What is Food Addiction?

What is Food Addiction?

Food addiction, a term often used synonymously with eating addiction, is an addiction to the process of eating. Food addicts become addicted to the process of overeating. Unplanned and mindless eating behaviors can also be a sign of food addiction. Treatment for food addiction is available.

In today’s  drive-thru culture it seems like every one of us is at risk of becoming (or already is) a food addict. Whether a chocoholic or a junk food junkie, one in three of us in the United States is considered obese by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). It’s no wonder the concept of “food addiction” has become a popular discussion amongst healthcare professionals, politicians, researchers, and the public alike. But, is food really to blame? Is it really an addiction? What about all the other terms we hear about such as compulsive overeating, binge eating disorder, or emotional eating? Are they all talking about the same thing?  More importantly, how do you know if you are a food addict?  And if you are a food addict, how do you get help?

Defining Food Addiction

Defining food addiction is controversial.  Research surrounding this idea is new and experts still do not agree. Where most of us do agree is on the definition of addiction. Sussman and Sussman’s (2011) five elements of addiction:

   Engagement in the behavior to achieve appetitive effects

   Preoccupation with the behavior

   Temporary satiation

   Loss of control

   Suffering negative consequences

The tricky part about food addiction is that while sufferers absolutely meet all five criteria for addiction, there has to be a substance that causes the addictive behavior. Eating is intrinsically rewarding and is well-known to activate the reward system in the brain, but that does not necessarily mean that specific nutrients (i.e., sugar, salt, fat) are able to trigger a substance addiction. In fact, most scientific research has concluded that there are no inherent properties within any nutrient that have the capacity to induce addiction.  

So, if science says food is not addictive then why can’t we stop eating? There’s the problem. Turns out we’re addicted to the process of eating, rather than to the actual food. Those of us who overeat usually don’t restrict our diets to specific foods; instead, the high availability of palatable foods renders us vulnerable to overeating. Sure, certain foods like high sugar-high fat combinations are more rewarding than others (I’ve yet to meet a broccoli addict), but it’s the process of eating, or overeating, that we get addicted to.

The following graph shows what it is like to be engaged in a process addiction:

Food addiction is more aptly defined as a process addiction to eating. We are addicted to the behavioral cycle of overeating. While “eating addiction” is probably a more accurate term, for familiarity sake, we will continue to call it food addiction.

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Food Addiction?

Being overweight is not the same as being a food addict.  Not only can you be overweight and not suffer from food addiction, but you can be of normal weight, or even underweight, and still struggle with food addiction.

While overeating is a hallmark of food addiction, one does not have to binge eat in order to be a food addict. Unplanned and mindless eating behaviors can also be a sign of food addiction.          

Ashley Gearhardt published the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) to characterize those with food addictions.  Below are a sample of statements that may help you decide if you have a food addiction:

   I eat more than I planned to eat, especially when eating certain foods.

   I keep eating certain foods even if I am no longer hungry.

   I eat to the point of feeling ill.

   I worry about not eating certain types of foods.

   I worry about cutting down on certain types of foods.

   I will go out of my way to obtain certain foods.

Some food addiction symptoms may include negative impacts on your social, personal and psychological well-being.  It is worth taking a look at your relationship with food by asking if any of these scenarios are true of your experience:

   Sometimes, the food I eat interferes with work, spending time with family, or recreational activities.

   Sometimes, I avoid situations where certain foods are available because of fear of overeating

   Sometimes, I have problems doing my best at my job, or school, because of food and eating.

   My eating habits sometimes cause me to experience depression, anxiety, self-loathing, or guilt.

   When I eat food it reduces my negative emotions or brings me pleasure.

   When I eat a regular amount of food, it does not reduce my negative emotions or bring me pleasure the way it used to.

Below is a list of common food addiction side effects:

Physical Effects Social Effects Psychological Effects
  • Malnutrition
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Sleep disorders
  • Headaches
  • Kidney/Liver Disease
  • Arthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain
  • Lethargy
  • Avoidance of social events or functions
  • Isolation from loved ones
  • Decreased performance at work or school
  • Division within family units
  • Lack of enjoyment in hobbies or activities once enjoyed
  • Risk of jeopardizing finances or career
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Feeling sad hopeless, or in despair
  • Increased feelings of anxiety
  • Increased irritability, especially if access to desired, food is restricted
  • Emotional detachment or numbness

Food Addiction Treatment

The good news is that the increased attention on food addiction has inspired more and more treatment programs for food addicts.  However, any treatment protocol should begin with the understanding that food addiction is really a process addiction to the behavior of overeating. Treatment approaches that only try and address the food (e.g., diet plans that cut out all sugar or starch) are not likely to create lasting recovery.

At Lifestyle Transformation, we recognize that one does not become addicted to the process of overeating overnight.  A successful treatment program will identify the underlying issues , in order to break the addiction cycle. Lifestyle Transformation is a leading national program that combines psychoeducation about the neuroscience of food addiction, with group psychotherapy, to help members understand their eating patterns and take the steps necessary to live a life free from addiction.  

To find out if you have a food addiction, you can take the Lifestyle Transformation Quiz today and see if Lifestyle Transformation is the right treatment program for you.

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