What Causes Food Addiction and What Are the Signs?
By Michelle S. Hunt, PsyD, LCADC
Clinical Psychologist, Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor
Virtua Medical and Bariatric Weight Loss
People with food addiction struggle every day with a loss of control or inability to stop eating foods that are high in carbohydrates, fat, salt, sugar or artificial sweeteners. They also suffer from painful feelings of shame and embarrassment when it comes to their food behaviors.
Food addiction is a relatively new topic. But, it’s a complex condition that has similarities to other types of addiction, such as drugs, alcohol, shopping or gambling. However, help is available.
Understanding the causes and signs of food addiction can help you lower your risk and change potentially problematic behaviors.
What causes food addiction?
Consuming “highly palatable” foods, or foods that are high in carbohydrates, fat, salt, sugar or artificial sweeteners, triggers the pleasure centers of the brain and releases “feel-good” chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. These foods affect the same area of the brain as drugs, alcohol and behaviors such as shopping or gambling.
Highly palatable foods often contain unnatural substances or higher-than-normal levels of natural substances that your body and brain can't process. This results in your body being flooded with “feel-good” chemicals.
To help you hang on to or recreate those good feelings, your body and brain will begin to crave highly palatable foods. And, because your brain will adjust its receptors to compensate for the rush of chemicals, you'll eventually need to consume increasing quantities of highly palatable foods to get the same feel-good reaction.
Who is at risk for food addiction?
Because everyone must eat to survive, anyone can develop food addiction. Overexposure to highly palatable foods can increase your risk of developing a food addiction—and people who are overexposed at a young age are at an even higher risk. People who use food to cope with stress or change their mood are also at a higher risk.
Studies also show that there are genes that put people at a higher-than-average risk of developing any type of addiction. The more “addictive” genes a person has, the more likely they are to struggle with addiction to food, another substance or a behavior.
What are the signs of food addiction?
One of the main signs of food addiction is a loss of control over eating behaviors—especially when it comes to certain highly palatable foods. If you feel like you want to stop but can’t; you eat to the point of feeling sick; or, you feel ashamed or guilty about your eating, you may be suffering from food addiction.
People who suffer from food addiction also may need to eat a large amount of food to feel satisfied, which can lead to weight gain. However, some do maintain a normal weight. It’s also common to experience symptoms of withdrawal when they stop eating a certain food. Withdrawal symptoms include the following:
Food addiction also can affect your relationships and social life. People with food addiction may have problems at work or school, lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, avoid social events or become isolated from family members and friends.
How can I prevent or overcome food addiction?
Food addiction is difficult to prevent because it’s impossible to avoid food. However, one of the best strategies is to avoid overexposure to palatable foods by eating a healthy, balanced diet that’s rich in natural, unprocessed foods. Eating a balanced diet and understanding the warning signs of food addiction will help you to act quickly if you suspect a problem.
Overcoming food addiction typically involves following the same model that’s used to treat other types of addictions—and you’ll need a solid plan and plenty of support.
- First, you’ll need to detoxify your body by avoiding trigger foods, such as fast food or foods with processed sugar. During this time, you may experience withdrawal symptoms that can range from mild to severe.
- After you detoxify your body, you’ll need to work on changing your eating behaviors. You may need to avoid certain people, places (such as restaurants), situations and foods that intensify cravings or make you more likely to consume the problem food. You also may need to break associations between food and routines or events, such as eating ice cream before bed or having buttery popcorn at the movie theater.
- Other strategies that can help include tracking your food consumption, preplanning your meals and eating mindfully.
Although some people can gradually reintroduce small amounts of problem foods into their diets, other people must avoid them indefinitely to maintain control over their food addiction. You should pay close attention to how your body responds to your problem foods to decide what long-term management strategy is right for you.
If you need professional support to help you lose weight, Virtua’s medical weight-loss program may be right for you.
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Updated December 16, 2019