Our bodies crave the food we love to eat. And the reason we love the food we eat is because it gives us a feeling of comfort, pleasure and/or euphoria. We are creatures of habit, and our habits are formed from our needs and wants. It’s important to understand the differences between a normal urge to eat and an unhealthy food addiction. Food addiction is not about being fat. It’s not about eating unhealthy snacks between meals or eating more than we should. Food addiction is about the fact that the pleasure we feel from eating certain foods is more important than our physical (health) needs and feelings.

Food addiction is one thing many people suffer from. Food addiction is a problem with compulsive eating, and it becomes a problem for those who are not able to control their eating even though they know it’s bad for them. Some people suffer from food addiction because of an underlying mental disorder. There are many people who suffer from food addiction, and most of these people who are suffering from food addiction are young.

Many behaviors can be described as addictions – things we find irresistibly necessary to do, despite the consequences. What is binge eating and how can it be treated?

When guitarist Eric Clapton was asked what drug he first became addicted to, he replied: Sugar. And we all know someone who quit hard drugs and then became addicted to food.

So we’re all doomed to food dependency?

For example, 97% of people prescribed opioid painkillers (with no prior history) do not become addicted.  And most of us wouldn’t raid a 7-11 chocolate bar if the price became prohibitive.  But some people are more prone to addiction, whether to opioids or chocolate bars.

So the dependencies are complex: Social, motivational, emotional and genetic factors interact in the development of addiction. The addictive substance itself is not addictive. But some things are more addictive than others.

We often joke about it: I’m ___ addicted, whether it’s to video games, shoes, or ice cream. But what is real addiction? And is this concept useful for understanding eating behaviour?

What is an addiction?

Addiction is an irresistible desire to constantly engage in an activity that brings temporary relief at the cost of terrible consequences. It’s something you hold on to even when it hurts.

To be considered an addiction, there must also be withdrawal – feelings of discomfort, hopelessness, and intense craving – when one withdraws from or stops using an addictive substance or behavior.

What is binge eating?

So, food addiction involves a regular desire to eat or consume certain foods, even if those foods are harmful to us – because they are unhealthy (e.g., high in sugar), because they make us sick, or because we are overweight.

An occasional large meal: not an addiction. Do you regularly eat so much so fast that you end up with a bloated belly and nausea – but you can’t stop? Potential Dependency.

After eating a few cookies (or other potentially addictive foods), a non-addicted person will feel indifferent to eating more.  The experience of a drug addict is very different.  Addicts become absolutely determined in their pursuit of success. Eating a few cookies (or other potentially addictive foods) causes an abnormal reaction – and they want more and more until they physically can’t swallow any more.

Not being an addict doesn’t mean you’re a master of self-control, just that you don’t have an insatiable hunger for more.

Binge eating can be:

  • An overweight woman constantly trying new diets.
  • The person who eats a full meal after snacking on junk food all day to cope with stress at work.
  • A skinny woman who never eats enough and is always hungry because she is afraid of gaining weight (in this case, she stands out because of her refusal to eat).
  • the lonely man who has nothing better to do on a Friday night than watch TV and eat a few bags of chips.
  • Someone who nibbles all day to stave off the boredom of a life without stimulation.
  • A perfectionist who is never satisfied with his body
  • A person with a diet-related illness (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, etc.) who becomes fearfully resistant when therapeutic approaches are offered.

Some food addicts eat too much, others eat too little.  For the addict, food provides the pleasure, relaxation, control, comfort or love they lack in their lives.  Eating can also help relieve difficult emotions, such as anxiety and sadness.  Some people are even dependent on restrictions.

The Yale Food Dependency Test is a clinical tool for assessing food dependency (click here to download it as a PDF).

Food dependency

But here’s the problem with the definition of binge eating: Unlike heroin or gambling, we need food to live. Without an innate desire for food, one can kiss evolution goodbye.

At what point does the great appetite end and the feeding frenzy begin? And can you technically become dependent on something that you need?

While researchers disagree on the exact definition of binge eating and whether it exists, they agree that addiction is a pattern of behavior characterized by the following elements

  • The almost permanent search for a tube
  • strong urge and/or desire for the substance or behaviour in question
  • a strong and total focus on being touched.
  • Withdrawal symptoms as the effect wears off.
  • the need for more or more intense shocks as tolerance increases

By this definition, almost anything, including food, water, or sex (i.e., things that are part of basic biology) can be an addiction.

So let’s call it a food addiction.

Over time, food (or drug) addiction is often less about seeking euphoria and more about avoiding the negative feelings associated with abstinence.  It becomes harder to enjoy food because small amounts of the same food are no longer as satisfying.

Drug addiction: Official definitions

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) defines substance dependence as 3 or more of the following 7 symptoms occurring within 1 year. We will see how they can be linked to food addiction.

Symptom 1: I use more as time goes by.

Tolerance increases with time.

An example of nutrition: If I bought food, I would take it home, have a bite and go on with my day.  Now I go grocery shopping and eat all day until I’ve eaten half of what I bought.

Symptom 2: I am having withdrawal symptoms.

I am now taking this substance to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

Food is one example: I eat processed snacks to relieve fatigue and/or depression.  To get rid of anxiety, I eat something crunchy, like chips or crackers, to calm me down. I am afraid that if I stop correcting my emotions with food, I will have nothing to return to.

Symptom 3: I consume more than I plan to.

Food is one example: One bowl of ice cream becomes 2 bowls, then 3 bowls.  I start with a handful of chips and end up eating the whole bag.

Symptom 4: I am trying or have tried to cut costs

I want to reduce consumption, and I’ve tried, but I haven’t succeeded.

Food is one example: I’ve tried to eat less or stop overeating, but it keeps running through my head and I find a way to beat myself up, even to the point of deliberately having a chocolate bar or chips.

Symptom 5: I spend time watching, consuming or recovering from consumption.

I spend a lot of time on activities that are necessary to maintain the substance or recover from its effects.

Food is one example: I will have a list of things to do on Saturday.  I go to the store, buy some groceries and eat what I bought for the rest of the day, take antacids and sleep all day.

Symptom 6: I miss important events because of my substance use.

I miss or refuse to attend important social, professional or recreational events.

Food is one example: I’m gonna go home and eat.  Second, I’m too full to exercise or go out with friends.

Symptom 7: I eat even if I know the consequences.

I continue to abuse the substance even though I know it will give me a persistent or recurring physical or physiological problem.

Food is one example: I eat despite terrible knee pain due to obesity.  After a copious meal, I feel so bad I can’t lie down without choking on my esophagus.  I have high blood pressure.  I’m unhappy.  I’m shy and scared in social situations, but I always overeat.

What influences dependence on food?

Many factors play a role in the development of binge eating.

Fear : Addicts may be afraid to eat enough, gain weight, and/or experience unpleasant sensations and hunger.

Chronic overeating: Eating too many highly processed foods can stimulate the production of opiates, the chemicals that make you feel good. Regular use can lead to dependence on this natural high.  We become dependent on highly processed foods to feel normal and get withdrawal symptoms if we don’t eat them.

Dietary restrictions : What if I told you not to eat ice cream tomorrow?  What would you do today?  You probably eat a lot of ice cream, right?  The urge to eat and the response to food reward increase after a period of food restriction (real or imagined) and/or nutrient deficiency. Therefore, extreme diets and restrictions almost inevitably lead to gluttony.

Stress: Different forms of stress can be addictive. Binge eating + food restriction + stress is a winning combination for binge eating. An addiction can lie dormant when things are going well and resurface when life is difficult.

Depression: Depression usually changes appetite, hunger and satiety signals, and sleep patterns (in general, good sleep helps us control cravings – sleep is the fuel of willpower).

Weak saturation mechanisms : Some people who suffer from bulimia are less able to perceive satiety signals. They hear hunger signals louder than satiety signals.

Automatically: Eating habits can be ingrained habits that become entrenched in our nervous system. Some argue that they cannot be destroyed – they can only be put into a dormant (temporary) state.

What is so addictive about food?

Are all pleasurable foods automatically addictive?  Probably not.

Palace Point

Processed foods are made in a way that exceeds the fundamental health benefits of traditional whole foods, making them hyper-flavoured.

Think of foods like ice cream, hamburgers, candy, processed cheese, fatty sauces, etc. These are the foods that stimulate the release of opioids and dopamine in the brain and are addictive. These are the foods that stimulate the release of opioids and dopamine in the brain and are addictive (note: artificial sweeteners can even trigger a dopamine response).

Studies on rodents confirm this: It is unlikely that the rats are eating normal rat food. But when the rats are allowed to eat sweeter and fattier foods, they go crazy.

The following table shows the characteristics of some normal foods and some foods with an exaggerated taste. Note the increased sugar, fat and/or sodium content in products with a higher flavor profile and the amount of ingredients in each product.

What is the difference between conventional and hyperfeed products? Source: Gearhardt AN, et al. Can food be addictive? Implications for public health and policy. Addiction. 2011;106:1208-1212.

Other factors can contribute to binge eating:

Quantity: If we are served more, we eat more.

Recycling and energy density : The right combination of fats, sweeteners, flour products, caffeine and salt is a powerful reward.  A simple bag of sugar or a bottle of olive oil is not very desirable.  Processed products contain combinations of ingredients that do not occur naturally.  Many food ingredients, like drugs, are only addictive when extracted and concentrated by modern processes (whole grains versus white flour in cakes, whole fruit versus sugar in cookies, cocaine versus cocoa leaves, opium versus poppy seeds, etc.).

Race: When there are different colors, sizes, shapes, tastes and textures, we eat more.  People eat more sponge cake ice cream than regular vanilla ice cream and more dried fruit mix than raw almonds.

The composition of nutrients in food : If we eat foods that are low in nutrients, we may need to eat more foods in general to meet our nutrient needs.

Access: The number one factor in dependency is accessibility.  If the substance is not available, we cannot develop an addiction.  If the substance is easily accessible, addiction is more likely to occur (think cigarettes in vending machines).

Cultural norms: If the behavior/behavior is accepted in the group, it probably won’t stop. Many people smoked less or gave up smoking when the authorities declared the smoking ban in restaurants and bars.

Individual parameters

Think about which foods are addictive to you.  It’s important to ask these questions because no product is universally addictive.

  • What products do you want?
  • What foods do you think about when you’re not physically hungry?
  • What foods do you want to eat more of, even when you’re full?
  • What foods do you usually avoid – and then fail to control?
  • What products evoke emotional associations for you – for example, products you remember from your childhood, or products that seem to have a special power to make you feel better?

The answers to the above questions usually do not include barley, pears, asparagus, and black beans (but it is possible).

While whole foods are still potentially addictive in their unprocessed form (think sweet fruits and fatty nuts), the potential for true addiction/addiction is low compared to processed foods (like fruit candies and flavored fatty nuts).

Treatment of substance abuse

People are not responsible for having an addiction, but they are responsible for dealing with it.

To recover from an addiction, the following factors must be taken into account

Availability of food and environment

If you feel out of control when eating certain foods or in certain situations, this is probably the case.

Our behaviour is strongly influenced by social and environmental signals. We can modify our behavior by changing the signals in our routines and environment.

So: Avoid addictive people, places and things. Use social pressure to your advantage. Drug addicts don’t like to take drugs when sober people are watching.

The more accessible – and socially accepted – an addictive substance is, the easier it is to become addicted. Make it hard to reach.

Feelings

Eating doesn’t help you deal with your emotions. And emotions are not a bad thing. In fact, they have a useful role in life and can indicate that something is out of balance.

Eating can be used as a coping mechanism for emotions that seem unbearable. When the binge is over, we are left with the same emotional problems ….. plus the additional problems that addiction brings.

Many addictions are the result of uncontrolled stress associated with food restriction. If these two factors can be controlled, so can binge eating.

Medicines

What about appetite suppressants and medications that tone down addictive foods?  These so-called solutions create new problems (e.g. malnutrition, undernourishment, etc.).

Compliance for drugs like naltrexone (blocks drug poisoning) and antabuse (makes you sick when you drink) is generally poor.  Why?  Because people want to get high again.  Even if an appetite suppressant is developed, the eating frenzy remains.  It has little to do with the addictive food itself, but rather with a lack of anything else in life – boredom, loneliness, anger, lack of stimulation, purpose, etc.

Cravings die as a side effect of changing our lives and personalities – drugs are at best a partial and temporary solution.

Medications that can be helpful in addiction recovery include those that treat underlying conditions that cause emotional distress (pain, depression, etc.).

Abstention

While we cannot choose addiction, we can choose abstinence to promote recovery. Some argue that it is easier for an addict to give up an addictive substance completely than to negotiate with it.

In this case, freedom comes when we give up control and become abstinent. Recovery from addiction means reclaiming the right to choose.

However, abstinence means that addicts must be prepared for discomfort. Fortunately, the biological need for the drug decreases as the addict abstains from the drug. Quitting drugs is the worst thing in the beginning.

When cravings return, it is often due to conditioned reflexes and/or the desire to avoid emotional stress. Therefore, managing stress and knowing the triggers is an important part of healing.

means

Recovery from addiction requires meaning and purpose.  Without meaning, there is no reason to remember.

Outward meanings (e.g., the appearance of a body, a spouse, a friend) can be fleeting.  One day we love them, the next we hate them.

When we rely on external meanings to achieve lasting change, we risk remaining dissatisfied. Frustration breeds resentment and we quickly figure out that overeating is a quick way to forget.

This is one reason why the idea of a higher power is attractive in many detoxification programs.  A higher power is not fleeting, it is eternal. Most importantly, however, meaning and purpose are internal – they come from within and reflect a person’s deepest values and priorities in life.

Overcoming an eating disorder often means temporarily giving up the obsession with mirrors and scales. Rather, we should focus on what’s going on inside.

Diets

Reason is no match for addiction. Addiction is largely an emotional and biological phenomenon.

So addicts generally can’t rely on their self-control alone – which doesn’t mean they’re weak. (Given the efforts of most food addicts to change – albeit unsuccessfully – one might even say that their willpower is very strong.)

The battle against food addiction often leads to dieting, excessive exercise, purging, drugs, overeating and weight gain or loss.  These are attempts to control the addiction, but these attempts are often unrealistic, become patronizing, and ultimately fail (and this failure can lead to even more addictive behavior). In fact, the limitation and obsession with solving the problem yourself can create even more resistance.

Structural modifications

Willingness helps, but is weak compared to structural and fundamental change. These include, among others, :

  • Changes in the physical environment
  • Building a social support system (including distancing yourself from people who contribute to dependency).
  • which makes access to addictive substances more difficult.
  • Reducing stress in life and/or working on stress management.
  • Learn to tolerate discomfort and be supported in doing so.
  • Adjust daily routines and schedules to encourage positive behavior and reduce the likelihood of negative behavior (this may include: getting more sleep, seeking safer situations at trigger times, planning activities that conflict with the addictive behavior, etc.).

Facts about food addiction

The reward threshold – or the amount of substance needed to get high – increases over time. Drug addicts need more and more. At some point, many people no longer get high or feel pleasure – addiction focuses on managing withdrawal.

Reward thresholds increase over time. Source: Kenny PJ. Reward mechanisms in obesity : New ideas and future directions. Neuron. 2011;69:664-679.

The more you start eating excessively flavored foods, the more likely you are to become addicted to them. This means that good baby food is very important and that processed foods are a serious potential health problem for children.

Talk about related facts: The longer we are exposed to naturally desirable foods, the harder it is to resist them.  Self-control is a limited resource. So if you’re having trouble getting near certain products, move away from them quickly. Throw them out of your house and distance yourself from them. Don’t torture and seduce yourself with physical intimacy.

People who prefer sweet foods eat them more often than people who prefer fatty or salty foods.

Drug addicts often have higher levels of dopamine in their brains than non-addicts. It is not clear whether this is the cause or the consequence of the meal.

Addictive eating habits are more likely to be associated with overeating (regardless of body weight) than weight. In other words: Behavior predicts addiction better than height, weight or obesity.

According to some reports, men are more likely than women to overeat after dieting and eat more than their bodies need.

Philosophical considerations

In the United States, many self-destructive compulsions are considered normal. This means that it is more difficult to define a problematic behavior as an addiction or codependency. If one had to imagine a perfect society for binge eating, it would probably be North America.

When we abstain from eating certain foods – are we addicted to abstinence?

It has long been said in Buddhist teachings that attachment is the root of all suffering. Could this, along with mindfulness training and learning to be present to discomfort, be the key to fighting addiction?

References

Click here to see the sources of information referenced in this article.

Velez-Mitchell.  A nation of drug addicts.  2011.  Health Communications, Inc.

Finlayson G, et al.  Regulation of food intake in humans. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK278931/

Cohen DA.  Neurophysiological pathways in the development of obesity : Below consciousness and beyond individual control.  Diabetes 2008;57:1768-1773.

Milkman KL, Rogers T, Bazerman MH.  With our inner angels and demons: What we have learned about the conflicts between wants and needs and how this knowledge can help us limit short-sighted decisions.  Perspectives on Psychological Science 2008;3:324-338.

Five techniques to avoid short-sighted decisions PsyBlog. http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/06/five-techniques-for-avoiding-short-sighted-decision-making.php
Committee on Assessment of Interactions between Social, Behavioural and Genetic Health Factors, Lila M. Hernandez and Dan G. Blaser, editors.  Genes, behavior, and the social environment : Go beyond the nature/nature discussion.  2006.  National Academy of Sciences. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11693

Kessler DA.  The end of overfeeding.  2009.  Rodale.

Barnard N.  Overcome the temptation of food.  2003.  St Martin’s.

Szalavitz M.  Heroin versus Haagen-Dazs: What binge eating looks like in the brain. 4. April 2011. http://healthland.time.com/2011/04/04/heroin-vs-haagen-dazs-what-food-addiction-looks-like-in-the-brain

Szalavitz M.  Dependency : From food to drugs to internet porn. 15. April 2011. http://healthland.time.com/2011/04/15/hooked-on-addiction-from-food-to-drugs-to-internet-porn/

Parylak SL, Koob GF, Zorrilla EP.  The dark side of food addiction.  Physiology and Behavior 2011;104:149-156.

Hint GL.  Your brain is connected to food.  2010.  Oxford University Press.

Broadcast from the Summit on Obesity and Food Addiction: http://www.foodaddictionsummit.org/agenda.htm

Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG.  Evidence of sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of periodic excessive sugar consumption.  Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2008;32:20-39.

Gearhardt AN, et al.  Can food be addictive?  Implications for public health and policy.  Addiction. 2011;106:1208-1212.

Sandor MS.  Think dependency.  2009.  Penguin Books.

Blumenthal DM & Gold MS.  The neurobiology of food addiction.  Current understanding of clinical nutrition and metabolism. 2010;13:359-365.

Ifland JR, et al.  An addiction to refined foods: A classic substance use disorder.  Medical hypotheses. 2009;72:518-526.

Kenny P.J.  Reward mechanisms in obesity : New ideas and future directions.  Neuron. 2011;69:664-679.

Avena NM, Rada P Hoebel BG. There are clear differences in addictive behavior between sugar addiction and obesity. J Nutr. 2009;139:623-628.

McQuillan S. Breaking the bonds of food addiction.  Psychology Today.  2004.  Penguin Group.

Kiernan J.  Why binge eating is often more deadly than alcohol or drug abuse Correction. 23. June 2011.  Available here: http://www.thefix.com/content/oa-vs-aa

personally – for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main cause of food addiction?

The main cause of food addiction is the reward system in the brain. The reward system is a part of the brain that releases dopamine when we do something that feels good. This can be anything from eating a piece of chocolate to having sex. When we eat, our body releases dopamine and this makes us feel good and want to continue eating more.

How do you stop a food addiction?

The first step is to recognize that you have a problem. If you are struggling with food addiction, it is important to seek professional help.

What is a food addiction?

A food addiction is a condition in which a person has an uncontrollable urge to eat certain foods, despite the negative consequences. What are the symptoms of a food addiction? The symptoms of a food addiction vary depending on the individual. Common signs include: -Eating more than the recommended daily amount of food -Eating when not hungry -Eating in secret -Eating until uncomfortably full -Eating in response to emotional triggers -Feeling out of control around food -Feeling guilty or ashamed after eating -Eating in response to stress -Eating when not physically hungry -Eating in response to boredom -Eating in response to depression -Eating when not physically able to eat -Eating in response to social pressure

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