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What is a Food Addiction?


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Food addiction or eating addiction is a behavioral disorder in which people compulsively eat. This is also sometimes referred to as compulsive eating disorder or compulsive overeating. Food addiction is similar to other process addictions like gambling or shopping in that the reward portion of the brain is stimulated through the behavior. Food addicts crave eating certain foods again because it makes them feel good. 

When it comes to compulsive eating and food addiction, there are certain types of foods that are typically associated with the addiction. However, people can crave and become addicted to any food or beverage. Food addiction remains a controversial topic because many experts argue that using the term ‘addiction’ indicates a physical craving for a substance, like alcohol or drugs.

To date, there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence to show that there are ingredients in foods that the body can become addicted to such as nicotine in cigarettes. Although certain foods have shown to be more ‘addictive’ than others. These palatable foods are generally ones that are high in fat or high in sugar. They include: 

  • Sweet foods like chocolate, candy, ice cream, etc. 
  • Starchy foods like white bread, pasta, rice, etc.
  • Salty foods like potato chips, pretzels, etc. 
  • Fatty foods like pizza, burgers, fries, etc. 
  • Sugary beverages like soda, energy drinks, sweet teas

Food addicts consume these types of foods in large amounts and can intake between 5,000 and 15,000 calories in a day. This is far more than is needed and is unhealthy. Food addiction can lead to obesity and other serious health issues. After eating these large amounts of food, a compulsive eater or food addict with then get stress relief much like someone with an alcohol addiction does after they have a drink. However, just as with any addiction, this soon changes. 

Who Becomes a Food Addict? 

While it’s impossible to say exactly what causes one person to become addicted to food and the next not, there are certain characteristics found in individuals with food addiction. Several studies have found a correlation between individuals with anxiety or depression and food addiction. In addition, since food addiction is so similar to other addictions, it’s speculated that childhood trauma may also put someone at a greater risk of developing a food or other addiction. 

Some people who are in recovery from alcohol or drugs may develop food addictions. This is called cross-addiction and can occur with food, gambling, sex, video gaming, and more. Cross-addictions don’t occur at the same time but over a lifetime. For example, a person may not drink alcohol anymore but they have become compulsive eaters or gamblers. 

Just as with addiction of any kind, anyone can be impacted. Here are some commonly found themes with food addiction causes: 

  • Emotional stress

Those individuals with food addictions may use food as a way to feel good and relieve stress. For example, after a job accomplishment, you may celebrate with a big steak dinner. However, after a bad day at work, you may also treat yourself to a big steak dinner in order to ‘cheer up’ or because you deserve it. Just as with alcohol or other drugs, you then become dependent on this to feel better. This dependency can lead to addiction. 

  • Chemicals in the brain

Certain foods have been shown to stimulate the same parts of the brain as alcohol and drugs. This is particularly true of high sugar and high-fat foods.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

PTSD has been linked to a greater risk of food addiction. One study found that women with PTSD had double the rate of also having a food addiction than other women with no PTSD symptoms or past trauma. 

No matter what the causes of food addiction are, it’s important to understand that compulsive overeating can be dangerous and bad for your health and well-being. As with other addictions, the sooner you get help the better. 

Signs of Food Addiction

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders Edition 5, (DSM-V) doesn’t have a specific diagnosis for food addiction, most professionals rely on what is outlined in the DSM-V for substance use disorders to help identify food addiction. Many of the signs of food addiction are similar to those of other addictions, as mentioned. 

The Yale Food Addiction Scale is a diagnostic tool also used by professionals to help determine if someone has a food addiction or not. Ashley Gearhardt and her colleagues at Yale University based the addiction scale on criteria in the DSM-IV for substance dependence. 

Here are some signs of food addiction:

  • Obsessive food cravings
  • Preoccupation with eating or getting food
  • Engaging in binge eating or compulsive eating 
  • Trying to stop compulsive or binge eating and being unable
  • Losing control over when and how much food is eaten
  • Eating alone 
  • Eating to the point of feeling ill
  • Having family, relationship, social, or financial issues 
  • Experiencing emotional release when compulsively eating
  • Developing a tolerance and needing to eat more food to achieve the same good feelings
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as cravings, irritability when abstaining from compulsive eating 

These symptoms are very much like those that someone addicted to alcohol, drugs, or gambling may experience. In addition to these symptoms, after the individual has overeaten they experience some other symptoms that are common to food addiction. These include: 

  • Guilt 
  • Shame 
  • Loss of self-esteem 
  • Decreased self-worth

Feelings of guilt and shame are common with other types of addiction as well. In some cases, after overeating and feeling guilty and ashamed, some individuals will overeat again in order to try to ease those uncomfortable feelings. This cycle can continue on and on until help for food addiction is sought. 

Treatment for Food Addiction 

Just as with other addictions, getting treatment and support is vital. There are treatment programs that provide focused care for those struggling with compulsive overeating and food addiction. Look for programs with experience in treating food addiction and aftercare support. 

In addition to aftercare support, there are support groups for food addicts as well. Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA) is based on the same 12-Steps as Alcoholics Anonymous and has helped many people with food addiction.  

Futures Recovery Healthcare provides professional, compassionate care for adults with alcohol or substance use disorders as well as those with certain mental health disorders. Contact us today to learn more about our programs and how we can help you. Call 866-804-2098.


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