What is Food Addiction?

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Food addiction speculates that certain foods trigger similar pleasure pathways in the brain that addictive drugs trigger, causing addiction to salty, sugary, or carbohydrate-rich foods.

Diagnosis Criteria

Food addiction isn't recognized by the DSM-5 and has no formal diagnostic criteria. Yale has created a test related to food addiction.

Yale Food Addiction Scale


Credit to Medical News Today

"The symptoms of food addiction can be physical, emotional, and social. These symptoms include:

  • obsessive food cravings

  • a preoccupation with obtaining and consuming food

  • continued binge or compulsive eating

  • continued attempts to stop overeating, followed by relapses

  • a loss of control over the quantity, regularity, and location at which eating occurs

  • a negative impact on family life, social interaction, and finances

  • the need to eat food for emotional release

  • eating alone to avoid attention

  • eating to the point of physical discomfort or pain

After compulsively consuming large quantities of food, a person may also experience negative feelings, such as:

  • shame

  • guilt

  • discomfort

  • reduced self-worth

Food addiction can also trigger physical responses, including:

  • intensive food restriction

  • compulsive exercise

  • self-induced vomiting"

Credit to Addictions

"Physical Food Addiction Symptoms

  • Inability to control cravings for food or to control the amount of food that is eaten

  • trying many different weight loss or diet programs but still excessively consuming food

  • vomiting, using laxatives, or exercising in excess to avoid weight gain as a result of overconsumption of food

Social Symptoms of Food Addiction

  • eating behind closed doors to prevent others from seeing what you are eating or how much

  • avoiding social interactions because you feel like you cannot be around others due to a lack of ability to control your eating

  • avoiding social interactions because you don't feel like you look good enough or have clothes that fit correctly due to your eating habits

  • stealing food from others

  • obsessing over food and paying more attention to the food that is being served than to those friends or family members who you will be consuming the food with

Emotional Symptoms of Food Addiction

  • feeling ashamed of your weight

  • feeling depressed or sad about your weight or self-image

  • feeling hopeless when it comes to losing weight

  • eating when upset or depressed

  • eating as a reward for a job well done

  • eating when you are not hungry

  • becoming anxious or irritable when eating certain foods or when not eating or if there doesn't seem to be enough food"


For the most part, the cause of food addiction is unknown. Research has shown that there isn't one cause connected to every case of food addiction, but many interchangeable reasons. Not every case is the same. Many factors play into developing this eating disorder, including biological, psychological, and social causes.

Biological factors. Biological causes are hormonal imbalances, brain chemistry discrepancies, medication side effects, or genetic disposition for addiction. Disruptions in hormonal patterns can lead to an inverted hunger signal, so a person eats when they shouldn't and fasts when they shouldn't.

Run in Families. Families share not only genetics but also eating habits. Though more research is required, some studies have indicated that eating disorders can be passed down from generation to generation through genetic factors. Parents also pass down their eating habits to their children, so if the parents have a bulimia pattern, the children will more likely too.

Mental Health Disorders. Other mental health disorders can lead to food addiction. Those disorders include low self-worth, grief, traumatic events like divorce, abuse or death, or inability to handle adverse situations effectively. Each issue can cause a person to turn to food for comfort.

Weight/Eating Problems. Individuals with weight problems, higher body mass index, or other eating disorders are more likely to develop a food addiction. Food addicts have a history of dieting and might be responding to dieting. Restriction of calorie intake during the day signals the brain to overcompensate.

Body Image. People with a negative body image are more likely to develop an eating disorder. Negative body image includes fear of gaining weight, overly focused on being thin, or unhappiness or frustration with their body. A negative body image can develop if a person is influenced by media or wants to live up to societal standards or norms. A negative body image can lead to frequent dieting and overeating.


Credit to Addiction Hope

  • According to estimates by David Kessler, professor at UCSF, and former commissioner of the FDA, there are more than 70 million food-addicted adults in the United States [1].

  • About 50% of the obese, 30% of those overweight, and 20% who are considered a healthy weight, are addicted to a specific food, combinations of foods, or a volume of food in general [2].

  • An estimated 400,000 adult deaths each year in the United States are associated with obesity. Total costs, including medical expenses and days lost from work because of illness, disability, or premature death, from obesity in 2000, were estimated to be $117 billion [3].



[3]: Thompson, J. Kevin. Handbook of Eating Disorders and Obesity. John Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Health Consequences

Credit to NEDA


  • Binge eating can cause the stomach to rupture, creating a life-threatening emergency.


  • Although the brain weighs only three pounds, it consumes up to one-fifth of the body's calories. Dieting, fasting, self-starvation, and/or erratic eating means the brain isn't getting the energy it needs, leading to obsessing about food and difficulties concentrating.

  • Extreme hunger or fullness at bedtime can create difficulties falling or staying asleep.

  • Individuals of higher body weights are at increased risk of sleep apnea, a disorder in which they regularly stop breathing while asleep.


  • Over time, binge eating can increase the chances that a person's body will become resistant to insulin, a hormone that lets the body get energy from carbohydrates. This hormone increase can lead to Type 2 Diabetes.


Treatment options for food addiction are still being vetted. Some argue that recovery from food addiction is more complicated than from other habits because eating can't be avoided as drugs or alcohol can. But there are no arguments that treatment should be two-fold. First, the treatment should break the habit of overeating. Second, that treatment should address the mental health problems accompanying food addictions.

Medical News Today

"Treatments that may be effective include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This branch of psychotherapy aims to identify and change negative thought patterns and create new coping mechanisms for food addiction triggers. People can take a course of CBT either individually or in a group session.

  • Medication: A person may take medications to relieve depression or anxiety symptoms that may underly compulsive eating.

  • Solution-focused therapy: A therapist can help an individual find solutions for specific issues, triggers, and stressors in a person's life that lead to overeating.

  • Trauma therapy: A psychotherapist helps a person come to terms with the trauma that may have links to trigger compulsive eating.

  • Nutritional counseling and dietary planning: This can help a person develop a healthy approach to food choices and meal planning."

There are many programs, including Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, based on a 12-step program for people with addictions of any kind.

Book: Clinical Handbook of Complex and Atypical Eating Disorders

Author: Anderson, L.K.; Murray, S.B.; Kaye, W.H.

Publish Date: September 26, 2017

Price: $69 (Paperback)

Description: "Clinical Handbook of Complex and Atypical Eating Disorders brings together into one comprehensive resource what is known about an array of complicating factors for patients with ED, serving as an accessible introduction to each of the comorbidities and symptom presentations highlighted in the volume. The first section of the book focuses on the treatment of ED in the presence of various comorbidities, and the second section explores the treatment of ED with atypical symptom presentations. The third section focuses on how to adapt ED treatments for diverse populations typically neglected in controlled treatment trials: LGBT, pediatric, male, ethnically diverse, and older adult populations. Each chapter includes a review of clinical presentation, prevalence, treatment approaches, resources, conclusions, and future directions. Cutting edge and practical, Clinical Handbook of Complex and Atypical Eating Disorders will appeal to researchers and health professionals involved in treating ED."

Check out Eating Disorder Types and Eating Disorder Severity Test!

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