Food Addiction

Written by Mara Tyler | Published on July 7, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 7, 2014

What Is Food Addiction?

Food addiction is a real addiction, just like those related to drugs and alcohol. It most often shows up as a compulsive need to eat. This can occur even when you are not physically hungry.

Food addiction may be present in people who also struggle with other eating disorders such an anorexia or bulimia. While many people overindulge from time to time, a food addict typically struggles with binge eating on a day-to-day 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.

What Are the Causes of Food Addiction?

This addiction is complex. Food, like drugs or 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 wellbeing. In the addicted brain, food is seen as a drug. It is used to re-create feelings of pleasure, even when the body does not need the calories. Research, such as a 2010 study published in Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, show increasing evidence that food addiction is a result of changes in person’s neurochemistry and neuroanatomy.

A 2010 study 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 the changes caused by drug abuse. The study authors cautioned against drawing a parallel between drug and food addictions, but their work does point to the fact that there are definitely similarities. It also highlights the possibility that eating lots of bad-for-you foods could heighten your chances of becoming addicted to eating.

What Are the Symptoms of Food Addiction?

Addiction is not always easy to identify. This is especially true for food addiction because we all need to eat.

But, food addicts can have symptoms of other conditions like depression, binge eating, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like other addicts, they will hide their problem, 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 mealtimes
  • constant snacking
  • eating at strange times like 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

While food addiction can often appear harmless or less serious than other addictions, it is not. It is a condition that tends to progress gradually. It can eventually result in lifelong obesity or health problems while also making mental health issues worse.

What Are Potential Complications of Food Addiction?

Food addiction can have many negative consequences. Without treatment, someone addicted to food can struggle with obesity. This and poor nutrition can lead to increased risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and more. Digestive problems, like severe constipation, are very common in food addicts.

If the addict is bulimic or vomits food after binging, it can damage the esophagus and cause dehydration, tooth decay, and heart failure.

People with a food addiction may push their loved ones away in order to coddle their addiction. This means that the complications can be far more than physical. 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.

What Are Treatments for Food Addiction?

Food addiction is typically treated in the same ways as other addictions. It is a common belief in the medical community that an addicted brain works in the exact same way, regardless of what the person is addicted to.

Changing behaviors while also managing the 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 negative thought patterns that can lead to bingeing.

Psychotherapy

Oftentimes, a food addict is using food to numb painful feelings or avoid dealing with other complex emotional issues. Therapy may help get to the root cause of overeating and help deal with emotions in a positive way, rather than by eating.

Food addicts also often suffer from shame, guilt and, poor body image. Talk therapy can help a food addict work through these, and other, emotional issues.

Nutritional Therapies

In many cases, food addiction is present in people with severe nutritional deficiencies or chemical imbalances in the body. Cravings can often be managed or even eliminated with a personalized nutrition plan. By addressing the areas of nutritional need with the help of a medical doctor or nutritionist, an addict can pinpoint the foods that will quell his or her insatiable need for food.

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. By being part of a group of people with a similar problem, a food addict can develop positive friendships where his or her problem is not seen as strange.

Medication

For some, a food addiction can result from, or develop 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 stability. Drugs like antidepressants may help address the root cause of cravings.

What Is the Outlook for Food Addiction?

A food addict must learn to develop eating habits that are in tune with the body’s natural cravings. They must also learn to eat according to hunger and not in response to emotional needs or stress. Unlike an alcoholic, a food addict cannot simply eliminate his or her “drug” of choice; food is 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.

What Are Resources for Food Addiction?

If you or someone you know is struggling with a food addiction, your doctor can help. Also, the following resources may be helpful for finding more information and learning about treatment options. Many of these resources are free:

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