Food Addiction

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on March 15, 2023
4 min read

The idea that you 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 rich in:

  • Sugar
  • Fat
  • Salt

Like addictive drugs, highly palatable foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals including dopamine. Once you experience pleasure associated with increased dopamine transmission in your brain's reward pathway from eating certain foods, you may quickly feel the need to eat again.

Reward signals from highly palatable foods may override your signals of fullness and satisfaction. As a result, you may keep eating, even when you're not hungry. Compulsive overeating is a type of behavioral addiction, meaning that you can become preoccupied with a behavior (such as eating, gambling, or shopping) that triggers intense pleasure. When you have food addiction, you lose control over your eating behavior and spend excessive amounts of time involved with food and overeating, or anticipating the emotional effects of compulsive overeating.

You also may develop a kind of tolerance to food. That means that the more you eat, the less you're satisfied. 

Scientists believe that food addiction may play an important role in obesity. But you can still have food addiction if you don't have obesity. Your body may be genetically programmed to better handle the extra calories you take in. Or maybe you increase your physical activity to compensate for overeating.

When you're addicted to food, you continue to eat despite negative consequences, such as weight gain or damaged relationships. And like people addicted to drugs or gambling, you have trouble stopping your behavior.

Researchers at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy have developed a questionnaire that can help identify food addictions.

To see if these apply to you, ask yourself if you:

  • 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 you:

  • Eat certain foods so often or in such large amounts that you eat instead of working, spending time with your family, or doing recreational activities.
  • Avoid professional or social situations where certain foods are available because of fear of overeating.
  • Have problems functioning effectively at your job or school because of food and eating.

The questionnaire also asks about psychological withdrawal symptoms. For example, when you cut down on certain foods (excluding caffeinated beverages), do you have:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Other physical symptoms

The questionnaire also tries to gauge the impact of your food decisions on your emotions. Do these 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.

Experts are working to understand and find treatments for food addiction. 

Some think its recovery 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's educated about food addiction may be able to help you break your cycle of compulsive overeating.

There are a growing number of programs that can help, too. Groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous are based on the 12-step program used for alcohol, drugs, and gambling addictions.

Others, like Food Addicts Anonymous, use 12-step principles along with strict diets. They can help you avoid ingredients like sugar, refined flour, and wheat. 

Food addiction and binge eating disorder (BED) have some similarities, but they're also different. 

Unlike food addiction, BED involves often eating and compulsively eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time. You may feel guilt or shame afterward. 

BED may start in your teens or early adulthood as part of a cycle that involves a restrictive diet. You might begin a diet to lose weight but find that it’s too hard to stick to -- especially if you use food as a coping tool. You might reach a breaking point and binge on “forbidden” foods, then feel guilt and shame, and then resume the diet.

Whether you're dealing with food addiction or BED,  talk to your doctor. They can refer you to a mental health specialist who can provide tools for managing your eating habits and help you figure out what works best for you.  

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Yale University: "Yale Food Addiction Scale," "Food and Addiction."

Helpguide.org: "Binge Eating Disorder."

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Understanding Compulsive Overeating.”

American Psychiatric Association: “Feeding and Eating Disorders.”

Michelle May, MD, author, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RD, president, Green Mountain at Fox Run, Vermont.

Robin B. Kanarek, PhD, professor of psychology, Tufts University.

Avena, A. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2008.

Hedebrand, J. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, November 2014.

Meule, A. Frontiers in Psychiatry, Nov. 3, 2011.

Volkow, N. Trends in Cognitive Science, January 2011.

Gearhardt, A. Archives of General Psychiatry, August 2011.

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