What It Is

Food addiction manifests as a compulsive need to eat, even when an individual is not physically hungry. Complex and multi-faceted in nature, food addiction may be present in individuals who also struggle with related eating disorders such an anorexia or bulimia. While it’s not uncommon for someone to overindulge from time to time, a food addict typically struggles with binge eating on a day-to-day basis and may have a difficult time controlling behavior, despite the desire to stop. Food, like drugs or alcohol, can trigger the release of dopamine—the brain’s pleasure chemical—which, in the addicted brain, creates a positive link between food and emotional wellbeing. Food, then, is used as a drug to recreate feelings of pleasure, even when the body does not need caloric sustenance.

Symptoms and Signs

A food addiction is not always easy to identify. Food addicts often display symptoms of other conditions like depression, binge eating, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, common signs that a food addiction may be present include:

  • Consistent preoccupation with what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and how to get more food
  • Overeating at meal times or constant snacking throughout the day
  • 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 or eating to accompany pleasurable activities like watching TV or talking on the phone
  • Associating food with a punishment-reward mentality
  • Feeling shame and guilt after a binge or after consuming particular foods
  • Consistent failed attempts to control eating or eliminate bingeing episodes

While food addiction can often appear harmless or less serious than other addictions, it is a condition that tends to progress gradually. It can eventually result in lifelong obesity or health problems while also exacerbating potential underlying mental health issues.

Treatment Options

Food addiction is typically treated the same way other addictions are approached. It is a common belief in the medical community that the addicted brain responds in the exact same way, regardless of what the person is addicted to. Therefore, changing behavior while also managing the physiological effects of cravings are key elements in treating food addiction. The following treatment options may be helpful:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Since food addicts must learn to manage their triggers for eating, this type of treatment helps them identify appropriate behavioral responses for day-to-day challenges.

Psychotherapy

Often times, a food addict is using food to numb painful feelings or avoid dealing with complex emotional issues. Psychotherapy may help get to the root cause of overeating and thereby help eliminate the negative feelings the addict is attempting to neutralize with the pleasure of food.

Nutritional Therapies

In many cases, food addiction is present in individuals who have severe nutritional deficiencies or chemical imbalances in the body. Cravings can often be managed—and even eliminated entirely—with a personalized nutrition plan that will address the addict’s particular needs.

12-Step Programs

Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA) and Overeaters Anonymous (OA) are 12-step programs that are based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model of recovery. These groups can often help food addicts manage their addictions in a supportive and encouraging environment.

Medication

For some, a food addiction can result from, or in conjunction with, another mental health disorder. In these cases, it may be necessary to treat the individual with medication in order to promote overall mental and emotional stability and eliminate the root cause of cravings.

Expectations

Food addiction is often accompanied by significant shame, guilt and, most often, a poor body image. A food addict must learn to develop eating habits that are in tune with the body’s natural cravings, and habits that aren’t in response to emotional needs or stress. Unlike an alcoholic, a food addict cannot simply eliminate his or her “drug” of choice, but instead must develop a healthy relationship with it 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.

Resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with a food addiction, the following resources may be helpful for finding more information and learning about treatment options:

  • Food Addicts Anonymous
  • Overeaters Anonymous
  • National Eating Disorders Association
  • Binge Eating Disorder Association
  • International Association of Eating Disorders