Millions of Americans struggle with compulsive eating and food addiction. For some, the problem manifests as a condition called binge eating disorder, which causes a person to eat large quantities of food in a short period of time--often in secret. For others, eating is a way to numb emotional pain, cope with boredom, or offer a reward at the end of a challenging day.
Research shows that behaviors like eating can stimulate the brain in similar ways to drugs and alcohol. Tasty foods cause the brain to release dopamine and other chemicals that stimulate feelings of pleasure and reward. Then, when a person feels down, they seek out those pleasurable feelings by eating more. Left untreated, food addiction, binge eating, and other dangerous eating behaviors can erode your health and self-esteem.
Do I Have a Food Addiction?
The DSM-5, psychiatry's diagnostic manual, does not currently list food addiction, though it does identify binge eating disorders and note that behaviors can become addictive. This can make it difficult to determine whether you have an eating addiction.
"The real question is this: does the impulsive eating have a negative impact on ones daily life, finances, health, or relationships?" says Danielle Downs Spradlin, a Minnesota nutritionist.
The specific label matters less than the behavior and the distress it causes. Some signs you might need help to deal with compulsive eating include:
- eating in secret because of shame or embarrassment
- eating foods you do not want to eat
- eating to the point of discomfort
- using food as a primary source of comfort for emotional pain
- adopting unhealthy eating strategies, such as crash diets or starving yourself, to compensate for binge eating
- feeling very unhappy with your body, health, or eating habits but being unable to change
- suffering serious health issues related to your eating
- difficulty enjoying previously beloved activities because weight and health-related issues make those hobbies uncomfortable
Risks of Food Addiction
Food addiction can be very dangerous. Worldwide, at least 2.8 million adults die each year from obesity-related complications. However, a person does not have to be obese to suffer serious health issues related to compulsive eating. Regardless of weight, some dangers of food addiction include:
- anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues
- feeling uncomfortable in settings that involve food
- neglecting other aspects of your life, including friends and family, because of the addiction
- food and obesity-related health issues such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death
- low self-esteem
- exposure to weight and food-related stigma and bullying
You don't have to live with eating that feels out of control. The right treatment can ease eating issues and prevent serious complications.
Strategies for Managing Food Addiction
"I primarily support postpartum people who have a complicated relationship with food and their bodies. They have lived through big biological changes and possibly trauma," Spradlins says."They are experiencing social pressure to conform to a cultural standard for postpartum bodies. It's often helpful to think about all the ways food functions in a person's life and acknowledge that pleasure is as valid a function as nutrition. Changing the language around food (like the terms junk food or health food) can also help people make better decisions and feel more in control of their eating patterns without judgement."
Managing food addiction, then, requires more than just changing the way you eat. People with compulsive or impulsive eating need help to understand the role food plays in their lives. Therapy, support groups, and lifestyle changes may ease the emotions that trigger compulsive eating.
Spradlin says behavioral therapy can be particularly helpful.
"There's a movement to use 'mindfulness' in behavioral therapy. The goal really is to help the patient recognize, name, and confront their feelings and behaviors so they can change them. The concept can seem hollow and faddish, but mindfulness techniques can help people organize their eating behaviors to be more enjoyable," she explains.