Most people have likely experienced a food craving at some point, but when does it become something more than just a craving?
Highly processed and fast foods may contain ingredients that make consumers want to eat them again and again, but is it accurate to call these foods addictive?
The topic is controversial, and some feel the term “addiction” should be reserved for substance abuse issues.
On top of that, the research behind the psychology of food addiction is mixed, as are expert opinions, further complicating things.
Still, experts agree on at least one thing: If you’re struggling with eating, help is available, and you deserve it.
Here’s what experts want you to know about the potential—or lack thereof—behind food addiction, plus how to find help if you need it.
Overeaters Anonymous follows a similar 12-step program as Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous, but unlike substance use disorder, food addiction is not listed in the
When it comes to agreeing on a definition, it’s worth considering how those actually affected by food addiction feel about the term.
Addiction or addiction-like?
“In my experience, some affected people find the term ‘food addiction” validating, empowering, and useful for their recovery,” says Anne Marie O’Melia, MS, MD, FAAD, and chief medical and clinical officer at the Eating Recovery Center.
Still, she worries that the lack of consensus and clear definitions can fuel rigid, all-or-nothing thinking. Her take? Food addiction isn’t the best term, but it’s fair to say that food can prompt addiction-like behavior.
By contrast, licensed psychotherapist Teralyn Sell, Ph.D. says it’s fair to call a spade a spade.
“If you can’t stop yourself from eating something, overeat, find yourself being secretive about eating something, or even have a withdrawal, such as you feel sick or have blood sugar imbalance, that is an addiction,” she says.
Still, even some of the terms Estes and Sell suggest are up for debate.
Without true screening guidance, it’s impossible to standardize the behaviors, symptoms, and neural activity present with food addiction.
Part of the controversy around the term “food addiction” is that people feel it makes light of drug addiction.
For nearly two decades, the U.S. has grappled with an opioid crisis. In
Research from 2020 found only modest similarities between the lived experiences of people with addictive-like eating behaviors and those who fit the DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorder.
Again, it’s controversial — and loaded.
Sell has empathy for individuals who experience or have lost someone to drug addiction, and she admits there are significant differences.
However, she says the topic warrants research and discussion—and individuals deserve treatment options and help.
“While food addiction is unlikely to cause the amount of life-destroying consequences or impacts on loved ones like that of drug or alcohol addiction, food addictions…cannot be overlooked as problematic for individuals or as a societal issue,” Sell says.
Though it may not have a home in the DSM-5, food addiction has become a hot topic. While the appropriateness of the term is disputed, it still appears frequently in research.
According to a
The researchers note that a strong urge to eat too many highly-palatable foods is a hallmark sign of food addiction, and suggested a link between food addiction and college students’ weight dissatisfaction, eating habits, and food choices.
- neurological changes
- impaired control
- social impairment
- risky use
The study authors noted that the substance component of addiction, referring to highly-palatable food, was more relevant than the behavior of eating. This indicates that the actual makeup of the food rather than the familiar pattern of eating is at play in food addiction behaviors.
“We propose that the food addiction construct merits serious attention in regard to its presentation, prevention, and treatment in humans,” noted the authors.
Still, there are some who disagree.
- Several somatic and mental disorders must be excluded.
- Food addiction needs to be distinguished from the physiological need to consume enough calories to maintain a high body weight.
- Intentional weight loss can induce eating behaviors mimicking food addiction.
- The concept lacks validation, especially in light of the high prevalence of “food addiction” in patients with anorexia nervosa.
- It hasn’t led to novel and successful treatments for overeating and obesity.
In an attempt to determine whether food addiction is the correct term, some scientists have looked at the brain.
“It may be that, for some people, consuming high levels of processed, highly palatable food…sets off a change in the same reward pathways that are impacted in the brain when developing an addiction to a drug,” says O’Melia.
In these cases, foods light up the cue-reward centers of the brain and stimulate neurotransmitter activity, such as dopamine and endorphins.
O’Melia says that the research is still in its infancy and the psychology of food addiction is still up for debate.
Sample sizes have often been small, but research may explain why people develop addictive-like behaviors around highly processed or sugary foods like pizza or sweets but not broccoli.
Societal constructs can make a person more likely to consume processed food.
“Food disparities and food deserts are a real problem across America,” Sell says. “If there is legitimately no access to healthy food options or food in general, you’ll choose or be given processed foods due to longer shelf lives.”
As Sell said, though people may dispute whether “food addiction” is the correct term, individuals may have food habits they want to change. And they deserve compassion and help. Experts share that overcoming compulsive food habits will look different for everyone but may include:
- customized treatment that does not center around weight loss and will-power
- identification of trigger foods
- nutritional counseling
Sell suggests avoiding “should” statements and being kind to yourself.
“Shoulding is negative because it brings about feelings of guilt and shame for not accomplishing what had wanted,” Sell says. “This can bring about the shame cycle, which can lead to indulging in the addiction.”
O’Melia says it’s essential to find providers who take the same approach.
“Too often, obesity is treated as a personal failure and treatment plans for loss of control eating,” O’Melia says.
Further, not all people with addiction-like behaviors around food are obese. Customized care is critical, and O’Melia says it should include an individualized assessment and action plan that considers:
- biological, psychological, and social contributors to symptoms
- cultural factors that have shaped food and body valuations
- a plan to develop skills around self-acceptance and emotional regulation
Unlike people with drug addiction, people cannot abstain from food. And O’Melia says total elimination often fails.
“For compulsive eating challenges, it is often helpful to identify “trigger” foods that create vulnerabilities for loss of control eating,” O’Melia says.
Rather than nixing these foods altogether, patients can work with providers like therapists and nutritional counselors to develop plans around these foods.
“We plan for vulnerable situations or more challenging foods,” she says. “We never go too long without eating. We plan and prepare balanced, tasty meals and snacks. We plan for the social aspects of meals and prioritize supportive relationships and connection.”
If addictive food behaviors are exhibited in conjunction with bulimia, O’Melia says Prozac can be prescribed and is FDA-approved.
O’Melia says any treatment should also include care for any underlying conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, and mood disorders.
Want to know more about the controversial topic of food addiction? Get the facts below.
How common is ‘food addiction?’
Research indicates that food addiction affects a significant number of people.
According to a
Can you experience food withdrawal?
If food addiction is an accurate term, it follows that those who experience it might undergo withdrawal-like symptoms.
A 2018 study of 231 adults indicated that people could experience withdrawal when they stopped eating highly-processed food. However, the research relied on self-reported data and didn’t look at brain imaging.
O’Melia believes more research is needed and says current evidence of food withdrawal is mostly anecdotal. However, based on her work in the field, she says potential symptoms may be similar to those of nicotine withdrawal.
These symptoms may include:
- sleep changes
- mood changes
O’Melia says it’s extremely unlikely symptoms would be as severe as those associated with alcohol or opioid withdrawal, such as nausea, vomiting, chills, cramping, and psychological distress.
Can food really be addictive?
Some experts, like O’Melia, say that the term ‘food addiction’ is a bit extreme, particularly because research is still emerging.
Sell is less concerned about what people are calling it.
“I live by the idea that something is a problem when it is,” she says. “When something is impacting you negatively, we shouldn’t split hairs and box in a diagnosis for the sake of diagnosing. We should meet the person where they are and validate their lived experience.”
Research published in 2020 sought to learn about the lived experiences of people with addictive-like eating habits.
Common themes included:
- loss of control over eating
- emotional eating and shame
- health and weight-related distress
Addiction or not, these experiences indicate that both emotional and medical support may be warranted.
What makes food addictive?
Whether food addiction is the appropriate term or not, highly processed and sugary foods can leave us yearning for more. Ingredients may play a role, as some foods seem to be more addictive than others.
“Research suggests several properties that processed foods share that will not be found collectively in whole foods that increase chances to become addictive: concentrated dose, rapid absorption rates, the addition of fats, refined carbohydrates and glycemic load,” Sell says.
These properties trigger the different reward responses in the brain.
“Whole foods do not chemically flood your receptor sites with dopamine as a processed food would,” Sell said.
Food addiction is a loaded and controversial term, and not everyone agrees it’s correct.
According to research, some forms of food, mainly sweet and highly-processed, can activate reward transmitters in the brain. This activation may lead to compulsive eating.
If you feel you’re struggling with food addiction, addictive-like food symptoms, or compulsive eating, help is available. You can give yourself grace and look for providers who focus less on weight and more on helping you manage your eating habits with compassion.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.