Food Addiction: Causes, Signs & Treatment Options

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How to Recognize and Treat Food Addiction

Although food addiction isn’t commonly discussed or as well-known as other types of addictions, such as drug addiction or alcohol addiction, it has become recognized as a serious problem.

Also referred to as binge eating disorder, food addiction is the condition where you crave food — usually specific foods, such as those with high carbohydrate, salt, fat and/or sugar contents — to the point where you are unable to think of anything else but getting the food you want. When you have it, you eat so much of it that you become sick or feel bloated and uncomfortable. Yet moments later, you just want more.

Food addiction shouldn’t be confused with a general craving that goes away after a few bites of a certain food are eaten. For the food addict, it’s an all-or-nothing sensation and desire. And it can be deadly, leading to everything from excessive weight gain to hypertension and stroke.

The ironic aspect of food addiction is it can feel good, especially when the ingredients of the food are metabolized. Fats, sugars and salts trigger the reward centers of the brain, creating a sense of euphoria. Of course, the euphoria soon wanes, and it’s necessary to eat more food to once again achieve the same sensation. Like alcoholics, food addicts regularly say they have to eat greater quantities month after month, year after year. Otherwise, they don’t feel satisfied (even though they do feel full).1-food-addiction

Science, Stats and Food Addiction

Science backs up the fact that certain foods make some people feel great when they eat them. Research also tells us that food addiction is widespread and growing:

  • There are in excess of 70 million Americans estimated to have food addictions.
  • Almost half of the individuals in the United States who are obese have some level of food addiction.
  • Of the obese individuals in America, about 400,000 will die from their obesity. If half of them have food addictions, this means around 200,000 deaths have a direct connection with addiction to food.

These numbers are enough to make anyone stand up and listen, yet food addiction is ignored among many populations. Why? The reason is straightforward: Food just isn’t seen as an addictive substance.2-americans-addictions

What Leads to Food Addiction

From the time we’re young, we learn that it’s bad to do drugs, drink alcohol excessively, smoke and abuse over-the-counter medications. However, we’re never taught food can be anything but an asset. Certainly, we are told to eat in moderate portions, but at the same time, we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and special occasions with food!

From Christmas cookies to French fries, we become accustomed to particular foods we associate with good times, love, relationships, friendships and excitement. Consequently, we are primed to become addicted to the very substance that keeps us alive.

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The causes of food addiction vary, and every food addict becomes addicted for their own reason. What makes you crave one type of food to the point where you’ll eat it excessively to the detriment of your health and social situation may not affect someone else. However, most people with food addiction exhibit one or more of the following traits:

  • They tend to overdo everything in their lives. For instance, they can’t simply go to the gym for a 5-minute workout. Rather they always have to work out for hours at a time, or they don’t feel satisfied with their performance.
  • They have experienced addiction before. This could mean addiction to drugs, to alcohol, to nicotine, to love, etc. Rather than moving past their addiction, they simply substitute it with food.
  • They feel an emotional connection with food. When their emotions are strong, they turn to food. The same is true when they are under a great deal of stress.
  • They were always encouraged to see food as something to comfort them. Thus, when they need companionship or attachment, they choose to eat in large quantities to satisfy their desires.
  • They have developed a tolerance for eating large quantities of food. They may not even be able to physically respond normally anymore to acceptable doses of sugars, fats and salt. Instead, they need more of them — as happens with drugs, alcohol and nicotine — to get the same “high”.
  • They feel isolated. When feelings of isolation or loneliness are strong, food becomes a companion and source of satisfaction.
  • They have suffered a personal trauma. When someone has suffered something traumatic, they can use food to “stuff” their emotions rather than going to a therapist to deal with the traumatic event and move past it.

Whatever the reason, if you’ve ever wondered, “Do I have a food addiction?” it’s time to take your thoughts seriously and get to know the signs and symptoms related to food addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Food Addiction

“How do I know if I have become addicted to food?” Are you asking this question? You’ll soon know if you recognize any of the signs and symptoms below:

  • Despite eating a meal, you feel immediately desirous afterwards for a particular type of food or foods. You may then decide to sneak away and eat, or you may come home after a large dinner and continue to eat more.
  • You go out of your way to get the food you are craving, even if you have to make special trips to get it. For instance, have you ever wanted a snack item so badly you got up in the middle of the night and drove to a 24-hour mini-mart just to get it?

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  • You eat in quantities that are unusually large for your size, age, gender, etc. This could mean eating a quart of ice cream, or perhaps several quarts.
  • You regularly eat until you feel sick or get sick, but you feel like you cannot stop eating. Even if your stomach feels like it’s going to burst, you just keep eating more food. You may even take a break for a little while to allow your stomach to settle, and then continue to binge eat.
  • You feel ashamed about the amount of food you eat. You may hide the empty packages or bury them deep in the trash can to avoid having anyone you live with find out how much you ate.
  • You eat in secret, hiding foods in your home, office or car. Many food addicts have hiding places where they keep a stash of food so they don’t have to go far to get the high and comfort that comes from food addiction.
  • You have trouble functioning without your food “fix.” It’s all you can think about from morning until eating.
  • Eating is getting in the way of working, having relationships, achieving academically, etc. Rather than getting work done, or calling someone you care about on the telephone, you sit and eat.
  • You have many digestive problems associated with constant overeating. Your abdomen feels like it’s being stretched. You have diarrhea and bloating, and/or you have to take antacids.
  • You make excuses for yourself when you binge eat. To stop feeling like a failure, you tell yourself it’s the last time you’re going to binge, and you’re going to work on it.
  • You have tried to stop eating to excess many times on your own, only to fail. Each time you are unable to deal with your food addiction, you immediately binge eat in huge quantities.
  • You suffer from panic attacks. These panic attacks can come before a binge, as a trigger, or after a binge, as a source of shame.
  • You feel emotionally numb. Eating helps you feel grounded and connected to the world around you.
  • You suffer from depression and may have suicidal tendencies. You feel like life isn’t worth living, so why should you care about how much you eat?

If these seem familiar, you may have a food addiction. You can also learn more about the signs and symptoms of a food addiction here. At the end of this article, we’ve included a short questionnaire that can help you determine if it’s time to see a professional to finally get your food addiction under control.

Effects of Food Addiction

The effects of food addiction are different for every person. There really is no “one size fits all” food addict type. Food addicts can come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, ages and more. However, they are all at risk for the physical and psychological effects of food addiction:

  • Increased risk for medical issues. These run the gamut from diabetes, liver disease and chronic fatigue to reduced libido, stroke, kidney disease and osteoporosis.
  • Tremendous guilt. When you eat more than you know you should, and spend money to buy food to binge eat, you may find yourself embarrassed and feeling shame.
  • Increased stress and lowered self-esteem. Whenever you have a condition you feel you cannot regulate, you are in jeopardy of declining confidence mixed with heightened anxiety.

These are very serious effects, and they illustrate why it’s important to start treating food addiction early. It should be noted, though, that not all people who are food addicts are heavier than normal. In fact, some people’s bodies are able to metabolize large quantities of food quickly. Therefore, even if you are of average weight, you can still have a food addiction.

Intervention and Treatment of Food Addiction

If you or someone you know has a food addiction, intervention plays a huge part. Like any addiction, food addiction can be difficult to treat for many reasons:

  • The food addict is hesitant to admit to their problem.
  • The food addict isn’t ready to get help.
  • The food addict has lived with the addiction for so long it has been comfortable.
  • The food addict doesn’t think he or she has a problem.
  • The food addict has tried to quit overeating before but has never had any success.

This is why it’s so critical to get help from someone who has expertise treating food addiction. Food addiction treatment is very different from the treatment related to drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. After all, we must eat to live. This means we cannot give up food entirely. Instead, we have to change the way we feel about the food we put into our bodies.

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Prevention of Food Addiction Relapse

Anyone who has become addicted to food can suffer from a relapse. That’s why so many food addicts follow the steps below to help prevent turning back to food. They can also use these steps if they do relapse and want to get on track with a healthier lifestyle:

  • Not eating any of the foods that trigger their food addiction. This can be very difficult, as it means quitting some foods entirely. Most food addicts discover they cannot eat the foods they crave, even in moderation. In essence, they have to rid their diets of the trigger items completely. It’s a small price to pay for getting out of the cycle of addiction.
  • Going into therapy. Therapists can help food addicts determine the root of their addiction. This enables the food addict to work on the underlying causes that have led to an unusual relationship with food.
  • Going to AA meetings or AA-style meetings. The basic tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have proven to be useful for food addicts in addition to alcohol addicts. AA meetings can help a food addict focus on the end goal, which is achieving control over food.
  • Asking for help when things get tough. Getting help when you’re feeling anxious and are about to turn to food may not be simple, but it can stop a craving and halt a binge eating episode. If you think you or someone you love may be suffering from a food addiction, click here to learn how to get help[M3].

Food Addiction Self-Diagnosis Test: “How Do I Know If I Have a Food Addiction?”

The following self-diagnosis tool will give you a better understanding of whether or not you may have a food addiction. All questions are to be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” Try not to say “maybe” or “sometimes”, unless it truly applies to your situation.

  1. Do you eat certain foods until you feel sick, and then continue to eat the foods?
  2. Do you hide foods from the people in your life?
  3. Do you feel ashamed after you eat large quantities of food?
  4. Do you have regular cravings for foods, and have to satisfy those cravings as soon as possible by bingeing on the foods?
  5. Do you feel you have to keep eating more and more of a certain type of food to feel good?
  6. Have you ever avoided a social situation or called in sick to work so you could stay home and binge eat?
  7. Have you ever spent money to binge on food, even if that meant not paying other bills?
  8. Is eating large quantities of food all you can think about?
  9. Have you lost friendships or relationships because of your binge eating?
  10. Have you been gaining weight because you’ve been bingeing on foods?
  11. Do you feel out of control when it comes to eating?
  12. Have you ever been told by your doctor that you have to stop eating large quantities of food for health reasons?

If you have three or more “yes” answers, it’s time to get help. Find the treatment option best suited for you. There is life after food addiction. But only you can take the first step.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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