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Discovering the Effects of Addiction to Food
Although food addiction doesn’t have an official diagnosis, many people experience this condition and can attest to its negative consequences.
Like drug addiction, food addiction comes with its own serious risks that can lead to temporary or permanent health conditions.
By understanding the physical and mental effects of food addiction, people can be more aware of the risks and seek help if they or someone they love is living with it.
Physical Side Effects & Risk Factors of Food Addiction
The foods most commonly abused by food addicts tend to be unhealthy, highly palatable foods high in sugar, salt, and fats. These foods can have an extremely negative effect on a person’s physical health, especially when these addictive foods are eaten in excess or eaten exclusively.
Weight problems are one of the most common issues food addiction can cause. As higher amounts of food are compulsively consumed, many addicts will experience considerable weight gain and potential obesity.
Obesity is a condition where excess body fat poses a danger to a person’s health, whether it’s trouble breathing, extra strain on the heart, or the risk of heart attack, stroke, or asphyxiation.
Current research has identified many links between obesity rates and the prevalence of these addictive foods.
Even though food addicts tend to overeat their trigger foods, malnutrition can still be a huge health problem, no matter the individual’s current weight. Highly palatable foods often lack many essential nutrients our bodies require.
If a food addict only eats these sugar-rich, low-nutrient foods exclusively, individuals can experience deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals our bodies can’t produce on their own.
Vitamin deficiencies can be difficult to spot and diagnose, as symptoms may overlap with other physical or mental illnesses.
Common signs of vitamin deficiencies due to food addiction include:
- Mouth ulcers or cracks in the corners of the mouth
- Bleeding gums
- Scaly patches and dandruff
- Red or white bumps on the skin
- Restless leg syndrome
- Brittle hair and nails
- Poor night vision
- White growths on the eyes
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
- Swollen or numb tongue
- Depression or mood swings
- Easy bruising or bleeding
As weight gain and vitamin deficiencies pile up, chronic pain in muscles and bones can begin to cause issues. Sudden changes in weight, nutrients, and eating to the point of illness can cause chronic pain.
In addition, some research indicates that some food addicts may use certain foods to help cope with existing chronic pain.
Unfortunately, overeating highly palatable foods can only worsen chronic pain, especially if the individual begins experiencing withdrawal when not eating their trigger food.
Food addiction can sometimes form with foods the addict has trouble digesting or can’t digest. For example, addicts may have lactose intolerance but continue to consume foods with lactose despite symptoms like nausea, upset stomach, diarrhea, or vomiting.
In extreme cases, food addicts may even give in to cravings for foods they are allergic to or have intolerances to, which can result in extreme stomach pain, swelling, and, in some cases, life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
Some sleep disorders can be caused partly by issues with the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. But dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward, can also affect your sleep.
Dopamine plays a huge role in food addiction, as large amounts of it can be released by compulsively overeating certain high-sugar, high-salt, and high-fat foods. This disruption is believed to interfere with normal sleep patterns and melatonin production, leading to sleep disorders.
Type 2 Diabetes
Recent research from Aalborg University Hospital in Denmark has identified a strong link between food addiction and the development of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a condition that occurs when the body begins to have trouble regulating how it uses sugar as fuel.
The symptoms of type 2 diabetes can be potentially life-threatening and require careful treatment and care.
While some people are more genetically prone to developing type 2 diabetes, people with high body weight and low activity are at even higher risk of becoming type 2 diabetic.
For food addicts with obesity or high body weight, the risk of heart disease is high. Heart disease refers to several types of heart conditions, the most common of which is coronary artery disease.
Coronary artery disease can be caused by:
- Being overweight and obesity
- Unhealthy diet
- Physical inactivity
Excess body weight caused by unhealthy or compulsive eating behaviors can also lead to high blood pressure, damaging the heart when not managed properly.
A damaged heart is at higher risk of other diseases like heart valve disease, heart muscle disease, and arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm).
Osteoporosis is a bone disease that occurs when bone mineral density and mass lowers or changes, leading to decreased bone strength and an increased risk of broken bones or fractures.
Factors including stress, malnutrition, and obesity are directly connected to bone loss or lower bone density.
As food addicts are already at risk for malnutrition and obesity, they can also risk bone loss in the process.
Strokes are typically caused by either a blocked artery (ischemic stroke) or the leaking or bursting of a blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke).
A stroke can result in temporary or permanent issues like paralysis, difficulty talking or swallowing, cognitive issues, memory loss, or even death.
Food addiction can contribute to many risk factors leading to a stroke, so there is a clear link between food addiction and stroke risk.
Common risk factors of stroke related to food addiction include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Lack of exercise
Psychological Side Effects or Risk Factors of Food Addiction
The mental health consequences of food addiction can be just as dire as the physical effects. Food addiction often co-occurs with mental illnesses like eating disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and individuals with impulse control issues.
Food addiction and eating disorders are often mistaken for each other, likely because they can sometimes overlap or look similar.
While not all food addicts will develop an eating disorder and vice versa, food addiction can sometimes lead to eating disorders.
For example, a food addict may turn to extreme food restriction or purging after overeating their trigger food to lose weight or cope with the guilt of compulsive eating.
Eating disorders tied to food addiction include:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge-eating disorder
- Purging disorder
Like substance use disorders, many food addicts experience emotional isolation due to their food addiction. In many cases, addicts will eat trigger foods secretly out of shame or to avoid the interference of loved ones.
Guilt and shame are common emotions addicts experience, making it difficult for some to relate to others. As the addict spends more and more time alone to overeat unhealthy foods for feelings of pleasure compulsively, they may begin to isolate themselves from normal life.
Similar to withdrawals in drug addiction, food addicts can experience withdrawal symptoms, the most common being panic attacks or anxiety. Food addicts may also have panic attacks over their food intake, food cravings, or certain types of food being unavailable.
Depression is very common for addicts spiraling deeper into food addiction. Many may feel trapped by their own addictive behaviors and unhealthy eating patterns, while others can experience feelings of depression due to withdrawal from trigger foods.
Dopamine plays a huge role in the brain’s reward system and is often a component in the causes of food addiction and depression.
Imbalances in dopamine and serotonin due to food addiction can worsen existing depression or put the addict at a higher risk of developing depression.
Weight gain is one of the most common outcomes of food addiction due to the high consumption of unhealthy foods like fast food.
Many food addicts experience bullying, shame, or judgment for their high body weight, causing lower self-esteem and avoidance of social situations.
Even if the judgment isn’t from another person, many food addicts will judge themselves harshly and compare their bodies to society’s impossible high beauty standards. Unfortunately, many food addicts will cope with these negative feelings by compulsively overeating more.
Like with substance abuse, the cycle of food addiction can feel unbreakable, especially as attempts to break the cycle or limit food intake fail.
Even when food addicts try to quit, they may experience withdrawal symptoms due to their brain’s reliance on the flood of dopamine certain foods can cause.
Whether it’s despair at relapsing or feelings of hopelessness from withdrawal, suicidal thoughts are sadly common for food addicts. By attending therapy or treatment for food addiction, these dark thoughts can be addressed and avoided in the future.
Finding Treatment for Food Addiction
If you suspect you or a loved one has a food addiction, many types of treatment can help you on the path to recovery and wellness.
Food addiction treatment often begins with behavioral therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy.
An excellent first step is to speak with your doctor or therapist or join support groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.
If you don’t have a doctor or therapist and want to find one in your area, call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) or use SAMHSA’s treatment locator to see your local options.
FAQ's About Food Addiction
Who is at risk for developing a food addiction?
While anyone can have a food addiction, certain risk factors can elevate the likelihood someone has a food addiction.
- History of addiction in the family
- Struggles with weight and obesity
- History of abnormal eating habits
- History of substance abuse or addiction
- Co-occurring mental illnesses like ADHD, bipolar disorder, binge-eating disorder, personality disorders, and impulse control disorders
- Compulsive overeating of processed foods with high sugar, salt, or fat content
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is a disease where the addict feels the compulsive urge to eat certain trigger foods in order to feel pleasure.
Food addicts may also experience withdrawal symptoms when not eating specific foods that trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, similar to addictive drugs.
Although the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition) does not officially diagnose food addiction, many healthcare providers diagnose and treat the condition.
What triggers food addiction?
Certain highly palliative foods can trigger food addiction because they activate the same parts of the brain as drugs and alcohol do. Genetic predisposition, trauma, and unhealthy eating patterns can also trigger food addiction.
What are the main side effects of food addiction?
The most common side effects of food addiction include:
- Extreme weight gain or weight loss
- Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies
- High risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and stroke
- Withdrawal symptoms when not eating certain foods
- Emotional and social isolation
- Depression and anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Suicidal thoughtsFood addiction can be prevented by being more aware of your own risk factors, avoiding excessive amounts of highly palatable foods with high levels of sugar, salt, and fat, and staying active.
How can food addiction be prevented?
Food addiction can be prevented by being more aware of your own risk factors, avoiding excessive amounts of highly palatable foods with high levels of sugar, salt, and fat, and staying active.