Food addiction refers to when the need to eat becomes compulsive or uncontrollable. This compulsive behavior may be in response to an emotion, such as stress, sadness, or anger.

The human body needs food to function, but food addiction is when a person becomes dependent on certain types of foods. Foods that contribute to a food addiction are usually unhealthful, such as chips, candy, or white bread.

What is a food addiction?

Food addiction may actually be an addiction to the behavior of eating.
Food addiction may actually be an addiction to the behavior of eating.

Food addiction is closely associated with eating disorders, including obesity, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. One theory suggests that individuals can develop a chemical dependency to particular foods in the same way that people develop addictions to alcohol or cigarettes.

Consuming food triggers chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine, that act as a reward and give pleasurable sensations to the individual. These chemicals can also act as a release from emotional distress.

However, other research argues that there is not enough evidence to say that food has the same addictive qualities as alcohol or cigarettes. This research states that the term ‘food addiction’ is misleading because it suggests that ingredients themselves are addictive.

Addiction can be split into two categories: addiction to a substance, such as a drug, or addiction to a behavior, such as eating.

Food addiction, it is argued, is an addiction to the behavior of eating.

It is estimated that around 35 percent of adults in the United States are obese. However, people who are obese equate to only about one third of those with a food addiction, even though food addiction is sometimes associated with weight gain.

So, while food addiction may contribute to obesity, it is not the only factor. One review found that up to 10 percent of people with a food addiction were underweight, at a healthy weight, or overweight rather than obese.

Which foods are associated with food addiction?

It is believed that foods rich in sugar, fat, or starch are more closely associated with food addiction.

The Yale Food Addiction Scale, which is a questionnaire designed to help diagnose food addiction, identified certain foods that appeared to be the more problematic:

  • chips
  • fries
  • candy
  • chocolate
  • cookies
  • white bread
  • pasta
  • ice cream

Symptoms of food addiction

Having obsessive cravings and being preoccupied with obtaining food are symptoms of a food addiction.
Having obsessive cravings and being preoccupied with obtaining food are symptoms of a food addiction.

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

  • having obsessive food cravings
  • being preoccupied with obtaining and consuming food
  • continued binge or compulsive eating
  • continued attempts to stop overeating, followed by relapses
  • loss of control over how much, how often, and where eating occurs
  • negative impact on family life, socializing, 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 consuming large quantities of food, a person with a food addiction 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

Treatment and management

man discussing issues with a therapist
Cognitive behavioral therapy may be effective in treating food addiction.

Treatment for food addiction needs to address the emotional, physical, and psychological needs of the individual.

Treatment will focus on breaking the destructive habit of chronic overeating. The goal is to replace dysfunctional eating habits with healthy ones and to address problems, such as depression or anxiety.

Treatments that have been found to be effective include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to identify and change thought patterns and create new coping mechanisms for food addiction triggers. CBT can be done individually or in a group with others.
  • Medication, which may be used to relieve symptoms of depression or anxiety.
  • Solution-focused therapy, which focuses on finding solutions for specific issues in a person’s life that cause stress and overeating.
  • Trauma therapy, which aims to deal with trauma that may be associated with or may trigger a food addiction.
  • Nutritional counseling and dietary planning, which can help a person develop a healthy approach to food choices and meal planning.

There are also several lifestyle changes that may help a person manage a food addiction, including:

  • replacing processed foods and sweeteners with nourishing alternatives
  • avoiding caffeine
  • allowing time for a food craving to subside, which can be 2-5 days or longer
  • eating three balanced meals a day
  • drinking plenty of water
  • sitting at a table while eating, focusing on the food, and chewing slowly
  • preparing and sticking to a grocery list of healthful foods when shopping
  • cooking meals at home
  • exercising regularly
  • getting enough sleep
  • reducing workplace and social stress

When to see a doctor

Anyone who feels that their eating is out of control, or who wants help getting to a healthy weight, should speak to their doctor. A doctor will be able to help suggest treatment methods and routines for healthy eating, weight loss, and regular exercise.

A therapist can also help a person develop new coping mechanisms and a more positive relationship with food.