Generally, this drive for deeper understanding has been helpful, especially when it comes to shedding light on addiction to drugs, alcohol, and other dangerous substances. But in at least one case, the penchant to describe things in the framework of addiction may be causing more harm than good.
Food does not have the same physiologically addictive properties as drugs and alcohol, so the term “food addiction” is misleading.
Food addiction is a phrase that has gained popularity in recent years. But the term is deceptive, the concept is dubious, and the widespread misunderstanding brought on by the idea can lead to potentially destructive results.
What Is “Food Addiction”?
Food addiction is a product of diet culture and healthism, which is very damaging.
Generally, the idea proposes that certain foods—particularly those high in fat, sugar, and/or salt, also sometimes called “trigger foods”—have the potential to set off a disproportionate response from the brain’s reward center. The concept follows that, in seeking this reward response, someone could eventually learn to crave these highly palatable foods until a permanent change occurs in their brain reward circuits, much in the way that addiction to drugs or alcohol forms.
One small study conducted in 2015 has sometimes been used to uphold this idea. It found that a simulated food craving led to greater activation in the reward-processing center of participants considered obese compared to those considered to be at a healthy weight. 
But aside from coming from a small sample size, these findings examine only a small aspect of the issue, missing out on broader attitudes around food intake that could also account for some of these behaviors.
The Truth About Food Addictions
In fact, the concept of “food addiction” is still relatively new. There is little clinical research on the topic, including examinations into long-term changes to the brain’s reward center, which is often considered the hallmark of addiction.
And while many in the scientific community want to continue building on the idea, others warn that using the framework of addiction to describe compulsive eating or binge eating disorder could incorrectly conflate the two conditions and cause researchers to overlook other driving factors of disordered eating behaviors.
Food vs. Drugs & Alcohol
One of the most steadfast arguments for food addiction is the chemical response specific foods kick off in the brain.
It’s true that highly palatable food can send feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin coursing through the blood. But characterizing this biological response to sustenance as potentially addicting is misleading.
Food is a necessity—unlike drugs or alcohol.
Unlike the alcohol and drugs many researchers use as parallel examples, food is something that is necessary for the body to survive. Indeed, the need for humans to feed themselves is likely behind the development of some of these neurological reward responses.
Someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol can remove these substances from their lives entirely, but it is impossible for anyone to ever stop eating food. And cutting out “unhealthy foods,” such as those commonly connected to food cravings, can actually serve to worsen the problem.
Addiction vs. Restriction
Frequently overlooked in the conversation about food addiction is the role diet and culture often play in someone’s eating behaviors.
Many studies conducted on BED, BN, and binge eating have found that a disproportionate number of participants regularly engage in dieting. One study found 38% of participants had partaken in a formal diet within the last year, while another reported up to 65% of respondents regularly engaged in diets before experiencing binging behaviors. [2,3]
Binge eating and overeating is often a result of over-restricting foods in the first place.
Both of these studies went on to find that more frequent dieting correlated to more frequent or more severe binge eating behaviors. And they’re not alone. The connection between greater restriction of food consumption and a greater propensity to binge or overeat has been found repeatedly in clinical studies over the years.
Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement
Framing overeating as an addiction also pushes a forced perspective on researchers, which may lead to further blind spots or misunderstandings.
Addiction is generally examined from the viewpoint of positive reinforcement: the potential pleasures derived from certain substances or foods. These studies look at what kinds of feelings, and biological reactions occur when these substances are introduced to someone’s life.
But this viewpoint misses the concept of negative reinforcement or the stress that may be caused by limiting or restricting certain foods or substances. And research shows that this can have an equally powerful impact on driving behavior.
Several studies have suggested that it’s the brain’s stress response to not receiving palatable foods—rather than its reward response for receiving palatable foods—that may lead to overeating. [4,5] This effect can be compounded by frequent dieting or the additional stress people often put on themselves to stay away from “bad foods.”
The Dangers of Food Addiction Myths
The desire to further study compulsive overeating or binging episodes may be well-intentioned, but describing this disordered eating behavior as food addiction can have harmful consequences.
As food addiction is such a new concept, there can be confusion around what the term even means. It has not yet been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which officially defines all recognized mental health conditions.
In the absence of an official pathologization, many in the scientific community have looked to substance use disorder as a guide for understanding food addiction. And while the comparison often stems from a biological viewpoint, it can be extremely problematic from a cultural perspective.
The term “addiction” implies that something is wrong, and the thing we’re addicted to should be cut out. The concept of “food addiction” doesn’t make sense.
Drug addiction involves the body craving substances it doesn’t need. The same can not be said about food. But calling someone a food addict implies that they are doing something wrong, just by doing something their body needs to survive.
And while some eating habits are certainly more healthy than others, people will never be able to live without food, so they must learn to adjust their behaviors around the idea of food as a constant. Cutting food out altogether—as is often recommended for someone struggling with substance abuse—is simply not an option.
The Moralization of Food
Lumping in eating with other addictive behaviors not only presents food in a harmful light, it implies that there are “bad” foods people should stay away from — which, in turn, implies that there must also be “good” foods.
This idea echoes the powerful false dichotomy at the heart of diet culture, which teaches that there is only one “appropriate” body shape, and one can only be considered healthy by achieving it.
When foods are considered “good” or “bad,” it’s a short logical step to think of people who eat “good” foods as good and those who eat too many “bad” foods as bad. This further bolsters the other major tenet of diet culture: that one’s self-worth should be, and is, tied directly to their body shape and weight.
These kinds of black-and-white concepts are not only misguided but can be exceptionally harmful, contributing to widespread negative effects on eating behaviors, body image, and people’s relationship with food and eating.
Risk of Promoting Disordered Eating
The concept of an eating addiction is new, and there are no formal studies examining how the rise of this phenomenon, or related concepts like Food Addicts Anonymous or the Yale Food Addiction Scale, may contribute to the development of disordered eating behaviors.
Still, the types of thinking patterns encouraged by the idea are often at the heart of many unhealthy eating behaviors.
Internalizing the idea of “food addiction” could lead someone to believe that their way of eating is wrong. The implicit reinforcement of diet culture biases embedded in the idea of food addiction could also contribute to lower self-esteem. And even the idea that certain foods are addicting and should be outright forbidden can bring someone to obsess over these foods.
Finding Help for Disordered Eating Behaviors
While eating addiction may be a dubious claim, compulsive eating, binge eating, and other related behaviors can still be dangerous. If you or a loved one are experiencing these types of thoughts or behaviors, it’s important to seek help.
A physician, therapist, or other trusted medical professionals can be a great place to start. These experts are usually informed on different types of eating disorders and can help point you in the right direction or determine the best next steps.
A number of eating disorder hotlines can also help offer additional information and resources while allowing you to remain anonymous.
But regardless of who you turn to, the most important step is looking for help. Disordered eating can cause physical and emotional distress, but there are ways to help alleviate these thoughts and behaviors and take steps toward a healthier and happier future.
- Food may be addictive: Food craving may be ‘hard-wired’ in the brain. (2015, August 31). Science Direct. Accessed March 2023.
- Andrés, A., & Saldaña, C. (2014). Body dissatisfaction and dietary restraint influence binge eating behavior. Nutrition Research; 34(11):944–950.
- Grilo, C. M., & Masheb, R. M. (2000). Onset of dieting vs binge eating in outpatients with binge eating disorder. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders; 24(4):404–409.
- Restricting Sugary Food May Lead to Overeating. (2009). National Institutes of Health. Accessed March 2023.
- Assessing the Science Behind Methodologies Being Used to Characterize Food as Addictive. (2015). National Library of Medicine. Accessed March 2023.