Some people use the term food addiction to talk about a compulsive or uncontrollable urge to eat food that does not relate to feelings of hunger. This behavior may occur in response to an emotion, such as stress, sadness, or anger.
However, defining food addiction has been challenging. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) does not include a standalone category for diagnosing food addiction.
The human body needs food to provide energy and nutrition. However, people can feel addicted to food when they become dependent on certain types of foods. Any food can make a person feel addictive tendencies.
In this article, we define food addiction and its characteristics, as well as giving tips on how to manage potential eating compulsions when they occur.
According to 2019 research, three positions summarize the current debate around food addiction:
- The addictive potential of certain foods, such as those with high levels of carbohydrates or fat, qualifies food addiction as a substance use disorder.
- Researchers have not identified a specific substance that triggers addiction, such as the nicotine in cigarettes, in potentially ‘addictive’ foods. This means that eating addiction is behavioral and not related to a substance.
- Neither of the above holds scientific weight, and even if they did, diagnosing compulsive eating as a food addiction would not be clinically helpful.
Despite not having a formal diagnosis in DSM-5, some healthcare professionals still use the term ‘food addiction’.
The study leader, Dr. Miele, argues that some people cite obesity prevention as justification for a food addiction diagnosis, and that many laws around restricting potentially ‘addictive’ foods take inspiration from similar laws around tobacco and alcohol, such as higher taxation.
Around 35% of adults in the United States have obesity. However, people with obesity equate to only about one-third of those who compulsively eat, even though food addiction has some associations with weight gain.
While food addiction may contribute to obesity for some people, it is also not the only factor. One earlier review found that up to 10% of people with a normal weight range or overweight had food addiction. However, there are few recent studies on its prevalence.
Therefore, Dr. Miele maintains that treating compulsive eating might have indirect benefits for obesity prevention at a national level but that the success of these initiatives does not depend on people compulsively eating.
Other researchers argue that there is not enough evidence to suggest 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 specific ingredients themselves are addictive.
Those on the side of diagnosing food addiction suggest that consuming food triggers pleasurable chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine, that act as a reward. These chemicals can also act as a release from emotional distress.
Some foods with high sugar, fat, or starch content may have close associations with food addiction. These are known as hyperpalatable foods – while they are not inherently addictive, their flavour makes them easy to compulsively eat.
However, any foods that a person finds comforting can lead to uncontrollable urges.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale identified certain foods that appeared to have close links with food addiction. This is a questionnaire that helps doctors diagnose food addiction. Examples of possible trigger foods include:
- white bread
- ice cream
However, it is worth noting that a person might develop a compulsion to eat any food that brings them comfort.
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:
- reduced self-worth
Food addiction can also trigger physical responses, including:
- intensive food restriction
- compulsive exercise
- self-induced vomiting
Treatment for compulsive eating should 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 may be effective include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This branch of psychotherapy aims to identify and change negative thought patterns, as well as creating 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 symptoms of depression or anxiety 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.
Several lifestyle changes can also help a person manage uncontrollable urges to consume particular foods, including:
- replacing processed foods and sweeteners with nourishing or less caloric alternatives, such as swapping out table sugar for stevia or potato chips for lentil chips and popcorn
- avoiding caffeine
- allowing time for a food craving to subside, which can be 2–5 days or longer (http://foodaddictionresearch.org/question-and-answer/if-im-addicted-to-food-what-can-i-do/)
- eating three balanced meals a day
- drinking plenty of water
- mindful eating, which involved sitting down to eat meals, focusing on the taste and texture of the food, and chewing slowly
- preparing and sticking to a grocery list of healthful foods
- cooking meals at home
- exercising regularly
- getting enough sleep
- reducing stress in social settings and the workplace
Crash dieting is not helpful for curbing dietary urges, as the craving can return once food intake becomes less restrictive.
People who compulsively eat certain foods and feel they would benefit from a particular diet plan should speak to a dietitian, nutritionist, or physician before starting to restrict their intake.
Simple, achievable changes are the most likely to support long-term, healthful eating habits.
Anyone who feels that their eating is out of control or who wants help getting to a healthy weight should speak to their doctor.
Likewise, if self-prescribed lifestyle changes are not sticking or compulsive eating behaviors continue, a person may benefit from seeking medical assistance.
A doctor will be able to help suggest treatment methods and routines for healthy eating, weight loss for those who would benefit, and regular exercise.
A therapist can also help a person develop new coping mechanisms and a more positive relationship with food.