What Is Food Addiction?

Along with water and shelter, food is necessary for our survival. It is only when someone is consumed by eating and thoughts of eating (particularly foods high in carbohydrates, fats, or sugars) that they may have a food addiction. Like any other addiction, behavioral or substance-based, a food addiction is defined as the inability to cease the behavior despite the circumstances or consequences (i.e., not being hungry, the person’s overall health, etc.).

While not officially diagnosable in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), the medical legitimacy of food addiction continues to gain support from industry professionals. Food addiction and whether it should or shouldn’t be added to the list of classifiable mental conditions is a bit tricky. On the one hand, food and nutrients are necessary for survival and if one is unable to control their intake, they may be considered to have a behavioral addiction. On the other, however, there are certain foods, those considered “highly palatable” and contain high levels of macronutrients (like sodium) that exhibit addictive properties commonly associated with substances.

Naturally, this dichotomy situates food addiction in a strange place, despite its prevalence in the global population. According to research utilizing the Yale Food Addiction Severity Scale (YFAS), a measure created to mimic the DSM-5 criteria for substance abuse, roughly 20% of the global population qualifies as having a food addiction.

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Are There Specific Foods That Are Linked To Addiction?

While there is not necessarily one specific food or food group that is inherently linked to addiction, those sugary, calorie-dense, easy-to-grab treats tend to top the list of addictive foods. Research has shown, both in humans and other mammals, that certain foods may activate the same pleasure receptors in the brain usually stimulated by Cocaine, Heroin, and other addictive substances. Thus, in many ways, it is much like chasing a high; the food that triggers the dopamine (perhaps the most well-known “feel good chemical”) becomes the only food that is enticing, even though it lacks the necessary nutrients to keep us satiated and nourished.

Since the human body operates as a highly regulated and reward-driven system, the satisfaction of consuming highly processed, unhealthy-but-tasty foods can override the signals telling us that we are full. Studies have shown that more than half of the total calories the average American eats are empty, coming from processed foods with exorbitant amounts of sugar, oil, fats, etc. because “they are cheap and convenient, and engineered to taste good,” according to the New York Times. This, in turn, makes us want to eat more, even if we’re not actually hungry, just to achieve and maintain that dopamine rush.

Despite the controversy, food researchers have been exploring the way the mind and body respond to certain foods like pizza, chocolate, potato chips, burgers, and other common American “staples.” Much like drugs that are increasingly engineered to elicit a specific effect, the ingredients found in these highly processed foods are modified to enhance “their ability to light up regions of the brain that regulate reward, emotion and motivation,” writes Anahad O’Connor of the New York Times. In short, the junk food we regularly consume contains significantly higher levels of both fats and refined carbohydrates than natural, whole foods such as fruits and veggies, meat, seeds, and beans.

Is There A Connection Between Food Addiction And Obesity?

Yet again, there are arguments on both sides of the debate as to whether food addiction is a contributor to the global obesity epidemic. Those who say certain foods contain addictive properties, like Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, believe there is a strong correlation between increasing rates of obesity and food addiction. She writes, “Our brains are designed to to find high-calorie foods rewarding to ensure we survive the periods of famine …While our brains are still in the Stone Age, the food industry has become skilled in jacking up carbohydrates and fats to unheard of levels and combine them with scores of additives to create unnaturally rewarding foods.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum are individuals like Johannes Hebebrand, MD, PhD, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. Dr. Hebebrand posits, “Most people with obesity would definitely not view themselves as food addicts … There is no clear-cut evidence for one or more substances in food that elicit(s) a reward comparable to that achieved upon legal or illegal drug use.”

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Signs Of Food Addiction

Since food addiction is not yet technically considered a medical condition (unlike eating disorders), the telltale signs might be a bit more nuanced. Someone struggling with a food addiction might exhibit the following symptoms:

  1. Frequent cravings for specific foods, even if they have just eaten or are not actually hungry.
  2. The inability to stop eating the sought-after food or consuming more than intended.
  3. Regularly eating to the point of being uncomfortably full.
  4. Feeling guilty after eating certain foods, but continuing to do so again and again.
  5. Occasionally excusing their behavior, justifying the practice of giving into cravings.
  6. Unsuccessful, repeated attempts to cease eating certain foods, or otherwise creating rules and regulations on if/when such foods are allowed, such as cheat days.
  7. Secretive behavior surrounding eating habits or concealing/lying about their unhealthy food consumption.
  8. Feeling helpless or unable to control/quit eating junk food, despite consequences such as weight gain or changes in overall physical health.

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Treatment For Food Addiction

Treating a food addiction can be potentially complicated considering food is necessary for survival. For those with addictions to substances like alcohol or other drugs, abstaining from said substance, while certainly difficult, is still possible. Treatment will largely depend on the severity of the addiction, ranging from varying types of therapy and medications prescribed to treat other underlying conditions, to visiting a nutritionist or dietician who can help change your eating habits. There are also numerous support groups specifically for those addicted to food. Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA), Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA), and Overeaters Anonymous (OA) are just a few.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a food addiction, get help today. To learn more about your online therapy options (from the comfort of your own home), click here. It’s never too late to take your life back.

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Hannah Zwemer

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  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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