Just as a person can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, they can become addicted to food. A food addict experiences a compulsive need to eat, even when they’re not hungry.
People with other eating disorders, such an anorexia or bulimia, can also have food addiction. While many people overindulge from time to time, a food addict typically struggles with binge eating on a daily basis. This isn’t the same as eating too much at a holiday meal or having too many cookies. Food addicts may have a hard time controlling their eating, despite the desire to stop.
This addiction is complex. Food, like drugs and alcohol, can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. This chemical is related to pleasure. It creates a positive link between food and emotional well-being. The addicted brain sees food as a drug. To a food addict, food produces feelings of pleasure, even when the body doesn’t need the calories. A 2010 study published in Current Opinion in Gastroenterology shows increasing evidence that food addiction is a result of changes in a person’s neurochemistry and neuroanatomy.
Another study published in 2010 showed that when lab rats were given free access to high-fat, high-sugar foods, their brains changed. The changes in their behavior and physiology were similar to those caused by drug abuse. The study authors cautioned against drawing a parallel between drug and food addictions, but their work does assert that there are similarities. It also highlights the possibility that eating lots of unhealthy foods could increase your chances of becoming addicted to eating.
Addiction isn’t always easy to identify. This is especially true for food addiction because we all need to eat.
Food addicts can have symptoms of other conditions, including depression, binge eating, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They will hide their problem by eating in private and even hiding food.
Common signs of food addiction include:
- constant obsession with what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and how to get more food
- overeating at mealtime
- constant snacking
- eating at strange times like in the middle of the night
- hiding eating habits from friends and family or eating in secret
- bingeing and then purging, exercising, or taking laxative pills to “reverse” the binge
- eating even when full
- eating to accompany pleasurable activities like watching TV or talking on the phone
- associating food with punishments or rewards
- feeling shame and guilt after a binge or after consuming particular foods
- consistent failed attempts to control eating or eliminate bingeing episodes
Food addiction can often appear less serious than other addictions. However, it’s a condition that tends to progress gradually. It can result in lifelong obesity or health problems and worsen existing mental health issues.
Food addiction is typically treated in the same ways as other addictions. It’s a common belief in the medical community that addicted brains work in exactly the same way, regardless of what the person is addicted to.
Changing behaviors and managing physical cravings are key elements in treating food addiction. The following treatment options may be helpful.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Food addicts must learn to manage their triggers for eating. CBT focuses on helping them identify appropriate behavioral responses for day-to-day challenges. It teaches the food addict how to handle the negative thought patterns that can lead to bingeing.
A food addict may use food to numb painful feelings or avoid dealing with other emotional issues. Psychotherapy may help get to the root cause of overeating. It can teach a person how to deal with emotions in a positive way, rather than by eating.
Food addicts also often experience shame, guilt, and poor body image. Talk therapy can help a food addict work through their emotional issues.
In many cases, people with severe nutritional deficiencies or chemical imbalances in the body have a food addiction. A personalized nutrition plan can help manage or eliminate cravings. Addressing nutritional needs with the help of a medical doctor or nutritionist can enable an addict to pinpoint the foods that will satisfy their food cravings.
Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA) and Overeaters Anonymous (OA) are 12-step programs that take inspiration from the Alcoholics Anonymous model of recovery. These groups can help food addicts manage their addictions in a supportive and encouraging environment. Being part of a group of people with a similar problem allows a food addict to develop positive friendships in a safe, nurturing environment.
For some, a food addiction can have a connection to another mental health disorder. In these cases, it may be necessary to treat the individual with medication to promote overall stability. Drugs like antidepressants may help address the root cause of cravings.
Food addiction can have many negative consequences. Without treatment, someone addicted to food can struggle with obesity. Poor nutrition and obesity can lead to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and more. Digestive problems, such as severe constipation, are very common in food addicts.
Vomiting food after bingeing can damage the esophagus and cause dehydration, tooth decay, and heart failure.
People with a food addiction may push their loved ones away. Untreated, this problem can damage relationships and worsen mental health disorders. Depending on the severity of the addiction, it can also have financial effects, as the addict would rather spend money on food than other necessities.
A food addict must learn to develop eating habits that are in tune with their body’s natural cravings. They must also learn to eat when they’re hungry, not in response to emotional needs or stress. A food addict can’t simply eliminate food; it’s a basic need. Instead, food addicts must develop a healthy relationship with food over time.
It’s often helpful for a food addict to have access to a variety of activities and resources that promote healthy living, such as a fitness center, nutrition classes, or stress-reduction techniques.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a food addiction, your doctor can help. You can also go online to look up resources, find more information, and learn about treatment options. Many of these resources are free.