What you need to know about food addiction

food-addictionFood addiction is a very real phenomenon impacting the lives of more people with each passing day.

Engaging identical neurobiological pathways to the same parts of the brain involved in drug addiction, this disorder is characterized by the inability to control eating junk foods. (1)

While this may not be new information for people struggling with the problem, the term “food addiction” is relatively new and still somewhat controversial.

Ongoing studies will help researchers accurately determine how similar food addictions are to drug addictions, but preliminary information indicates the models look almost exactly alike, even in regard to tolerance and withdrawal. (2)

Not all people suffering from food addictions are overweight, but many are.

Worldwide obesity rates are more than twice what they were in 1980. In 2014, nearly 40% of adults were considered overweight and 13% obese. Overweight is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 or more, and obesity is greater than 30. (3)

The World Health organization labels current obesity rates as a crisis, and food addiction may be a contributing factor to this global problem.

If you’ve ever had difficulty stopping even after you felt full, or engaged in secret eating binges, you could be among the ranks of those suffering from food addiction.

Sugar and wheat are among the most common foods that trigger addictive behavior with food. (4)

Trigger foods like sugar stimulate the reward center by causes a release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain. This process hijacks logical thinking, and the ability to stop eating may be compromised, if not obliterated. (5)

If you’ve experienced half of these symptoms of food addiction, your relationship with food could be compromised in a concerning manner; more than half could indicate a food addiction:

  • You often crave particular foods, even if you’ve just eaten a good meal and feel full
  • You justify to yourself the reasons why it’s all right to indulge a craving
  • When you eat a food you’ve been craving, you eat more than you meant to, sometimes before you realize you’re doing it
  • You find yourself eating so much of the food you craved that you become miserably stuffed
  • You feel guilty afterward
  • You sometimes hide the fact that you indulged (or overindulged)
  • You set rules about foods you want to stop eating, or how often you can eat them, but keep breaking those rules; “cheat” meals or days are included in this pattern
  • You feel out of control about the unhealthy foods (or amount of foods) you’re eating, even when you know the behavior is harming your health

Many people who struggle with issues like these think they lack willpower or discipline, which isn’t the case at all for food addicts.

And the truth is, there’s only one effective way to deal with it: go cold turkey.

But . . . What About Moderation?

Addiction is addiction, whether it’s addiction to alcohol, cocaine, gambling, shopping, nicotine or food.

The sticky point here is that we can live without going to the mall, smoking a cigarette or having a drink; without food, we starve.

When you overeat unhealthy foods, you’re hurting yourself.

A few bites of ice cream, a slice of cake, a candy bar, a handful of potato chips – whatever it is that sets any food addict off and sends her to that place where moderation doesn’t exist is exactly what lands her right back into addiction.

The same stimuli and circumstances regularly send men back to addiction as well, but whether it’s food or drugs, research has established that cyclic hormonal fluctuation make women more vulnerable to the neurobiological patterns leading to addiction. (6)

With food addiction, the specter of future health issues can be depressing, and depression is indeed one of the potential outcomes of food addiction, just as it can be with other addictions. (7)

Besides being unhappy with their bodies, food addicts must also deal with how addictive behavior damages self-esteem. For example, overweight children often express low self-esteem through bullying. (8)

After food addicts have knowingly continued to inflict damage on themselves, they can look forward to the price they’ll pay in physical health, from obesity and type 2 diabetes to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer. (9)

Moderation is fine as long as you don’t have a food addiction. (10)

If you do, taking a bite of garlic bread or eating a single brownie will have exactly the same end result as an alcoholic taking a sip of wine, or a gambler buying chips at the casino.

What You Can Do

If you have an addiction to food, the sooner you accept that it’s a genuine disorder, the sooner you can decide to take action to protect yourself from the long-term effects of addiction.

Avoid foods that trigger you into overeating, and let go of the idea that you can ever eat “normally.” (11)

While it might seem like a daunting task to avoid junk food, nobody can force you to eat pretzels, doughnuts, candy, chips, or whatever foods trigger you.

Denying the issue makes things harder. (12) Many people find that making the decision to leave problematic foods alone smooths the path, and sometimes even banishes cravings.

Take these action steps:

  • Make a list of all the reasons why you want to give up junk foods, like feeling better, looking better, living longer, or whatever bothers you most about being out of control with food.
  • Write down why you don’t want to stop eating junk food; maybe you dread having to explain your choices to others, or you hate the idea of skipping dessert at family celebrations.
  • Keep copies of your list where you can see or refer to it, like on the fridge, in your car or wallet.
  • List all the foods you know trigger you, and the healthy foods you will focus on when you quit the others.
  • If you habitually eat fast food, find out which places offer healthy options for when you cannot or don’t want to cook.
  • Set a date (not tomorrow) that gives you enough time to prepare yourself, both mentally and with appropriate food supplies.

Don’t start a diet for at least a month; two or three is better. Adding restrictions on top of quitting junk food isn’t a wise move.

If you relapse (and most people do, often more than once) start over. Support groups can help, and most cities have meetings of Food Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous or similar organizations.

Summary: If you or someone you love has a food addiction, it’s as serious as any drug addiction, and it only gets worse until the decision is made to overcome the problem.


  1. http://journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Abstract/2010/07000/Neurobiology_of_food_addiction.3.aspx
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2910406/ http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder/mental-health-food-addiction
  3. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/
  4. http://evolutionarypsychiatry.blogspot.com/2011/04/binge-eating-and-sugar-fat-showdown.html
  5. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306452205004288
  6. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/shes-hooked/
  7. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523101929.htm
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23108439
  9. https://www.mediweightlossclinics.com/patients/resources/articles/obesity-facts/
  10. http://fromdoughnutstodumbbells.co/2014/07/26/moderation-doesnt-work-for-addicts/
  11. http://www.drsharma.ca/does-food-addiction-require-abstinence
  12. http://foodaddiction.com/denial/
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