The most evident symptom of food addiction is overeating — the sudden, impulsive need to eat a huge amount of food. Check with a doctor if you're trying to stop food addiction.
The most evident symptom of food addiction is overeating — the sudden, impulsive need to eat a huge amount of food. Check with a doctor if you’re trying to stop food addiction.

Food addiction is a mental condition that leads to a dependence on eating. Despite not yet being recognized by some mental health institutions, this condition can lead to symptoms like anxiety, impulsivity, and social impairment. Here’s what you need to know.

What is food addiction?

Food addiction is a condition in which a person develops a dependence on eating, causing a lack of control, overeating, and feelings of guilt. Like substance addiction, this disorder can be very debilitating for your mental health and have several physical side effects.

Someone who is a food addict is more sensitive to the rewarding properties of food, such as the temporary satisfaction of eating something that tastes good. Usually, these mechanisms appear when you lack nutrients or liquids or haven’t eaten in a long time.

However, a food addict will be more receptive to these reward mechanisms on a day-to-day basis. This indicates that there has been a slight behavioral change — a food addict doesn’t seek to eat when hungry but to pursue the reward it gives.

It’s important to know that food addiction isn’t listed in most standardized mental health manuals like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, recent research suggests that this condition can be studied and usually follows a general guideline regarding symptoms.

Naturally, food addiction is closely linked to obesity, one of the most concerning conditions in the US. Estimations regarding the number of obese people globally show that 25 to 50 percent are obese. As such, experts are pushing for including food addiction assessment as part of the obesity treatment.

Food addiction symptoms

Because it’s not recognized as an official condition, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact symptoms of food addiction. However, there are a few general guidelines that experts have established to recognize if a person is a food addict.

The most evident symptom of food addiction is overeating — the sudden, impulsive need to eat a huge amount of food. This happens to most people, but food addicts may regularly overeat. 

Another telltale sign of food addiction is the inability to lose weight. Medications, diet, and exercise don’t affect food addicts, as their overeating often causes them to gain weight the weight they lost.

Upon closer inspection, you should be able to tell if you’re a food addict by looking for specific behavioral patterns surrounding foods. Although having one of these symptoms doesn’t automatically mean you’re addicted to food, it could mean you need to check with a doctor:

  • Impaired control when it comes to restricting food intake
  • Sudden impulsivity around tempting foods
  • Increased sensitivity to the reward mechanisms triggered by eating
  • Frequent food cravings, even when you’re full
  • Social impairment due to the stigma surrounding your weight
  • Inability to stop eating foods that are harmful to you

Feelings of anxiety and depression, along with other mental health symptoms, could also stem from food addiction. If you think you could have an eating addiction, make sure to check with a doctor to clear all your doubts.

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How do I stop my food addiction?

Stopping a food addiction should always be attempted under the guidance and supervision of a licensed therapist, doctor, or nutritionist. Like most addictions, quitting food addiction can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety. Still, here are the recommended steps you can take to stop a food addiction:

Accept that you need to eat to survive. Often, food addicts try to stay away from food as much as possible. However, unlike other addictions, it’s impossible to survive without food. So instead, it’s crucial to accept that eating is excellent — as long as you do it in moderation.

Eat when you feel hungry. Experts have found that food addicts often starve themselves when trying to quit eating. On the other hand, some people keep eating after they’re already full, which is equally as bad. On a hunger scale of 1 to 10, you should eat when you feel hungry (2 to 3) and stop when you’re satiated (5 to 6).

Exercise regularly. Unsurprisingly, exercising regularly has dozens of benefits for your health. Yet, it’s essential for people trying to stop a food addiction, as it will help rewire the brain's reward system.

Check with a doctor if you’re trying to stop food addiction. They will be able to guide you and provide a precise plan to reduce your dependence on food.

What causes food addiction?

Like most addictions, there isn’t a clear cause for food addiction that can be applied to every person. The psychological aspect of addiction varies from person to person — however, some preliminary research suggests that there may be chemical and neurological factors to keep in mind.

Experts point out that foods with high sugar, fats, and salt levels can create behaviors similar to addiction. This has got to do with a chemical called dopamine — a compound in the brain that gives us pleasure as a reward system.

Other studies show that, besides neurological factors, people with specific psychiatric conditions may be more prone to food addiction. For example, people with bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and ADHD may have a higher likelihood of developing an addiction to food.

Still, keep in mind that most of the research in the field is preliminary due to a lack of standardization regarding food addiction. If you have doubts or believe you’ve already developed a food addiction, check with a doctor or licensed nutritionist.

Who can get addicted to food?

When someone learns about food addiction, they often think it’s a condition that only affects obese people. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth — experts suggest that anyone can get addicted to food to any degree.

Certain factors can make a person more prone to developing a food addiction. For example, ethnicity, gender, economic status, previous trauma, and poor parental guidance may affect your likelihood of getting addicted to food. Similarly, as we already mentioned, mental conditions can also factor into this equation.

Check with a licensed doctor if you believe you’re at risk of developing a food addiction. A trained professional can give precise guidance considering your factors.

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Medically Reviewed on 11/17/2022
References
Cleveland Clinic: "Dopamine."

Food Addiction Institute: "Overview," "What Is Food Addiction?"

Journal of Dependence: "Food Addiction."

Mayo Clinic: "Binge-eating disorder."

Nutrients: "Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating," "What Is the Evidence for "Food Addiction?" A Systematic Review."

Psychiatria Danubina: "Food addiction-diagnosis and treatment."