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What Are the Causes of Food Addiction?
Although food addiction doesn’t have an official diagnosis in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), many people experience serious addiction to certain foods.
However, by understanding the causes of food addiction and risk factors associated with the disease, addicts and their loved ones can better understand how to identify and treat food addiction.
Common Causes of Food Addiction
Food addiction occurs when the brain becomes dependent on the release of dopamine and serotonin caused by consuming certain unhealthy foods.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and the brain’s reward system, while serotonin plays a role in feelings of happiness. When enough dopamine is released in the brain, a feeling similar to a “high” can occur.
If the individual continues eating a particular food that triggers this pleasurable feeling, the brain can become dependent on the flood of dopamine to function, thus forming a food addiction.
Certain types of foods can worsen food addiction by how they alter your brain chemistry.
Research shows that highly palatable foods (e.g., foods high in carbohydrates, fat, salt, sugar, or artificial sweeteners) affect the same part of the brain as drugs, alcohol, gambling, and shopping.
As you continue to eat these trigger foods, the brain adjusts its receptors to compensate for the rush of dopamine and serotonin, requiring larger quantities of highly palatable foods to get the same feel-good reaction.
Eating patterns, specifically dysfunctional or unhealthy ones, are a considerable risk factor for developing food addiction.
Stress eating and binge eating disorders or compulsive eating behaviors are common in cases of food addiction.
Although food addiction is not an eating disorder, there is a connection between eating disorders and food addiction. Individuals with problematic eating habits are likelier to consume highly palatable foods that trigger a feel-good reaction.
Recent research has shown that specific genes may put individuals at a higher risk of developing food addiction.
If you have a history of any type of addiction in your family, you may be more likely to develop a food addiction when eating certain foods.
Stress and Trauma
Eating to cope with stress or trauma is incredibly common in our culture. For example, society frequently jokes about eating a pint of ice cream after stress or a traumatic event.
While this behavior isn’t exactly healthy, this doesn’t automatically mean you’ll develop an addiction.
However, if you begin coping with negative emotions by immediately turning to highly palatable foods, you may begin to make new dopamine pathways in your brain that lead to addiction. The risk of food addiction is even higher if you were taught to cope with food during childhood.
Risk Factors for Developing Food Addiction
Studies have shown that women, young adults, and alcohol users are more likely to develop food addiction.
In addition, people who experience impulsivity, addictive behaviors, or have a history of substance abuse are at higher risk of food addiction.
Common risk factors for developing food addiction include:
- Family history of alcohol or drug addiction
- Struggles with obesity
- A history of abnormal eating patterns
- A history of substance use disorder or alcohol addiction
- Impulsive behavior or co-occurring mental illnesses like ADHD, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, binge-eating disorder, and impulse control disorders
- High consumption of processed foods with high sugar, salt, or fat content
Signs of Food Addiction
Food addiction can be challenging to spot, as food addicts may secretly consume trigger foods.
Since humans need to eat for survival and eating highly palatable foods is normalized, noticing problematic food consumption may require a careful eye.
Common symptoms of food addiction include:
- Continuing to eat certain foods even when no longer hungry
- Consuming certain foods despite negative consequences
- Eating to the point of feeling ill
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- Having abnormal food cravings
- Requiring a larger amount of food to achieve the same feeling
- Feeling withdrawal symptoms when not eating certain foods
- Worrying about not eating specific foods
- Struggling to cut down on certain types of foods
- Going to great lengths to obtain certain types of food
- Avoiding working, spending time with your family, or doing recreational activities to eat certain foods
- Avoiding social situations where trigger foods are available for fear of compulsive overeating
- Struggling to function effectively at work or school due to food and eating
Food Addiction and Eating Disorders
While food addiction and eating disorders like binge eating disorder have overlapping symptoms, they are two distinct conditions with different causes.
These two conditions are often compared due to sharing the common symptom of compulsive eating or loss of control when certain foods are available.
Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are often caused by body image issues and the desire to lose weight rapidly.
On the other hand, food addiction is caused by a change in brain chemistry and the brain’s reward center.
Getting Help for Food Addiction
If you believe you or a loved one have a food addiction, you don’t have to go it alone. Healthcare providers can help you find the right food addiction treatment for your unique situation.
Talk to your doctor, therapist, or addiction specialist for the best treatment options. If you’re unsure where to start or don’t have a physician to ask, you can use SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) to learn more about food addiction treatment options.
FAQs on the Causes of Food Addiction
Does craving a certain food mean that I’m addicted to it?
Not necessarily. Food cravings could be caused by hormone changes or imbalances, vitamin deficiencies, and many other health conditions. Food cravings alone are not enough to indicate food addiction.
Is food addiction an eating disorder?
No. While food addiction and eating disorders may overlap in symptoms or be co-occurring in an individual, they are separate conditions. Food addiction differs due to how certain foods activate the brain’s reward system, which is affected by addictive substances.
What foods are more addictive?
Highly palatable foods with high fat, carbohydrates, salt, sugar, or artificial sweeteners are more likely to affect your brain chemistry and cause the release of dopamine, which in excess can lead to addiction.
Can any food be addictive?
While any food can technically be addictive to someone with food addiction, foods with high levels of sugar, salt, fat, and artificial sweeteners tend to be more addictive than bland or whole foods.
Is food addiction caused by trauma?
It can be, but not always. Trauma can contribute to the development of food addiction, especially if the person is already genetically predisposed to addiction or has other risk factors.
Why are some people addicted to food?
Because certain foods can trigger the release of dopamine and cause a “high” feeling, some people may continue eating that food to continue feeling pleasure. Over time, new pathways can form in the brain, causing dependence on this flood of dopamine to function normally.