What Is Food Addiction?
Food addiction is a somewhat controversial and understudied phenomenon, in which a person exhibits impulsive-type behaviors around certain foods or food in general.
While it has yet to be entered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), or the official record of all recognized mental health disorders, food addiction is broadly defined as the consumption of food in quantities beyond the homeostatic energy requirements, or, eating much more food than is necessary for the body in a given sitting.1
The behaviors involved in food addictions are similar to those associated with established, more well-studied addictions. That may be because food addiction functions similarly to substance use disorders, on a neurological level.
Generally, the condition is set off by highly palatable foods—those high in fat, sugar, or salt. These “trigger foods” set off a dysfunctional chain reaction in the brain’s reward center, which leads to food cravings and rapid food consumption. These episodes may involve the loss of a sense of control.
Signs of Food Addiction
Research into food addiction is ongoing. As experts continue to explore the condition, they may uncover new or additional signs of potential food addiction. However, at the time, there are some generally agreed-upon behaviors or feelings that may indicate an addiction to food, including:2
- Loss of control while eating
- Thinking about food to a point where it becomes disruptive to your day
- Feeling sluggish or fatigued
- Difficulty stopping eating, even when feeling sick or aware of the consequences of over-eating
It is also possible for someone struggling with food addiction to experience withdrawal symptoms if they go without these palatable foods. This may include:
- Mood swings
- Anxiety or depression
- Sweating or shaking
- A ‘hangover’ type of feeling
Still, the signs of food addiction remain somewhat vague at this time, and in many ways, parallel both substance use disorders and various other eating disorders, including binge eating disorder and non-purging type bulimia nervosa.
Diagnosing Food Addiction
As food addiction remains somewhat undefined, scientists have created a diagnostic tool, called the Yale Food Addiction Scale, to help gauge cases of food addiction.
The scale consists of a number of questions about someone’s behaviors, which are meant to help assess whether someone is simply eating a lot due to stress or other reasons, or genuinely addicted to food.
Generally, the scale tests for a number of different behavioral symptoms.3
This describes the patient’s inability to stop themselves from eating certain foods, or the inability to stop eating once they’ve started. And research has been done to back this phenomenon.
In one study, it was found that participants who met the criteria for food addiction displayed high levels of activation in brain areas linked with craving and impulse when shown pictures of a milkshake. They also showed less brain activity in regions associated with self-control when asked to drink the shake.4
Closely tied to the concept of impaired control is impulsivity.
As one of the symptoms of food addiction, it generally describes the tendency to act without sufficient forethought. This type of trait could lead a food addict to not only engage in bouts of binge eating but to make poorer food-related choices overall.3
Food addiction primarily impacts the brain’s reward center. Sensitivity to certain highly palatable foods can kick off this reward system or send it into overdrive, which helps maintain the addiction.
Eventually, the brain can “learn” to expect this rush of feel-good chemicals when eating certain foods, which can lead to the creation of an unhealthy feedback loop of craving, indulging, consuming, regretting, and repeating, comparable to other behavioral addictions.5
Can Food Addiction Lead to Other Eating Disorders?
While no significant studies have been done to explore the link between eating addiction and other eating disorders, there’s a natural relationship between the conditions.
Food addiction is already closely associated with binge eating disorder. In fact, one older study noted that as many as 92.4% of adults with BED would likely qualify as meeting food addiction criteria today.5
92.4% of adults with binge eating disorder may have a food addiction.
Excessive consumption of palatable foods in many cases also leads to weight gain.
Many people in larger bodies have been found to struggle with issues like low self-esteem and poor body image, which frequently contribute to eating disorders.3 This combination of factors has the potential to trigger unhelpful attempts to control or lose weight, including through the use of disordered eating behaviors.
How to Get Help for Food Addiction
While there are currently no targeted treatments for food addicts, it is still possible to get help for thoughts and behaviors related to compulsive eating.
Speaking with a mental health expert is a great place to start. Many of these healthcare professionals specialize in eating disorders and other related conditions and may be better prepared to help someone deal with the mental and emotional aspects of eating addiction.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be especially useful for people struggling with eating disorders of all types, as well as those dealing with addiction. At its core, CBT works to help identify negative thought patterns that can lead to unhealthy behaviors. Then, a patient and therapist work together to instill healthier coping mechanisms for channeling those thoughts, and learning how to have those thoughts less often.
Support groups for food and eating addiction also exist, including Overeaters Anonymous. These meetings can be great places to form a community and meet and learn from others who are going through similar struggles.
But regardless of where you find help, the most important part is seeking it out. If you or a loved one are struggling with food addiction, you should speak with your doctor or therapist for the best next steps to find help, and get on the path toward recovery.
- Kalon, E., Hong, J.Y., Tobin, C., Schulte, T. (2016). Psychological and Neurobiological Correlates of Food Addiction. International Review of Neurobiology; 129:85-110.
- Meule A. (2011). How Prevalent is “Food Addiction?” Frontiers in psychiatry; 2(61).
- Adams, R. C., Sedgmond, J., Maizey, L., Chambers, C. D., & Lawrence, N. S. (2019). Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating. Nutrients; 11(9):2086.
- DeAngelis, T. (2011). Fighting Food Addiction. gradPsych Magazine. Retrieved December 2022.
- Kluger, J. (2019, November 6). Food Addictions Are Real Addictions—And More and More People Are Getting Hooked. TIME. Retrieved December 2022.