The idea that a person can be addicted to food has recently gained increasing support. That comes from brain imaging and other studies of the effects of compulsive overeating on pleasure centers in the brain.
Experiments in animals and humans show that, for some people, the same reward and pleasure centers of the brain that are triggered by addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin are also activated by food, especially highly palatable foods. Highly palatable foods are foods rich in:
Like addictive drugs, highly palatable foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine. Once people experience pleasure associated with increased dopamine transmission in the brain's reward pathway from eating certain foods, they quickly feel the need to eat again.
The reward signals from highly palatable foods may override other signals of fullness and satisfaction. As a result, people keep eating, even when they're not hungry. Compulsive overeating is a type of behavioral addiction meaning that someone can become preoccupied with a behavior (such as eating, or gambling, or shopping) that triggers intense pleasure. People with food addictions lose control over their eating behavior and find themselves spending excessive amounts of time involved with food and overeating, or anticipating the emotional effects of compulsive overeating.
People who show signs of food addiction may also develop a kind of tolerance to food. They eat more and more, only to find that food satisfies them less and less.
Scientists believe that food addiction may play an important role in obesity. But normal-weight people may also struggle with food addiction. Their bodies may simply be genetically programmed to better handle the extra calories they take in. Or they may increase their physical activity to compensate for overeating.
People who are addicted to food will continue to eat despite negative consequences, such as weight gain or damaged relationships. And like people who are addicted to drugs or gambling, people who are addicted to food will have trouble stopping their behavior, even if they want to or have tried many times to cut back.
Signs of Food Addiction
Researchers at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy have developed a questionnaire to identify people with food addictions.
Here's a sample of questions that can help determine if you have a food addiction. Do these actions apply to you? Do you:
- End up eating more than planned when you start eating certain foods
- Keep eating certain foods even if you're no longer hungry
- Eat to the point of feeling ill
- Worry about not eating certain types of foods or worry about cutting down on certain types of foods
- When certain foods aren't available, go out of your way to obtain them
The questionnaire also asks about the impact of your relationship with food on your personal life. Ask yourself if these situations apply to you:
- You eat certain foods so often or in such large amounts that you start eating food instead of working, spending time with the family, or doing recreational activities.
- You avoid professional or social situations where certain foods are available because of fear of overeating.
- You have problems functioning effectively at your job or school because of food and eating.
The questionnaire asks about psychological withdrawal symptoms. For example, when you cut down on certain foods (excluding caffeinated beverages), do you have symptoms such as:
- Other physical symptoms
The questionnaire also tries to gauge the impact of food decisions on your emotions. Do these situations apply to you?
- Eating food causes problems such as depression, anxiety, self-loathing, or guilt.
- You need to eat more and more food to reduce negative emotions or increase pleasure.
- Eating the same amount of food doesn't reduce negative emotions or increase pleasure the way it used to.
Help for Food Addiction
Science is still working to understand and find treatments for food addiction.
Some argue that recovery from food addiction may be more complicated than recovery from other kinds of addictions. Alcoholics, for example, can ultimately abstain from drinking alcohol. But people who are addicted to food still need to eat.
A nutritionist, psychologist, or doctor who is educated about food addiction may be able to help you break the cycle of compulsive overeating.
There are also a growing number of programs that help people who are addicted to food. Some, like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, are based on the 12-step program that has helped many people addicted to alcohol, drugs, or gambling.
Others, like Food Addicts Anonymous, use the principles of the 12-step program along with strict diets that advise people to abstain from problem ingredients, like sugar, refined flour, and wheat. Learn more about the options available for food addiction treatment.