What is Food Addiction? Causes, Symptoms & Effects

Last Updated: September 25, 2023

Food is necessary to survive, and we must consume it every day for optimal health. However, certain types of food can trigger the release of pleasure chemicals in the brain, just like drugs and other substances. When a person craves and overeats food for those feel-good chemicals rather than to satisfy hunger, it can become a food addiction.

What Is Food Addiction?

Food addiction involves impaired control over how much, how often or what types of foods you eat. A person struggling with food addiction overeats certain foods because they activate the reward center of the brain. Over time, a person can develop a tolerance to these foods and need to eat more to feel the same effects. Much like substance abuse, overeating leads to intense cravings and withdrawal, and it can negatively affect work, relationships and quality of life.

Food addiction has many similarities to other substance use disorders. Though it doesn’t have an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) yet, food addiction is a rising topic of interest in the medical community.

Food Addiction vs. Binge Eating

Food addiction and binge eating disorder (BED) are different conditions with overlapping symptoms. BED is defined as excessive and uncontrolled eating. With this disorder, people feel a loss of control and overeat despite the negative consequences. BED is often caused by a combination of emotional, social, environmental and biological factors.

Food addiction can look similar to BED and may include binges. However, food addiction is caused by a dependency on the brain chemicals that are released when a person eats a certain type of food. Food addiction is similar to a substance dependency, but it shares many of the same symptoms as BED.

Is Food Addiction Real?

Food addiction is gaining interest in the medical community, but it is not currently considered a formal diagnosis. Some professionals believe that it is not a disorder because the ingredients in food aren’t inherently addictive like drugs or alcohol. On the other hand, many believe that certain foods trigger reward chemicals in the brain, which mirrors the patterns of substance abuse. Researchers at Yale University developed the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) in 2009 based on diagnostic substance abuse criteria from the DSM, and it is widely accepted as a way to formally assess food addiction.

Gambling is another example of a behavior that triggers the same addictive reward pattern in the brain but is not inherently “addictive.” Gambling disorder was added to the DSM-5 as an official diagnosis, so many believe that food addiction is likely to be added in the future.

What Causes Food Addiction?

Some foods trigger the release of the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. A person may eat food to experience these feelings of pleasure. However, the brain adjusts and develops a tolerance over time, so the person must eat more of the food to get the same feeling.

Just like with other substances, the brain chemicals override other signals, such as fullness. Even though a person may experience the negative consequences of overeating, such as weight gain or feelings of shame, they crave the feeling of pleasure and are unable to stop eating the food.

Foods That Trigger a Food Addiction

Certain foods are more likely than others to trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin and lead to a food addiction. Highly palatable foods, such as those with excess sugar, fat and salt, tend to be the most triggering. Processed foods typically contain a palatable ratio of carbs and fats, with the most common ones being:

  • Chips
  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate
  • Candy
  • Pizza
  • Cookies
  • Pasta or white bread
  • Cheeseburgers

Though these are common triggers, any food can be a trigger if it activates the reward center of the brain.

Can You Be Addicted To Healthy Food?

Any food that provides comfort and releases feel-good chemicals can become addictive. For some, nutritious foods may provide this feeling. A food addiction to a healthy food is not the same as orthorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which a person is obsessed with eating clean, healthy foods. Someone with orthorexia is hyper-focused on the quality of food, while a person with food addiction is unable to stop eating a certain food due to the pleasure it provides. A person with a food addiction to a healthy food will have difficulty controlling how much of it they eat.

Symptoms of Food Addiction

Like any addiction, there are several signs that can indicate a food addiction. Some might be obvious to others, while others may not be as noticeable. Signs of a possible food addiction include:

  • Eating past the point of fullness until you feel sick
  • Craving food even if you are not hungry
  • Craving specific foods, such as high-carb, high-sugar or high-fat foods
  • Sneaking or hiding food from others
  • Spending a lot of time trying to reduce food intake or recovering from overeating
  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to reduce the amount of food consumed
  • Continued overeating despite negative consequences

Effects of Food Addiction

There are many physical and mental health impacts of food addiction. Food addiction often results in overconsuming high-calorie, sugary and fatty foods. Physically, the risks of overeating unhealthy foods include weight gain and obesity, digestive issues, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, reduced insulin sensitivity and type 2 diabetes.

Overeating and being preoccupied with obsessive thoughts about food can also cause headaches, fatigue, sluggishness, irritability and trouble sleeping.

Any type of addiction can be socially isolating and cause depression and anxiety. A person struggling with food addiction may also experience feelings of low self-esteem, guilt and shame. Feeling helpless and ultimately having thoughts of suicide are serious risks with any addiction.

Food addiction can be devastating to a person’s quality of life. It can impact performance at work, strain relationships and make someone feel like they have no control in life. Treatment is often necessary to help a person recover from food addiction and restore their physical and mental health.

Food Addiction Treatment and Recovery

Food addiction is a serious disorder that can have devastating impacts on a person’s physical and mental health and overall quality of life. Fortunately, there are a variety of treatment options available, including therapy, medications and 12-step programs. Because food addiction isn’t an officially recognized diagnosis, research is still limited on the recovery rates from food addiction.

Food Addiction Therapy

Therapy is commonly used to treat addictions of all types. Depending on the type and severity of the addiction, therapy may be combined with medication or other treatment approaches. The most popular type of therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, a therapist will help a person learn different coping strategies for negative emotions and practice new approaches to handle triggering situations.

Interpersonal psychotherapy teaches a person communication skills to improve relationships, which can sometimes help reduce addictive behaviors. Unlike other substances, food is not something we can simply abstain from, so nutritional therapy is important to help a person in recovery develop healthy eating habits.

Medications for Food Addiction

There are certain medications that target brain chemicals involved in food addiction and other forms of dysregulated eating. Lorcaserin is one potential medication, and it is currently used to treat people with drug dependence, obsessive-compulsive disorder or gambling disorder. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often effective in treating binge eating disorder and may be prescribed for food addiction. Antidepressants may also help balance brain chemicals and reduce dependence on foods.

Food Addiction 12-Step Programs

Most 12-step programs for food addiction involve attending meetings with others who are recovering from food addiction, as well as progressing through a series of twelve recovery steps. In a 12-step program, a person is also assigned a sponsor to provide one-on-one support. Some 12-step programs available include:

  1. Food Addicts Anonymous
  2. Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

Food Addiction Support Groups

Support groups provide an opportunity for people in recovery to connect and learn from others going through the same thing. Support groups are an ideal place to learn tips and strategies for coping during the recovery process while getting social support from peers. Support groups for food addiction include:

  1. GreySheeters Anonymous
  2. Overeaters Anonymous
  3. SMART Recovery

Food Addiction and Substance Abuse

Food addiction can be an underlying or co-occurring disorder that accompanies drug or alcohol addiction. A person may start out using food to trigger reward chemicals, but once a tolerance develops, they may look for other substances to produce the same feeling.

Addiction treatment involves developing a customized, integrated plan that helps unravel the complexities of each addiction and how multiple addictions may interact. Treatment options include psychotherapy, detox, medication, nutritional support, 12-step programs and more. Follow-up treatment helps keep you on track for the long haul.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with a food addiction and co-occurring substance use disorder, Orlando Recovery Center can help. Contact us today to begin the admissions process or learn more about treatment programs that can work well for your situation.

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