Just one more little piece of this doughnut. Well, I can’t just leave a quarter of a doughnut, no one would want to eat that. [Pop quarter of doughnut in mouth.] Oh, there’s also a chocolate one in the box, too. That looks good. Maybe just a little piece.

Sometimes it feels like the doughnut in the box or the pint of vanilla chocolate chip ice cream in the freezer is actually calling to you. The beckoning gets louder and more emphatic until you can’t even focus on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. You have to hit pause, get up, and have one last scoop, one last piece, one more tiny sliver. Sound familiar?

What it Means to Have a Food Addiction

A food addict is technically anyone who is overly preoccupied with food, eating, and body image. That doesn’t mean someone who appreciates a good meal or loves to go out to dinner. With a food addiction, the person also relies on food for comfort. A food addict may use food to fill in for something that is missing in their lives, such as love or strong friendships. There may be biological, psychological,  or social reasons why someone develops a food addiction. Food addicts use food—especially sugary foods—like any other addict uses an addictive substance. In fact, in laboratory studies, sugar addicts show changes in brain patterns and activity similar to other addicts.

Everyone has both a biological and psychological relationship with food. The biological is obvious: you must eat to thrive and survive. If you have a healthy relationship with food, that means routinely eating nutritious and well-balanced meals and snacks that consist of just enough food—not too little and not too much—to sustain your energy levels and maintain your weight within a healthy range.

The Psychology of Food Addiction

Your psychological relationship with food is based on how you think about and behave around food. When you have a food addiction, you lose control over the types and amounts of food you eat. You become dependent on the “feel-good” effect that certain foods have on you, even though the good feelings don’t last.

Here’s what it doesn’t mean to be a food addict: It doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder. Food addiction has never been classified as a true eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia. But while food addicts may not have a diagnosed eating disorder, they certainly show signs of having an unhealthy relationship with food.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” Additionally, “dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations [resulting] in a pathological state in which an individual pursues reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”  The terms “food addiction” and “food addict” were coined because the behavior of a food addict resembles that of an alcoholic, drug abuser, or gambler, all recognized addictions.

“Food addiction may not be classified as an eating disorder, but it should be,” claims Michael D. McGee, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at the Haven at Pismo and author of The Joy of Recovery: The New 12-Step Guide to Recovery from Addiction. “Certain foods and ingredients, like sugar and processed fast foods, trigger the same drive-reward circuitry in the brain as any other addictive substance.”

Recognizing Food Addiction

Food addiction can take many forms. A food addict may be thin or overweight, someone who grazes on snacks all day or someone who overeats at regularly scheduled meals.

As with many physical and psychological disorders, the signs and symptoms of food addiction cover a broad range and may overlap with those of an eating disorder. They may include:

  • Strong cravings for specific foods
  • Eating secretively so no one sees you
  • Buying foods specifically for emotional relief or bingeing
  • Eating when you’re not hungry
  • Eating more than you need to satisfy hunger
  • Overeating that causes physical discomfort or even digestive disorders
  • Feeling like you cannot control the amount of food you eat, especially sugary and other junk foods
  • Eating to cope with emotions, both good and bad
  • Having negative feelings about your eating habits or weight
  • Trying different types of diets and/or weight loss programs with no permanent results
  • Avoiding social events for reasons that have to do with food or body image
  • Feeling physical symptoms in addition to digestive upset, such as fatigue or headache

Addictive Foods to Avoid

Food addicts often turn to specific foods to relieve their “emotional hunger.” Foods that can get you hooked include:

  • ice cream
  • chocolate
  • doughnuts
  • cookies
  • cake
  • candy
  • sugary beverages
  • white bread and rolls
  • pasta and rice
  • burgers and fries
  • pizza

Treating Food Addiction

Just as you consume food, food addiction can be all-consuming and interfere with many different aspect of your life. Your eating habits can cause or worsen medical problems like diabetes, heart disease, heartburn or reflux, or malnutrition. Food addiction that leads to overweight or obesity can exacerbate conditions like arthritis, osteoporosis, chronic pain, sleep disorders, and chronic fatigue. The psychological effects of food addiction may include anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Additionally your addictive eating habits can interfere with your social life and personal and professional relationships.

According to Dr. McGee, learning positive coping strategies—like talking about your problems and asking for help—go a long way toward helping you avoid soothing yourself with addictive substances. Addiction arises in attempts to numb pain with pleasure, he explains, and reducing the emotional pain of conditions like stress, low self-esteem, and loneliness can help with recovery from food addiction.

“We know these strategies can work for preventing and treating symptoms of addiction in general,” he says. “Food addiction may not be a recognized diagnosis, but we know it is a real and growing condition that can be treated in similar ways.”

In addition to food addiction treatment centers, you can find behavioral psychotherapists in private practice who specialize in dysfunctional eating, and support groups that are often centered on 12-step and abstinence programs similar in style to other types of addiction recovery programs. All of these can help you learn more about food addiction and recovery, while picking up tips and strategies for coping with your condition while getting the support you need.

To learn more about food addiction and recovery, and to find support in your area, click on this link to the Food Addicts Anonymous website.

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Last Updated: Dec 13, 2019