Last updated: 04/17/2018
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 10 minutes
For most of us, having a health relationship with food is nothing but a forethought. Eating helps to build strong bones and muscles, replenish vitamins and minerals and food is a vital source to promote life. Unfortunately, for some people food causes an uncontrollable craving that manifests as an addiction and leads to excessive consumption of sugars and other foods which leads to physical, emotional and social consequences.
Until recently, many did not actually believe that there was a condition in which people could actually become addicted to food but recent scientific research has confirmed that food addiction is possible and does happen. Experiments in animals and in humans have shown that in some cases, the reward and pleasure centers that are triggered when using certain drugs can also be activated with food. The probability of such addiction is highly likely with foods that are rich in sugar, fat or salt but other foods can also play into an addiction as well.
What is Food Addiction?
Food addiction is a disease similar to drug or alcohol addiction in which a chemical reaction in the brain is triggered by a certain behavior. With food addiction, the behavior that triggers the reaction is eating a particular food or a particular amount of food. This addiction manifests itself in the uncontrollable cravings that one has for excessive eating and typically involves eating salty, sugary or carbohydrate rich foods for satisfaction.
The cravings that a food addict will have to eat are so strong that the addict cannot control them and in many cases, food addiction will lead to a deteriorated quality of life. Physical, emotional, social and spiritual happiness and well-being are all affects by food addiction. Once an individual who is addicted to food eats and experiences the “high” or pleasurable state that they feel when they are done eating, they will quickly feel the need to eat more or to eat again to feel that feeling.
Tolerance can build as an individual eats more and this can lead to a desire to eat even when they are already full. In fact, tolerance can result in an individual’s need to consume more and more food with less and less satisfaction from their eating over time. Because of the tolerance that builds, scientists believe that food addiction plays an important role in obesity and in the struggle to lose weight.
Food Addiction Symptoms
The symptoms of food addiction affect an individual physically, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Food addicts gain pleasure from the anticipation of eating, the availability of food or from actually eating food. This pleasure leads to excessive eating, typically of the wrong types of foods, that can lead to increased weight gain, poor self-image, and a range of other medical conditions. Often times, food addicts do not even realize that they are addicted to food as their addiction and improper eating habits have simply become a way of life.
Early detection of a food addiction is vital to the successful recovery for the individual. Further, the sooner that one realizes the need for help, the least chance there is for negative consequences to have set in such as extreme weight gain, physical illness or other problems that are associated with eating too much or consuming the wrong foods.
Not all food addictions result in weight gain though. In some cases, an individual’s decision to consume large amounts of food is followed by excessive exercising, vomiting or use of laxatives to eliminate or reduce that number of calories that were eaten. This is known as bulimia. In other cases, excessive eating is followed by instances of limiting food for days or even weeks at a time which is a form of anorexia. Both of these eating disorders are characterized by an addiction in some manner to food and can lead to extreme weight loss.
Physical Food Addiction Symptoms
- Inability to control cravings for food or to control amount of food that is eaten
- trying many different weight loss or diet programs but still excessively consuming food
- vomiting, using laxatives or exercising in excess to avoid weight gain as a result of over consumption of food
Each of these physical symptoms of food addiction can lead to long term consequences. Those who vomit regularly to overcome the fact that they ate a large amount of food are likely to suffer from tooth decay, esophageal problems, malnutrition and a range of other issues as a result of their addiction. In time, an obsession with food, whether it’s an obsession with not eating, overeating and dieting to cover it up or using diuretics or other methods to reduce weight from overeating, a food obsession can lead to rash physical problems and could even result in death if left untreated.
Social Symptoms of Food Addiction
- eating behind closed doors to prevent others from seeing what you are eating or how much
- avoiding social interactions because you feel like you cannot be around others due to a lack of ability to control your eating
- avoiding social interactions because you don’t feel like you look good enough or have clothes that fit correctly due to your eating habits
- stealing food from others
- obsessing over food and paying more attention to the food that is being served than to those friends or family members who you will be consuming the food with
Socially, food addiction leads to an intense obsession with food that can distract us from the things that really matter such as spending time with friends or family members. In time, the food addict will find more time to spend with food and may spend less and less time socially interacting in a healthy way with others. Many food addicts will hide food or steal food from others so that they can secretly indulge in the foods behind closed doors.
Emotional Symptoms of Food Addiction
- feeling ashamed of your weight
- feeling depressed or sad about your weight or self-image
- feeling hopeless when it comes to losing weight
- eating when upset or depressed
- eating as a reward for a job well done
- eating when you are not hungry
- becoming anxious or irritable when eating certain foods or when not eating or if there doesn’t seem to be enough food
Food addiction can have an adverse effect on our emotions that lead to mood swings and other mental health problems. Some food addicts will suffer from great depression or anxiety as a result of their inability to control their eating habits despite a desire to eat less and to improve their self-image. Others are emotional eaters who eat just because they are happy or just because they are sad but when these emotions take over their eating slips out of control.
Types of Food Addiction
Various types of food addiction exist. Some food addictions are marked by an individual’s desire to consume large amounts of food at one time (binge eating) while others are characterized by the obsession that an individual has with food (bulimia).
The most common types of food addiction are:
- Binge eating – binge eaters will gorge themselves on large amounts of food such as sweets, salty foods or carbohydrates. They typically eat behind closed doors so that others do not know that they eat so much and they are not always binge eaters. Binge eating is usually an occasional practice and in many cases, this type of food addiction will go unnoticed for many years because the individual will exercise or perform other actions to prevent from gaining excessive amounts of weight that would lead others to discover their problem.
- Anorexia – anorexic individuals will typically limit their food intake in an effort to stay thin no matter what the cost. Many anorexic eaters will only eat once per day or may not even eat every day and when they do eat, they only eat small portions of certain foods. Many will count how many bites they take or strictly measure the food that they place on their plates in an effort to reduce intake and monitor the amount of food that they consume.
- Bulimia – bulimic individuals will eat as much as they want when they want to eat but they will later take extreme measures to prevent from gaining weight as a result of their uncontrolled eating. They may exercise excessively to burn calories or they will take laxatives or diuretics to prevent weight gain. Excessive eating followed by vomiting is another common symptoms of Bulimia.
- General Food Addiction – some people are just generally addicted to food and do not take extreme measures to cover their addiction up or to hide the symptoms of their addiction. These people will excessively consume salty foods, sugary foods or other types of foods and such consumption is likely to lead to weight gain, health problems, and other consequences for the individual but despite the consequences, the individual continues to feel a burning desire to continue eating.
Identifying Trigger Foods
Are you ready to accept that you have a food addiction and need help? One of the first steps that you can take in overcoming food addiction on your own is to identify trigger foods that may be at the root of your addiction.
You can identify trigger foods by:
- keeping a food diary that logs the food you eat, when you eat, why you ate, how you felt before you ate and how you felt after you at. Also, keep track of the amount of food you eat.
- After a week or two, review the diary and look for a pattern in your eating. Are you eating when you are sad, mad, happy, bored?
By keeping a food diary and monitoring the diary to determine which emotions or situations trigger you to eat, or which foods are your downfall you can take steps to get rid of such situations, change such behaviors or eliminate certain danger foods from your diet.
More Self Help for Food Addiction
Once you have your food diary in your hand and have kept careful track of the foods that you eat, when you eat, how much you eat and why you eat you can begin to formulate a plan to stop these bad eating habits and to later take on healthy eating habits that will work for you. Follow these steps to ridding yourself of food addiction and getting back on track with some healthy eating habits.
- Slowly eliminate trigger foods from your diet. You don’t have to eliminate foods all at once but if you realize that fast food is your downfall, consider not eating fast food anymore or think about limiting your consumption. Say you eat fast food 5 days per week, limit yourself down to eating fast food once per week. You can even taper this off slowing such as by limiting your fast food down to three days weekly and then gradually down to only once per week or not even every week.
- Replace bad foods with good foods. If you are a binge eater or you just like to consume food, there are foods that you can eat a lot of without the consequences. Fresh fruits and vegetables are on the top of the list of good foods that you can eat a lot of without the guilt. As you eliminate one food from your triggers list, try replacing it with a healthy fruit or vegetable option.
- Cope with cravings. If you are having a craving for a particular food such as chocolate or salty potato chips, consider asking yourself why you want to eat that food. Are you just bored? Are you lonely or upset? Most of the time, food cravings are our brain’s method of overcoming or coping with a particular emotion and have nothing to do with our own actual hunger. If you are craving a particular food, commit to yourself to take some time before you make the final decision to eat the food or try to distract yourself from thinking about the food by taking a walk, calling a friend, or connecting with another method of support.
- Distractions are key. Often times, food addiction is the direct result of boredom or a feeling of helplessness when it comes to losing weight. If you’ve fallen victim to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude in which you have tried dieting but just can’t seem to lose the weight, consider making an honest attempt to find more distractions. Distract yourself by going to the gym, playing a game, or taking part in another activity.
You are not alone. Food addiction treatment professionals and support groups can help you overcome.
Treatment for Food Addiction
Scientists are still working to figure out and fully understand every facet of food addiction but there have been some treatments which have proven to be effective at helping people to come out on top of their addiction. Many argue that food addiction is actually more complicated than certain types of drug or alcohol addiction simply because people can refrain from using drugs or alcohol but they cannot completely refrain from eating. This means that for those who do suffer from food addiction, there will always be the presence of food in their lives which can cause a potential relapse.
Food addiction treatment typically consists of behavioral therapy, nutrition counseling, education and social support. If an addiction to food is primarily the result of an emotional disorder such as anxiety or depression, psychological counseling and medication to treat the mental illness can often reduce the adverse addiction to food.
Nutritional counseling is often effective at helping those who are addicted to food to at least learn about the foods that are better for them so that they eat healthily. Nutritionists can help those with a food addiction to learning to cook healthier meals, learn about the foods that they can indulge on and learn about the foods that they can safely eat to make them feel full for longer. Healthy eating habits can become a normal part of everyday life for recovering food addicts with the help of some nutritional counseling, therapy, and support.
Support groups such as Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous are another option of treatment for food addiction. Individuals can get social support in a recovery group like this or Food Addicts Anonymous. Both of these support groups utilize the principles of the 12-step program to help food addicts to learn how to eat better, reduce their food intake, seek spiritual happiness and socially support one another.