The effects of certain foods on the brain make it hard for some people to avoid them. Food addiction operates similarly to other addictions, which explains why some people can’t control themselves around certain foods — no matter how hard they try. Despite not wanting to, they may repeatedly find themselves eating large amounts of unhealthy foods — knowing that doing so may cause harm.
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.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is an addiction to junk food and comparable to drug addiction.
It’s a relatively new — and controversial — term, and high quality statistics on its prevalence are lacking.
Food addiction is similar to several other disorders, including binge eating disorder, bulimia, compulsive overeating, and other feeding and eating disorders.
Food addiction is a highly controversial concept, though most studies suggest it exists. It works similarly to drug addiction.
Effects on the brain
Food addiction involves the same areas of the brain as drug addiction. Also, the same neurotransmitters are involved, and many of the symptoms are identical.
Processed junk foods have a powerful effect on the reward centers of the brain. These effects are caused by brain neurotransmitters like dopamine.
The most problematic foods include typical junk foods like candy, sugary soda, and high fat fried foods.
Food addiction is not caused by a lack of willpower but believed to be caused by a dopamine signal that affects the biochemistry of the brain.
Food addiction is thought to involve the same neurotransmitters and areas of the brain as drug addiction.
8 symptoms of food addiction
There is no blood test to diagnose food addiction. As with other addictions, it’s based on behavioral symptoms.
Here are 8 common symptoms:
- frequent cravings for certain foods, despite feeling full and having just finished a nutritious meal
- starting to eat a craved food and often eating much more than intended
- eating a craved food and sometimes eating to the point of feeling excessively stuffed
- often feeling guilty after eating particular foods — yet eating them again soon after
- sometimes making excuses about why responding to a food craving is a good idea
- repeatedly — but unsuccessfully — trying to quit eating certain foods, or setting rules for when eating them is allowed, such as at cheat meals or on certain days
- often hiding the consumption of unhealthy foods from others
- feeling unable to control the consumption of unhealthy foods — despite knowing that they cause physical harm or weight gain
If more than four to five of the symptoms on this list apply, it could mean there’s a deeper issue. If six or more apply, then it’s likely a food addiction.
The main symptoms of food addiction include craving and binging on unhealthy foods without being hungry and an inability to resist the urge to eat these foods.
It’s a serious problem
Though the term addiction is often thrown around lightly, having a true addiction is a serious condition that typically requires treatment to overcome.
The symptoms and thought processes associated with food addiction are similar to those of drug abuse. It’s just a different substance, and the social consequences may be less severe.
Food addiction can cause physical harm and lead to chronic health conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes.
In addition, it may negatively impact a person’s self-esteem and self-image, making them unhappy with their body.
As with other addictions, food addiction may take an emotional toll and increase a person’s risk of premature death.
Food addiction increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Excessive weight may also affect a person’s self-esteem.
How to know whether avoiding junk food is worth the sacrifice
Completely avoiding junk foods may seem impossible. They’re everywhere and a major part of modern culture.
However, in some cases, entirely abstaining from certain trigger foods can become necessary.
Once the firm decision to never eat these foods again is made, avoiding them may become easier, as the need to justify eating — or not eating — them is eliminated. Cravings may also disappear or decrease significantly.
Consider writing a list of pros and cons to think through the decision.
- Pros. These may include losing weight, living longer, having more energy, and feeling better every day.
- Cons. These may include not being able to eat ice cream with family, no cookies during the holiday season, and having to explain food choices.
Write everything down — no matter how peculiar or vain it may seem. Then compare the two lists and ask if it’s worth it.
If the answer is a resounding “yes,” be assured that it’s the right decision.
Also, keep in mind that many of the social dilemmas that may show up in the con list can often easily be solved.
To overcome food addiction, a person should be sure that eliminating certain foods is the right thing to do. If there’s uncertainty, writing down the pros and cons may help make the decision.
First steps in overcoming food addiction
A few things can help prepare for giving up junk foods and make the transition easier:
- Trigger foods. Write down a list of the foods that cause cravings and/or binges. These are the trigger foods to avoid completely.
- Fast food places. Make a list of fast food places that serve healthy foods and note their healthy options. This may prevent a relapse when hungry and not in the mood to cook.
- What to eat. Think about what foods to eat — preferably healthy foods that are liked and already eaten regularly.
- Pros and cons. Consider making several copies of the pro-and-con list. Keep a copy in the kitchen, glove compartment, and purse or wallet.
Additionally, don’t go on a diet. Put weight loss on hold for at least 1–3 months.
Overcoming food addiction is difficult enough. Adding hunger and restrictions to the mix is likely to make things harder.
After taking these preparatory steps, set a date in the near future — like the coming weekend — from which point onward the addictive trigger foods won’t be touched again.
To overcome food addiction, it’s important to plan. Make a list of trigger foods and know what is going to be eaten instead.
Consider seeking help
Most people with addiction attempt to quit several times before they succeed in the long run.
While it’s possible to overcome addiction without help — even if it takes several tries — it can often be beneficial to seek help.
Many health professionals and support groups can aid in overcoming your addiction.
Finding a psychologist or psychiatrist who has experience in dealing with food addiction can provide one-on-one support, but there are several free group options available as well.
These include 12-step programs like Overeaters Anonymous (OA), GreySheeters Anonymous (GSA), Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA), and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA).
These groups meet regularly — some even via video chat — and can offer the support needed to overcome addiction.
Consider seeking help for food addiction. Try support groups like Overeaters Anonymous or book an appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in food addiction.
The bottom line
Food addiction is a problem that rarely resolves on its own. Unless a conscious decision to deal with it is made, chances are it will worsen over time.
The first steps to overcoming the addiction include listing the pros and cons of quitting trigger foods, finding healthy food alternatives, and setting a fixed date to start the journey toward health.
Consider seeking help from a health professional or free support group. Always remember that you’re not alone.