While food addiction is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it typically involves binge eating behaviors, cravings, and a lack of control around food (
While someone who gets a craving or overeats occasionally probably won’t fit the criteria for the disorder, there are at least 8 common symptoms.
Here are 8 common signs and symptoms of food addiction.
It’s not uncommon to get cravings, even after eating a fulfilling, nutritious meal.
For example, after eating a dinner with steak, potatoes, and veggies, some people may crave ice cream for dessert.
Cravings and hunger aren't the same thing.
A craving occurs when you experience an urge to eat something, despite having already eaten or being full.
This is pretty common and doesn't necessarily mean that someone has food addiction. Most people get cravings.
However, if cravings happen often and satisfying or ignoring them becomes hard, they may be an indicator of something else (
These cravings are not about a need for energy or nutrients — it’s the brain calling for something that releases dopamine, a chemical in the brain that plays a role in how humans feel pleasure (
Summary Cravings are very common. While a craving alone doesn’t indicate food addiction, if you often get cravings and ignoring or satisfying them is difficult, it may indicate a problem.
For some people, there is no such thing as a bite of chocolate or single piece of cake. One bite turns into 20, and one slice of cake turns into half a cake.
This all-or-nothing approach is common with addiction of any kind. There is no such thing as moderation — it simply does not work (
Telling someone with food addiction to eat junk food in moderation is almost like telling someone with alcoholism to drink beer in moderation. It's just not possible.
Summary When giving in to a craving, someone with food addiction might eat much more than intended.
When giving in to a craving, someone with food addiction may not stop eating until the urge is satisfied. They might then realize that they have eaten so much that their stomach feels completely stuffed.
Summary Eating until feeling excessively stuffed — either frequently or all the time — may be classified as binge eating.
Trying to exert control over the consumption of unhealthy foods and then giving in to a craving can lead to feelings of guilt.
A person may feel that they are doing something wrong or even cheating themselves.
Despite these unpleasant feelings, a person with food addiction will repeat the pattern.
Summary Feelings of guilt after a period of binge eating are common.
The brain can be a strange thing, especially in regards to addiction. Deciding to stay away from trigger foods can cause someone to create rules for themselves. Yet, these rules may be hard to follow.
When faced with a craving, someone with food addiction might find ways to reason around the rules and give in to the craving.
This line of thinking may resemble that of a person who is in the process of trying to quit smoking. That person might think that if they don’t buy a pack of cigarettes themselves, they’re not a smoker. Nonetheless, they might smoke cigarettes from a friend’s pack.
Summary Setting rules around eating patterns and then making excuses for why it’s okay to disregard them can be common with food addiction.
When people are struggling with self-control, they often try to set rules for themselves.
Examples include only sleeping in on the weekends, always doing homework right after school, never drinking coffee after a certain time in the afternoon. For most people, these rules almost always fail, and rules around eating are no exception.
Examples include having one cheat meal or cheat day per week and only eating junk food at parties, birthdays, or holidays.
Summary Many people have at least some history of failing to set rules regarding their food consumption.
People with a history of rule setting and repeated failures often start hiding their consumption of junk food from others.
They may prefer to eat alone, when no one else is home, alone in the car, or late at night after everyone else has gone to bed.
Summary Hiding food intake is fairly common among people who feel unable to control their consumption.
Which foods you choose to eat can significantly affect your health.
In the short term, junk food can lead to weight gain, acne, bad breath, fatigue, poor dental health, and other common problems.
A lifetime of junk food consumption can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, dementia, and even some types of cancer.
Someone who experiences any of these problems related to their intake of unhealthy foods but is unable to change their habits likely needs help.
A treatment plan that’s designed by qualified professionals is typically recommended for overcoming eating disorders.
Summary Even when unhealthy eating patterns cause physical issues, it can be hard to stop.
The DSM-5 is a guide used by health professionals to diagnose mental disorders.
The criteria for substance dependence includes many of the symptoms above. They fit in with medical definitions of addiction. However, the DSM-5 has not established criteria for food addiction.
If you have repeatedly tried to quit eating or cut back on your consumption of junk food but can’t, it could be an indicator of food addiction.
Fortunately, certain strategies can help you overcome it.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally reported on March 23, 2018. Its current publication date reflects an update, which includes a medical review by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD.