Last updated: 02 August 2023 & medically reviewed by Dr. Jenni Jacobsen
Food addiction is characterized by a lack of control around eating certain types of food, often those that are high in palatable ingredients such as fats, salts, and sugars. Food addiction can be debilitating and will often impact everyday life which is extremely negative for the person suffering. Read on to learn more about what causes food addiction, the side effects, warning signs, and treatment options for it.
Foods that contain high amounts of palatable food groups can overwhelm the brain's dopamine levels and cause people to seek more of these foods even when they are full.
While food addiction is not currently a diagnosable condition, most researchers contest that study subjects tested showed similar diagnosable criteria for addiction toward food.
Being addicted to unhealthy foods that are high in salts, fats, and sugars can lead to more severe physical health complications than being addicted to healthy foods. Though, as the former typically creates the dopamine hit, they tend to be the types of food a person becomes addicted to.
Table of contentsToggle table of contents ↑ ↓
- What is food addiction? →
- Is it technically an addiction? →
- How is food addiction different from binge eating disorder? →
- Risks factors for food addiction →
- Effects food addiction →
- Signs and symptoms of food addiction →
- Preventing food addiction →
- Overcoming food addiction →
- Food addiction treatment →
Table of contents:
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is a form of behavioral addiction; one in which a person displays addictive qualities toward their relationship with food. These qualities or criteria are outlined in the DSM-5 for substance use disorders but are not intended to be used for assessing behavioral disorders, though most research suggests food can affect the brain in a similar way to substances.
The idea that people can be addicted to food is one with some contention surrounding it, as most behavioral addictions do. This contention arises from the lack of diagnostical information that backs up observed data suggesting certain behaviors have the same effect on the brain's pleasure and reward system as substances do. However, most researchers agree that stimuli like sex, porn, the internet, video games, and indeed food can cause dopamine to flood the brain and lead to a dependence forming, much like with drugs and alcohol.
Experiments performed on animal and human subjects have found that food can affect the limbic reward system in a similar way to cocaine or opioid painkillers. This is especially true of highly palatable foods such as those high in:
Foods that contain high amounts of these palatable food groups can overwhelm the brain's dopamine levels and cause people to seek more of these foods even when they are full.
This unhealthy relationship with food can also lead to compulsive eating, where the person becomes preoccupied with the process of eating. Compulsive eating and food addiction may not strictly be the same thing as food addiction centers around specific foods whereas compulsive eating is an uncontrollable and irrational 'need' to eat.
Is it technically an addiction?
Even though certain foods can affect the brain's pleasure system in a similar way to drugs and alcohol, it is not currently listed as a diagnosable addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Volume 5 (DSM-5), which is the case with most behavioral addictions with the exception of gambling addiction.
While food addiction is not currently a diagnosable condition, most researchers contest that study subjects tested showed similar diagnosable criteria for addiction toward food. This can include intense cravings for specific foods, being unable to conduct everyday tasks or function normally without specific foods, and forgoing normal commitments in order to eat food.
How is food addiction different from binge eating disorder?
While both may appear similar in nature, food addiction and binge eating disorder are different conditions. The most important distinction between the two is their underlying causes.
Binge eating disorder is the result of a complex mix of environmental, emotional, biological, and psychological factors that influence someone's behavior towards food and consumption of it. It is also a diagnosable and recognized mental illness.
Food addiction is more chemical in nature and stems from dependence developed in the brain as a result of consuming highly palatable foods. Both conditions can be treated with certain therapies and counseling.
Risks factors for food addiction
Food products that are high in pleasurable substances such as sweeteners, fats, and salts are widely available the world over, meaning overexposure and addiction to them can occur in anyone. While we may all be susceptible to food addiction, there are some who are more at risk than others.
Children and young people who regularly eat palatable foods are at greater risk of developing food addiction as their brains are still developing and may become dependent on the dopamine hit of these foods faster. People who use food as a way of coping with stress or uncomfortable emotions may also be more at risk of addiction.
As with substance use disorders, genetics may also play a role in a person's likelihood to become addicted to food. What these 'addiction' genes are and how they work is still the subject of debate and further study, but it is suggested that as much as 50% of a person's likelihood to suffer from addiction lies in their genetic makeup.
Effects food addiction
Much like with drug addictions, food addiction left unchecked can lead to severe impacts on physical and psychological health. chronic symptoms of food addiction can lead to fatal consequences much like with addictive substances.
If you or your loved one had been struggling with a food addiction, you may understand the implications this may have on the various aspects of your life. If food addiction is left ignored or untreated, it can rapidly begin consuming your life, creating damaging and chronic symptoms. Understanding how this may affect the different aspects of your life may encourage you to get the help you need and deserve. The following are some of the effects of an addiction to food:
Physical effects of food addiction
The physical effects of food addiction depend on the types of food a person is addicted too. Being addicted to unhealthy foods that are high in salts, fats, and sugars can lead to more severe physical health complications than being addicted to healthy foods. Though, as the former typically creates the dopamine hit, they tend to be the types of food a person becomes addicted to. These are some of the physical effects of food addiction:
Sleep disorders (insomnia, etc)
Psychological effects of food addiction
Food addiction can lead to debilitating mental health issues, especially if left untreated. Some of the psychological impacts food addiction can have include:
Isolation from loved ones
Signs and symptoms of food addiction
Yale University developed the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS); the only tool currently developed to measure signs and symptoms of food addiction. The YFAS uses criteria for substance addiction as outlined in the DSM-IV to create a measurable set of questions to identify the prevalence of food addiction. As food addiction has little literature to support symptoms of diagnosis, the Yale Food Addiction Scale stands as the most reliable tool for measuring symptoms of food addiction.
The questionnaire developed as part of the TFAS looks at multiple areas of a person's life that may be impacted by prevalent food addiction including the impact on behavior, personal life, emotional state, and withdrawal symptoms.
Behavioral signs of food addiction
You end up eating more than you intended to
Eating even when you're not hungry anymore
Making yourself ill from eating
Going out of your way to obtain certain foods, even when alternatives are available.
Personal life signs of food addiction
Time eating food starts to occupy time that you would/should be spending working, with family, with friends, or doing activities.
You avoid situations where certain food will be available for fear of overeating in front of others
Your need to eat certain food causes you to be incapable of functioning without them.
Withdrawal symptoms for food addiction
Cutting out certain foods from your diet causes increased anxiety and agitation
You have intense cravings for certain foods after a short period without them
You develop physical symptoms of withdrawal from food such as shakes and flu-like symptoms
Emotional signs of food withdrawal
Eating certain foods causes shame/guilt, depression, and self-loathing
You need to consume more food to negate negative emotions
Eating previously pleasurable foods no longer has an emotional impact
Preventing food addiction
Food addiction can be difficult to prevent as it is impossible to avoid food and avoiding those high in salts, fats, sugars, and other ingredients that affect brain chemistry can be equally hard. It may also be difficult to spot as the symptoms of food addiction may not be as immediately apparent as they are with substance use disorders as the negative consequences of the latter tend to be more severe.
However, there are some methods that can help prevent food addiction:
Eating a varied and balanced diet made up of healthy foods that aren't overly rich in salts, fats, and sugars (though some of these food types are necessary for a balanced diet).
Eating palatable foods in moderation. If you have the willpower to only eat unhealthy foods rarely as part of a fulfilled diet then dependency on them is less likely to form.
If you struggle with cravings for highly palatable foods then it is important to distance yourself from the temptation. Avoid going to food vendors that sell your favorite foods or those you find difficult to resist.
Avoid becoming hungry and therefore more likely to succumb to cravings. Eating healthier foods little and often can help reduce the possibility of cravings occurring.
Avoid stress. Stress not only leads to indulging in cravings to relieve it, but it can also cause increased levels of cortisol; a hormone that can lead to weight gain.
Overcoming food addiction
Overcoming food addiction requires many of the same treatment models used to treat substance use disorders and other behavioral addictions. These often include counseling, therapy, and other dedicated treatment programs.
However, there are techniques that can be employed alongside these treatment models or can be attempted without treatment to successfully overcome food addiction.
Wanting change - Before any successful recovery from food addiction can start; there needs to be a dedicated want to change your behavior. Only through willingness and determination can you begin to undo harmful behavior.
Detoxing - As with addictive drugs, certain foods can change the way your brain works, and removing them from your diet altogether is the only way to start undoing the damage they've done. This is done through detoxing whereby you don't consume addictive foods until your brain can begin to rebalance its pleasurable chemical input.
Get to know your triggers - knowing what triggers you to indulge in bad foods can help you manage them and foresee scenarios where they may affect you.
Create a meal plan - Knowing exactly what you are eating and when can help build a structured approach to food intake.
Constantly review your goals - It can become easy to get too comfortable while overcoming food addiction and lose sight of your goals. By constantly reviewing what you have set out to achieve you can keep your goals of removing damaging foods from your diet.
Get other people on board - Having your friends, partner, and family onboard with your recovery can greatly help with support and motivation as well as help you to avoid situations where eating addictive food may be encouraged.
Food addiction treatment
While scientific study is still working to fully understand food addiction, it is widely agreed that it affects the brain much in the same way as drug abuse, and most of the treatments developed for drug and alcohol use disorders can also work for food addiction.
Some proven methods of treating food addiction include:
12 step programs
A recommended method for managing food addiction is to participate in a 12-step program or support group. Individuals participating in a 12-step program for food addiction attend meetings with others who share the same struggle. Over time, they obtain a sponsor who assists them in creating a dietary plan.
Research has shown that social support can have a positive impact on individuals coping with food addiction. Connecting with individuals who have had similar experiences and are willing to provide assistance can aid in the recovery process.
Overeaters Anonymous (OA) is the most popular option, and the largest with regular meetings across the world.
Greysheeters Anonymous (GSA) provides a meal plan that includes weighing and measuring three meals per day and offers phone and Skype meetings. Although not as widely known as OA, it is a similar program.
The purpose of these groups is to offer a space that is accepting and free of judgment. Furthermore, 12-step programs are widely accessible and offered at no cost.
Behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have demonstrated effectiveness in treating eating disorders, including binge eating disorder and bulimia, according to psychological research. The symptoms of these conditions are similar to those of food addiction and many therapists practicing CBT should be able to help with this condition.
When seeking the services of a psychologist or therapist, it is recommended to inquire about their expertise in addressing food addiction and other related eating disorders.
Rehab for food addiction
While rehab centers dedicated to treating food addiction are not common, many treatment centers are equipped to handle a range of eating disorders including food addiction.
Food addiction treatment in an inpatient or outpatient setting will often include a combination of monitored detox, behavioral therapy such as dialectical behavioral therapy, medically assisted treatment, and holistic approaches to addiction treatment such as physical activity and meditation.
If you or someone you care about is suffering from food addiction, visit our rehab directory to find food addiction treatment near you.