typically craves specific foods. In many cases, having a food addiction can lead to an eating disorder or vice versa.

Three eating disorders share many of the same characteristics of food addiction. They are:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge-eating disorder

Treatment for Food Addiction

Several options are available if you or someone you know has developed an unhealthy relationship with food and needs help.

  • Rehab Programs: For those looking for professional help, one option is to enter into an inpatient or outpatient rehab program, much like you would if you were suffering from an alcohol or drug addiction. Certain rehab facilities even specialize in food addiction treatment.
  • Therapy: Therapy is a significant component of rehab treatment. However, you don’t have to go to rehab to seek therapy for food addiction. Many private therapists offer treatment for behavioral addiction and mental health conditions, including food addiction. One of the most popular forms of psychiatry for treating food addiction is physiotherapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps people identify the triggers behind their addictive behavior and teaches new, more healthy ways to deal with these triggers and cravings in the future.
  • Medication: Food addiction often results from an underlying psychological or mental health issue. While no FDA-regulated medications are currently on the market for treating food addiction, your therapist or treatment professional might recommend medicines designed to address the underlying mental health condition, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.
  • Support Groups: Food addiction support groups for helping treat addiction originated from alcohol and drugs 12-step programs. Over the years, these support groups have expanded to include behavioral addictions such as gambling, pornography, and even food. Groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous and Food Addicts Anonymous exist to help those dealing with food addiction to have a safe place to share what they are going through with others who are also suffering. Additionally, they provide a support system for those who are in need.

Get Help With Your Food Addiction

While enjoying the occasional treat or even having a “cheat day” never hurt anyone, there is a fine line between that and developing an unhealthy relationship with food, especially foods high in fat, sugar, salt, and carbs.

Speak with your doctor to find out what treatment options are available. You can also join support groups, such as Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous or Food Addicts Anonymous.

Frequently Asked Questions About Food Addiction

What are the symptoms of food addiction?

Food addiction has physical and psychological symptoms, including:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Digestive issues
  • Malnutrition
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney and liver disease
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

Is food addiction curable?

Technically there is no known cure for addiction, including food addiction. However, various treatments are available to help a person free themselves from the struggles of food addiction.

Who is more likely to become addicted to food?

Women of all ages are more likely to develop a food addiction than men. Additionally, women between the ages of 45 and 64 have the highest prevalence rate for food addiction at 8.4%.

How can I tell if I have a food addiction?

There are many potential warning signs of food addiction. Some warning signs include:

  • Compulsive overeating, even to the point of feeling sick
  • Blowing off commitments to eat
  • Justifying your unhealthy eating habits
  • Hiding your eating from others

How can I stop my addiction to food?

Seeking treatment is the most successful and safest way to stop your food addiction. Therapy, medications, support groups, and rehab are all effective ways of treating food addiction.

Chris Carberg is the Founder of Addiction GuideReviewed by:Chris Carberg

AddictionHelp.com Founder & Mental Health Advocate

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Chris Carberg is a visionary digital entrepreneur, the founder of AddictionHelp.com, and a long-time recovering addict from prescription opioids, sedatives, and alcohol.  Over the past 15 years, Chris has worked as a tireless advocate for addicts and their loved ones while becoming a sought-after digital entrepreneur. Chris is a storyteller and aims to share his story with others in the hopes of helping them achieve their own recovery.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction GuideWritten by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

7 references
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  2. Food addiction: Causes, symptoms, signs & treatment help. Eating Disorder Hope. (2022, July 29). Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/food-addiction#Food-Addiction-Help-and-Treatment

  3. MediLexicon International. (2020, February 17). Food addiction: Symptoms and management. Medical News Today. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319670#trigger-foods

  4. Goodman, B. (2020, July 17). Food addiction signs and treatments. WebMD. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder/mental-health-food-addiction#091e9c5e80007bd1-2-5

  5. Flint, A. J., Gearhardt, A. N., Corbin, W. R., Brownell, K. D., Field, A. E., & Rimm, E. B. (2014, January 22). Food-addiction scale measurement in 2 cohorts of middle-aged and older women. OUP Academic. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/99/3/578/4577411

  6. Pedram, P., Wadden, D., Amini, P., Gulliver, W., Randell, E., Cahill, F., Vasdev, S., Goodridge, A., Carter, J. C., Zhai, G., Ji, Y., & Sun, G. (2013, September 4). Food addiction: Its prevalence and significant association with obesity in the general population. PLOS ONE. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/metrics?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0074832#citedHeader

  7. Food addiction. PsychGuides.com. (n.d.). Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.psychguides.com/eating-disorder/

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