How a Food Addiction Develops

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In a sense, we are all addicted to food. Think about what it feels like when you aren’t able to eat. You start to crave food, and become more physically and emotionally uncomfortable the longer the cravings go on for until eating becomes the most important thing for you to do. This is the constant experience of people struggling with food addiction, even if they have plenty to eat.

Food is essential to survival, and unlike other addictive behaviors, it is normal to eat repeatedly every day and to look forward to eating for pleasure. But several characteristics separate normal or occasional binge eating from food addiction.

Firstly, food addiction is maladaptive, so although people overeat to feel better, it often ends up making them feel worse and gives them more to feel bad about. Food addiction can threaten health, causing obesity, malnutrition, and other problems.

Secondly, the overeating that people with food addiction do is persistent, so a person addicted to food eats too much food (and often the wrong kinds of food) too much of the time. We all overeat from time to time, but people with food addiction often overeat every day, and they eat, not because they are hungry, but as their main way of coping with stress. Then if they are unable to overeat, they experience anxiety or other painful emotions.

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The Controversy

As a behavioral addiction, the concept of food addiction is controversial.

The field is divided between those who think that overeating can be a type of addiction, and those who think that true addictions are limited to psychoactive substances that produce symptoms such as physical tolerance and withdrawal. Although this has been demonstrated in research with sugar and fat (the two most common obesity-causing constituents of food), and other studies show that food produces opiates in the body, many think that this does not necessarily constitute an addiction.

However, the growing epidemic of obesity over the past 20 years has raised a public health concern. Over a third of US adults and approximately 17% of children are obese. Childhood obesity has been recognized as a major health concern. This concern, along with effective treatments for addictions, which are being successfully applied to more and more problematic behaviors, is contributing to a movement towards understanding over-eating, and the consequences of obesity and related health problems, in terms of addiction.

Food addiction shares many features with diagnoses now included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), namely, Binge Eating Disorder, which is categorized with the Feeding and Eating Disorders. Excessive eating is also a characteristic of another eating disorder outlined in the DSM, known as Bulimia Nervosa. Some controversy remains over whether eating disorders are actually addictions, but many experts believe that they are.

How It's Like Other Addictions

Neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) and the brain's reward system have been implicated in food and other addictions. In animal studies, for example, dopamine has been found to play an important role in overall reward systems, and binging on sugar has been shown to influence dopamine activity.

Food, drugs and other addictive substances and behaviors are all associated with pleasure. When advertising or the people around us tell us that food, drug, or activity will feel good, it sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are more likely to seek it out, and we are more likely to experience pleasure when we indulge.

Underlying Problems May Cause Food Addiction

Similarities between food addiction and other addictions suggest a universal process underlying food and other addictions. Some experts go further, citing overlaps, similarities, and co-occurrences of mental health problems, including addictions, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders. There is also the phenomenon of a new addiction or mental health problem developing when an old addiction is treated, which indicates underlying pathologies. It has been argued that viewing these conditions separately hinders the development of a comprehensive view of addictions.

More evidence is needed to support these proposed ideas, and at present, professionals differ in the extent to which they see these problems as related.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- Fifth Edition. APA, 2013.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight and Obesity Data and Statistics. 22 Aug 2016.
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  • Power, C. "Food and Sex Addiction: Helping the Clinician Recognize and Treat the Interaction." Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 12: 219-234, 2005.
  • Rogers, P. and Smit, H. "Food Craving and Food Addiction: A Critical Review of the Evidence From a Biopsychosocial Perspective." Pharmocology Biochemistry and Behavior 66: 3-14. 2000.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.