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Food addiction symptoms and treatment

Reading time: 13 mins
three hands holding burgers with fries underneath

Food addiction is the loss of control over one’s eating behavior. This eating disorder is characterized by the intense urge to consume an unhealthy amount of food in a short period of time. 

The alternative name for food addiction is compulsive overeating. A combination of several factors, including genetics, psychological issues, and sociocultural factors all contribute to eating addiction. However, it is considered that emotional issues are often the main reason why people struggle with overeating. 

The brain chemistry of compulsive overeaters often tends to show brain changes also seen in drug addicts. This stems from excessive consumption of foods that are high in fat and high in sugar, which activates the pleasure and reward centers in human brains. 

Overeating can also be passive. In passive overeating, the level of a person’s energy intake is judged against a person’s level of energy expenditure. For instance, an energy consumption of 3,000 kcal/day may be appropriate for an athlete in training. However, this energy intake may represent severe overeating for a person living a sedentary lifestyle, according to a 2012 study on the health risks of overeating published in Obesity Research.

The most common food addiction misconception is that food addiction is a myth. In fact, a 2011 study on addictive genes and the relationship to obesity and inflammation published in Molecular Neurobiology indicates that in some people, consuming highly processed foods results in the release of a hormone called dopamine, which is responsible for a feeling of calm.

What is food addiction?

Food addiction is a form of behavioral addiction that involves the excessive consumption of foods with high levels of fat, sugar, and salt. An individual can become addicted to the chemical reactions produced by the brain following the intake of these foods. 

This psychological dependence on food can be likened to what drug addicts experience when these people become hooked to the euphoric mood brought about by abusing a certain substance. 

A person who struggles with food addiction has strong cravings for particular foods. As a result, this person may keep eating even without feeling hungry despite the adverse health effects that can result from overeating.

Luxury Food Addiction Treatment center Thailand

What are the causes of food addiction?

 The causes of food addiction involve a combination of several factors. The most common food addiction causes are listed below. 

  • Biological reasons: Biological factors that contribute to the development of food addiction include genetics, hormonal imbalances, structural brain abnormalities, and the use of certain medications that affect metabolism and alter brain messages. These medications include antidepressants and antipsychotics.
  • Psychological issues: Food addiction can also result from psychological issues. Factors may include having gone through a traumatic life event, experiencing sexual or emotional abuse, or having low self-esteem, as stated by an article titled, “Food Addiction: Causes, Symptoms, Signs & Treatment Help” from Eating Disorder Hope. In these cases, a person turns to food as a means of coping with emotional issues.
  • Social reasons: Social risk factors for food addiction include peer or societal pressure, a dysfunctional family, isolation, and lack of social support.
  • Co-occurring disorders: Food addiction is also linked to co-occurring disorders, which happens when an underlying mental health disorder appears alongside substance use disorder. Food addiction is considered a complex mental health issue that can result in serious complications if left untreated.

What are the effects of food addiction?

woman eating pasta

 The effects of food addiction may vary from person to person. The most common food addiction effects are listed below.

  • Physical effects: Food addiction can have adverse physical effects on a person due to the excessive amount of food that is consumed. People who suffer from the disorder may experience physical effects such as unhealthy weight gain, headaches, obesity, and digestive problems.
  • Psychological effects: Addictive behaviors around unhealthy foods can affect a person’s mental health. Some of the psychological effects that someone with food addiction may experience include anxiety, increased irritability, low self-esteem, depression, hopelessness, and in severe cases, suicidal ideation.
  • Short-term effects: Consistent overeating can also have short-term effects that are often experienced physically. These include heartburn, lack of energy, nausea, vomiting, and an upset stomach.
  • Long-term effects: Food addiction increases one’s risk of developing a wide array of health problems. Some of its long-term effects include type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, sleep apnea, reduced sex drive, and heart disease.

What are the food addiction symptoms?

Food addiction symptoms may manifest in behavioral or emotional ways. The most common food addiction symptoms are listed below. 

  • Getting intense food cravings: A craving is an intense urge to eat a specific food. Cravings are common in most people. Therefore, getting cravings does not necessarily mean that an individual is suffering from food addiction, according to a 2019 article titled, “8 Common Symptoms of Food Addiction” from Healthline. However, if cravings become persistent or become increasingly hard to ignore, these cravings may be indicative of food addiction.
  • Eating past the point of feeling stuffed: An individual who suffers from food addiction may not stop eating past the point of fullness. At times, binge eaters may also continue eating even while experiencing physical discomfort.
  • Feeling guilty after binge eating but repeating the pattern: Becoming aware of unhealthy eating habits will make someone want to do something about the problem. However, the road to food addiction recovery often comes with challenges. As such, people may give in to a craving, leading to feelings of guilt. Despite these negative feelings, however, someone with food addiction will repeat the pattern.
  • Eating in secret: A person suffering from food addiction may start eating in secrecy due to feelings of shame. This is common among people with repeated failures over controlling food consumption.
  • Failing to set rules on food consumption: Setting rules around eating is difficult for people with food addiction. These individuals almost always fail at following rules regarding food consumption.
  • Coming up with excuses: In relation to creating rules regarding food consumption, someone with food addiction may come up with excuses to reason around the rules. These individuals may make excuses as to why it is okay to give in to the craving.
  • Using food as a coping mechanism: The excessive use of food to cope with different life situations is a sign of food addiction. Overeating to deal with feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and depression is common in people with the condition.
  • Spending a significant amount of money on foods: Allotting excessive amounts of money on foods for binging purposes may indicate food addiction.
  • Avoiding social interactions: Compulsive eaters may avoid social interactions to avoid trigger foods or to spend time eating foods in isolation.
  • Being unable to quit even with resulting physical issues: Unhealthy eating patterns can significantly affect human health and cause physical issues. Despite these health problems, however, overcoming food addiction can still be hard.

Possible food addiction symptoms include:

  1. Overeating in the middle of the night
  2. Spending a significant amount of time getting food and eating it
  3. Needing more and more foods to achieve the desired effect
  4. Having worries about not being able to eat certain types of foods
  5. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when cutting down on overeating

What are the food Addiction treatment methods?

man eating noodles

 Different food addiction treatment methods assist in overcoming the condition. The top food addiction treatment methods are listed below.

  • 12-Step programs: A 12-step program provides guiding principles and a set of steps that aim to support individuals who wish to recover from the effects of a variety of addictions, including food addiction. In a 12-step program, people attend meetings with others who also share the struggle of dealing with food addiction.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is the use of psychological methods to help people with mental health problems and emotional difficulties. One psychological approach used to deal with food addiction is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, a compulsive eater works with a therapist to help cope with issues that can trigger binge-eating episodes.
  • Medications: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any medications for the treatment of food addiction. That said, some medications may only help in reducing binge-eating episodes. A drug for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) sold under the brand name Vyvanse is FDA-approved to treat moderate to severe binge eating disorder in adults. In many cases, depression and anxiety play a role in eating disorders.  Taking antidepressants may help relieve these symptoms.

Other possible food addiction treatment methods include:

  1. Commercial treatment programs
  2. Nutritional counseling
  3. Group therapy

Is food Addiction treated in rehab?

Yes, food addiction is treated in rehab centers. These treatment facilities understand the complexity of this behavioral addiction and will provide a supportive environment where one can safely discuss the condition. 

These centers also work with experts who can develop a personally tailored treatment plan based on an individual’s unique nature of food addiction. Needless to say, any eating disorder treatment facility knows what is food addiction and dismisses the stigma around the condition.

How does inheritance affect food addiction?

Inheritance affects food addiction by increasing a person’s risk of developing the condition. Genetic influences may explain eating behaviors, quantity of food intake, and genetics of taste among family members. Evidence also continues to mount that having family members who are addicted to eating may influence the progression of an eating disorder. 

For instance, a 2012 study by Eleanor R. Grimm and Nanette I. Steinle published in Nutrition Reviews concluded that the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and other related complications is heightened due to common genetic variants, many of which are linked to specific eating behaviors. 

Moreover, some people may inherit aspects of temperament such as anxiety, fear, or moodiness, which can contribute to the development of eating disorders.  

Are there demographic differences for food addiction?

Yes, there are demographic differences that can be observed in food addiction, particularly in gender and racial differences. For instance, in a 2015 study by Sharon Thompson and Samantha Romeo published in the Journal of Diabetes and Obesity, food dependence was gauged through the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). 

With respect to gender, the participants were mostly female. Most participants were also either White or African American. These racial categories were therefore included when analyzing the results. 

The study revealed that there are distinct gender differences in emotional and social influences on the decision to overeat, and females were more likely to overeat in an attempt to cope with these stressors than males. 

African Americans also had higher food dependence scores compared to Whites. These findings are important because understanding gender, racial, emotional, and social cues that contribute to overeating is crucial in overcoming food addiction through its prevention and treatment.

Can someone notice their food addiction?

hands grabbing and holding food

No, it is not always possible for someone to notice their food addiction. After all, the idea of becoming addicted to food only recently gained support. Before the existence of scientific evidence on food addiction, people often asked, “Can you be addicted to food?”

Nowadays, brain imaging and other studies of the effects of compulsive overeating on the reward and pleasure centers in the brain can easily answer that question. 

In determining if someone has food addiction, some medical experts have developed questionnaires that can help identify people with the condition. For instance, researchers from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy have formulated a questionnaire called the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), which consists of actions that apply to a food addict, asking the respondent if the situation applies to them. 

In the case of treatment facilities, in-house addiction experts often offer a free initial addiction assessment. This will help dictate the course of treatment for someone’s unique case of food addiction.

How is food addiction diagnosed?

Food addiction is diagnosed through a series of assessments or tests that can be provided by a medical professional or a mental health expert. A food addiction diagnosis can be obtained through the procedure listed below. 

1. Set up an appointment: If someone is experiencing the most common symptoms of food addiction and suspects to suffer from the condition, setting up an appointment with a medical provider or mental health professional is the first step to seeking help. Treatment of food addiction may require a team of professionals, including doctors, mental health professionals, and dietitians who share significant experience in treating the condition.

2. Prepare your medical record: A patient’s medical record shows key information about the individual’s overall health. This information may include results of medical tests, treatments, medications the patient is taking and its dosages, and other notes that doctors have made about a patient’s physical and mental health. 

3. Get an initial food addiction assessment: During a medical appointment, the doctor is likely to ask a number of questions to evaluate food addiction. Diagnostic tools may vary from one medical professional to another, but these questionnaires mainly ask about the impact of eating addiction on one’s life.

4. Receive a food addiction treatment plan: Based on a patient’s responses to the questions, symptoms, and needs, the team of experts will develop a personally tailored plan to address one’s unique case of food addiction. During addiction treatment, an individual will receive therapy depending on several factors. These factors include individual needs, the intensity of support needed, and the severity of food addiction.

Getting a food addiction diagnosed is important for prompt treatment. Through the novel Requiem for a Dream by American writer Hubert Selby Jr., people can get a glimpse of what might happen if an individual does not overcome addiction. The book shows how addiction completely engulfs an individual to the point of being unrecognizable. 

How to overcome food addiction?

Overcoming food addiction can be done by coming up with a concrete plan. A concrete plan is realistic, detailed, and includes specific ideas on what could make the transition to sobriety easier. 

Food addictions have striking similarities with drug addictions. In that sense, both addictions can also be challenging to break and the process is going to be different for everybody. However, having the willpower and the willingness to sacrifice to overcome food addiction is a great way to start the journey. 

In coming up with a concrete plan, one can start by creating a list of everything. From desired weight to trigger foods to avoid and healthy foods to eat, an individual can list down these things to help in the preparation for giving up unhealthy eating habits. 

Despite these measures, however, a backslide is still possible. As with an alcoholic, the likelihood of relapse is still high before making the break permanently. But while it is possible to overcome food addiction without help – even if it means falling off the wagon several times – it can also be beneficial to consider seeking help. 

Several medical professionals, mental health experts, and support groups can offer significant help in overcoming food addiction.

Can depression cause food addiction?

Yes, depression can cause food addiction. A reciprocal relationship between depression and food addiction exists. A person suffering from depression may use compulsive overeating as a coping mechanism. Similarly, overeating that leads to excessive weight gain may result in depression. 

Evidence also exists that the brain chemicals activated when binge eating may also affect depression. Furthermore, according to an article on eating disorders from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), individuals with obesity who suffer from binge eating disorders also tend to struggle with a form of mental health problem, including anxiety or depression.

How does food addiction work?

woman eating a burger

Food addiction works by activating a system in the brain called the reward system. This system is a channel through which the brain can reward an individual for engaging in basic life-sustaining behaviors. One example of this is eating. 

Eating triggers the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, including the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates emotion and motivation. However, the dopamine reward center in the brain can also be activated even when people do pleasurable things with adverse consequences. 

For instance, in people who use alcohol or abuse certain substances, it is dopamine that causes the high that makes these people come back for more. The same can also be said with food addicts.

What are the foods that can trigger food addiction?

Certain foods with high fat, sugar, or starch content can trigger food addiction. These are known as hyperpalatable foods. Although not inherently addictive, these foods are pleasing to the taste buds and can override the ability to control the amount one eats, according to a 2023 article on food addiction published in WebMD

The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) is a tool used in assessing food addiction in individuals. Doctors use this questionnaire to provide an answer to the question, “Do I have a food addiction?” The 25-point questionnaire also identified certain foods that have close associations with food addiction. 

Some of the potential trigger foods included in the YFAS list are chips, fries, ice cream, and chocolate, among several others. 

It is worth noting, however, that any food that brings comfort to a person has the potential to be a food trigger for food addiction.

What are the symptoms of food addiction withdrawal?

Symptoms of food addiction withdrawal include tiredness, increased irritability, sadness, and a craving for highly processed foods. Some of these withdrawal symptoms are likened to what drug addicts experience when trying to cut down on substance use. 

Individuals who often eat highly processed foods more than intended are at a higher risk of experiencing addictive-like symptoms like withdrawal. 

A  2018 research conducted by the University of Michigan and published in the journal Appetite is thought to be the first study of its kind that examines highly processed food withdrawal symptoms. The study authors asked 231 participants to report any physical or psychological withdrawal symptoms after cutting down on junk foods in the last year. 

People involved in the study reported symptoms such as sadness, tiredness, increased irritability, and a craving for highly processed foods in the first two to five days after removing such foods from their regular diet. 

These results aligned with the time course of withdrawal symptoms in all forms of drug abuse. In general, the highest intensity of symptoms is experienced by drug addicts between two to five days of an attempt to cut down on substance use.

What is the difference between food addiction and binge eating?

people sitting at a table full of food

The main difference between food addiction and binge eating are the specific categories or characteristics of food involved in each condition.  The discussion on food addiction vs. binge eating and the distinct differences between the two can help individuals distinguish one from the other. 

Food addiction refers to a form of behavioral addiction that develops as a result of a person’s biochemical dependency on foods that have highly addictive properties, including foods that are high in fat and sugar. 

This biochemical nature creates a dependency on the physical reaction that an individual experiences following consumption of such foods. On the other hand, binge eating disorder (BED) is a formally classified and diagnosable mental health condition. BED often considers merely the amount of food consumed by an individual, according to an article on the comparison between food addiction and binge eating disorder from GPnotebook. BED also results from a complex combination of biological, environmental, emotional, and psychosocial influences. 

It is easy to confuse the two food-related issues as they can appear to be similar on the surface. For instance, just like binge eaters, people with food addiction can also engage in frequent episodes of uncontrolled eating. 

Furthermore, during the absence of highly palatable foods, food addicts may experience withdrawal symptoms similar to what substance abusers go through when attempting to quit. In this case, food addiction therapy is necessary for intervention and help.

What is the relationship between food and addiction?

Food and addiction have a causal relationship, which means that one thing is responsible for causing the other. In this case, however, food alone does not cause addiction, but rather its excessive consumption. 

Evidence exists that food addiction is a disease that causes loss of control over the ability to stop consuming certain foods. Similarly, the consumption of high glycemic foods also causes a release of “feel good” brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.

How does food addiction affect the brain?

Food addiction affects the brain and its reward system in a way that an individual’s motivations can be altered, leading to an involvement in addictive behaviors. The intense stimulation of the brain’s reward system causes people to lose control of their impulses and crave the reward that comes with food consumption. 

The major brain chemical involved in this process is dopamine. As with addictive drugs, highly processed foods can also enable increased dopamine transmission in the reward pathway of the brain. As a result, people experience pleasure from eating such foods and ultimately feel the need to eat again.

When the brain rewards a pleasurable yet harmful behavior like compulsive overeating, it encourages the act and keeps the individual in a cycle of highs and lows. This may explain the feelings of guilt, shame, and depression that a food addict goes through.

What are the over-the-counter medications for food addiction?

There is currently no FDA-approved food addiction OTC medication. What exists in the market are medicines that help decrease episodes of binge eating. 

One of these prescription medications is Lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse). According to an article on binge-eating disorder from Mayo Clinic, Vyvanse is the first drug approved by the FDA to treat binge eating disorder in adults. It is, however, mainly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in patients 6 years and above. 

At times, doctors may also recommend a drug for binge eating even though it is not approved to treat the condition. This is called the off-label use of a medication. This practice is legal and common. 

Some off-label prescription drugs that can help some people stop bingeing include antidepressants. Because of its roots in mental health, binge eating disorder often responds positively to antidepressant medications. 

Because some people overeat to cope with depressive mood, antidepressants help increase levels of feel good chemicals in the brain. This may help control binge eating. The types of antidepressant medications used to help against binges are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants.