When it comes to food, most people have at least one guilty pleasure. Some of us enjoy a thick slice of chocolate cake. Others sneak off to eat a handful of chips as a midnight snack. Where’s the harm in that?

Indeed, many people can eat a little junk food occasionally without suffering major consequences, or even seeing weight gain.

For others, though, fatty, sugary or carb-rich foods present a serious problem.

Scientists have started looking at the idea of food addiction as an explanation for a worldwide obesity epidemic.

In an article of Maia Szalavitz in Time magazine, even Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, weighed in with the opinion that food addiction is real. 

Is there truth behind the idea that one can be a food addict? And where’s the line between enjoying junk food and having an addiction?

We’ll discuss what food addiction is, what it isn’t, and some of the symptoms to look for if you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one.

What is food addiction?

Junk food for dinner

Food addicts have lost control of their eating and have an unhealthy relationship with food. People who suffer from food addiction may be at risk developing obesity and the problems related to it, such as illness, disability and early death, but not all food addicts are overweight.

People who don’t have experience with food addiction may wonder why the addict doesn’t “just stop.” If you’ve ever watched a cigarette smoker try to quit, or observed an alcoholic attempt to have only one drink, you’ll understand that’s not possible without treatment.

Like anyone struggling with addiction, food addicts often realize their behaviors are harmful and wish they could stop, but they’re unable to.

How does it work?

Fat stomach surrounded with measuring tape and burger

Eating too much may not be just be a matter of lacking self control.

The idea that people can become addicted to food in the same way they become addicted to substances like alcohol, cocaine and heroin is beginning to gain traction, both in popular culture and in the scientific community (1).

Some scientists have proposed that foods loaded with fat, salt, refined carbohydrates and sugar — basically what we think of as “junk food” — can trigger the release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which signals the body that it’s experiencing pleasure.

In a University of Michigan study by E.M. Schulte, researchers found that foods that had been processed, contained a lot of fat or were packed with refined carbohydrates were more often associated with addictive behaviors.

Others believe a different theory of food addiction. In an article published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers Rebecca Corwin and Patricia Grigson proposed that junk food itself is not addictive, but that certain eating patterns are. People who alternate between eating a food and denying themselves that food develop addictive eating patterns.

The study of food addiction is relatively new, and the idea that food addiction even exists remains controversial (2), so it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact mechanisms behind it.

The good news is that there are some observable symptoms that can help people identify if they or their loved ones are suffering from food addiction.

Types of Food Addiction

Salty snacks. Pretzels, chips, peanuts, crackers, popcor.

Food addiction often shows up as a tendency to compulsively over-eat. In its early stages, food addiction may appear as a physical craving. That craving can lead to a mental obsession with food that begins to control one’s life.

Ultimately, it may turn into a way of life that affects the food addict on a spiritual level.

Binge eating shares many symptoms with food addiction, but they are not the same thing. You can find out more about binge eating on its own here. 

Not all food addicts binge eat. Some people don’t go through discrete periods of overeating, but rather, they constantly “graze” or snack. Still others have a more internal type of addiction, engaging in obsessive thinking or fantasizing about food to the extent where it interferes with their lives.(3)

Ten Symptoms of Food Addiction

It’s impossible to tell just by looking at someone whether he or she has a food addiction. In fact, Dr. David Kessler, a former Dean of Yale University Medical School, found that in a randomized sample, 50 % percent of the obese adults, 30 percent of the overweight adults and 20 percent of the adults with normal weights were addicted to food. (4)

To determine if a food addiction is present, you have to look at a person’s behavior. How and what a food addict eats will tell you more about their condition than their body type will.

In 2009, researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy created a 25-point food addiction scale, available in a PDF here, to identify people who suffer from food addictions. The scale asks questions about eating behaviors, as well as feelings and attitudes toward food.

Based on this scale, we can break the symptoms of food addiction into three categories: physical, emotional and social.

Physical

Physical symptoms of a food addiction include:

1. Continuing to crave food despite feeling full

Girl eating a lot of food at once

Example: Sara sits down to dinner and eats a complete meal of roasted chicken, potatoes and vegetables. She’s consumed all the calories she needed to eat for the day, and her stomach feels full and heavy. Her body is telling her she shouldn’t eat another bite, but her mind keeps nagging her about the slice of cake waiting in the refrigerator.

Key Point: Food addicts can consume a healthy, nutritious meal that leaves them feeling physically full, and yet still want to eat. That’s because having a craving and being truly hungry are different things. The Food Addiction Institute asserts that binge eaters may experience true, physical cravings that aren’t based on their psychological state or their environment.

2. Eating more than you planned, or being unable to stop eating

too much plates of food

Example: Tom knows he needs to eat fewer calories in order to achieve weight loss, so he plans to only go through the lunch buffet twice. But once he arrives at the restaurant, he finds himself going back to the buffet for a second, and then a third helping. It seems like no matter how firmly he commits to reducing his food intake, he always loses control during meals.

Key Point:Many food addicts eat more than they had planned, and feel helpless to stop eating once they’ve started.

3. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when certain foods are unavailable

Man with a problem

Example: Every night, Jason drives to his favorite fast food restaurant and orders a cheeseburger, fries and a sugary soda for dinner. One evening, he isn’t able to make it to the restaurant before it closes. Without junk food, he feels irritable and angry, and he starts to get a headache. He even considers driving to a nearby town to see if the restaurant there is open any later.

Key Point:Like people addicted to substances, food addicts may experience physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms when they can’t access their food of choice.

4. Consistently failing to stay on a diet or reduce food intake despite consequences

diet concept. woman mouth sealed with duct tape with buns

Example: Debbie’s doctor has told her she’s pre-diabetic. In order to keep her condition from getting worse, she needs to significantly cut the sugar from her diet. She manages to switch from soda to water for three days, but after that, she finds herself drinking soft drinks at breakfast, lunch and dinner. She knows this habit is only going to make her sick, but she doesn’t know how to quit.

Key Point:Many people have trouble maintaining diets, but food addicts struggle to make even simple modifications to save their health.

Emotional or psychological symptoms

People may experience psychological problems such as anxiety or depression that are related to their food addiction. Some symptoms include:

5. Eating in order to rid oneself of unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety or sadness

scared woman

Example: Francine and her longtime boyfriend have a huge argument during dinner, and Francine leaves the restaurant in tears. Even though she has already had plenty to eat, she goes straight to the freezer when she comes home and gorges herself on a whole pint of ice cream.

Key Point:Food addicts may rely on eating to comfort and soothe them in times of stress; sometimes this is referred to as emotional eating.

6. Constantly thinking about food

Young woman thinking about snacks

Example: Allan plans every day around what and when he’s going to eat. He counts the calories of his meals obsessively. When he’s at work, he worries about whether he’s going to make it to the store in time to cook the dinner he’s been thinking about all day.

Key Point:Sometimes food addiction manifests itself mentally; this explains why not all food addicts are obese or overweight.

7. Feeling anxious, ashamed or depressed about the volume or type of food you eat

Woman Holding Head in Kitchen

Example: After she eats more than she planned to during a brunch with friends, Paula goes home, locks herself in the bathroom and cries. She’s so ashamed that she can’t seem to control her eating behavior, and it makes her feel depressed and worthless.

Key Point:Like drug addicts, food addicts often feel ashamed of their behavior.

Social symptoms

Having a food addiction can result in maladaptive social behaviors. Some of these are:

8. Hiding eating habits from friends and family, or eating in secret

woman eating under cover

Example: Monica always volunteers to do the dishes after breakfast while the rest of her family talks in the living room. That way, she’s able to sneak a few bites of food from the fridge while she’s putting the leftovers away. She doesn’t want her parents to know that she still feels hungry, since they just watched her eat a large meal.

Key Point:When food addicts feel ashamed of their unhealthy relationships with food, they hide their behavior, even from from their loved ones.

9. Neglecting work, family or recreation in order to eat

woman reading message on smartphone eating sandwich

Example: Julia has a major project due by the end of her day at work, and she knows she should save time at lunch by eating a salad she brought with her to work. Once she’s on her break, though, she can’t help but run to her favorite fast food restaurant, a 20-minute drive.

Once she’s there she spends half an hour in line, and it takes another 20 minutes for her to eat. By the time she returns to work, she’s spent over an hour indulging her junk food craving, and she’s forced to turn her project in late.

Key Point:People who struggle with food addiction will neglect important parts of life in favor of feeding their cravings.

10. Avoiding situations where food is available in order not to overeat

buffet food

Example: Even though Bob enjoys spending time with his coworkers, he never goes to their company picnics. He knows that even if he eats beforehand, he will gorge himself on all the sweet food everyone in his office brings. He starts to feel lonely and isolated at work because he never attends these events.

Key Point:Food addiction can severely damage the sufferer’s social life.

Are you addicted to junk food?

Diet balance

Addictions aren’t always easily identifiable. This is especially true with food, because everyone needs to eat, and many people enjoy a bit of junk food from time to time.

Perhaps you’ve engaged in one or more of the above behaviors. Does that make you a junk food addict?

In order to qualify as an addiction, a behavior has to be chronic meaning it occurs over an extended period of time and recurring. It must persist in spite of adverse consequences. Eating junk food multiple times a week isn’t the healthiest thing, but it doesn’t mean you have a true addiction.

If you’re unable to stop, though, or if you feel your urge to eat junk food is interfering with your life, you may consider looking into treatment.

If you’re still not sure, the Food Addiction Institute suggests trying a controlled diet. To do so, you would eat as if you were a food addict in recovery — cutting out junk food or other foods that seem to be a problem for you. If you’re able to do this, you likely don’t have a food addiction.

Please note that if you suspect you’re a food addict and are thinking of controlling your diet, it’s best to do this under the supervision of a physician or counselor. It’s very important to consult an expert if you believe you’re suffering from this condition.

Final Thought

Food addiction may be an explanation for why obesity has reached all-time highs. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people can be addicted to food, and scientific studies are beginning to lend credence to the theory, too.

Do you or a loved one suffer from any of these symptoms? Have you been treated for food addiction?

Share your experience with us.

10 Surprising Symptoms and Warning Signs of Food Addiction
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