What happens when food becomes an addiction?
In this article, we explore how food can become as addictive as drugs and alcohol. (1)
Keep reading to find out more…
What Is Food Addiction?
Food addiction is still very much a subject of debate.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) doesn’t recognise food addiction as a real disorder. Therefore, diagnosing a food addiction can be challenging.
However, recent studies show that individuals are capable of experiencing an addictive relationship with food. (2)
In fact, evidence suggests that the effects of food addiction on the reward and control pathways of the brain are similar to the effects of addictive drugs. (3)
If you’re still not convinced, researchers found that rats can become physically addicted to junk food just like addictive drugs. (4)
Ultimately, this can lead to impulsive behavior and cravings.
Let’s take a closer look…
Common Trigger Foods
Certain “trigger foods” are associated with food addiction.
Research suggests that hyper-palatable foods that are full of saturated fats, high sugar and added sweeteners are the most common addictive foods. (5)
These foods release large amounts of dopamine, which quickly forms habits around that food. This is the basis of addiction.
In a recent study, food addicts reported significantly more problems with high-sugar and high-fat foods compared to non-addicts. (6)
Junk foods trigger a reward that is much more powerful than that of whole foods, like meat and veggies.
For example, if you eat a steak, you may get a moderate release of dopamine.
However, if you eat a trigger food, like cake, a large amount of dopamine is released.
Examples of trigger foods include:
Any food that you find comforting can lead to cravings and increase your risk of food addiction.
7 Most Common Signs of Food Addiction
Here are the seven most common signs of food addiction:
Obsessive food cravings
Eating in secret
Guilt around eating but repeating the pattern
Unable to quit despite health problems
Let’s take a closer look…
Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into the trap of overeating.
Portion sizes have increased and dinner plates have gotten bigger.
Although you may be guilty of overindulging now and again, for food addicts this is a regular occurrence. Oftentimes, eating in moderation feels impossible.
A slice of cake or a scoop of ice cream easily turns into half a cake or a whole tub of ice cream.
As a result, your body is no longer eating for energy—it’s eating for pleasure.
To make matters worse, when you overeat your body stores the excess calories as fat.
Down the road, this can lead to obesity and cancer.
Here are some simple steps you can take to avoid overeating:
Chew your food properly
Choose healthy snacks
Drink more water
Eat before a social event
Serve up smaller plates
2. Obsessive Food Cravings
It’s normal to experience food cravings every once in a while, but if they distract you all day everyday, it could be a sign of food addiction.
Some signs of obsessive food cravings include:
Unable to ignore or satisfy a craving
Worrying about not eating a specific type of food
Obsessively thinking about a specific food
Eating until the urge is satisfied or you’ve finished it all
Understanding the difference between hunger cues and food cravings is important.
Hunger arises when the body needs energy or nutrients.
A food craving, on the other hand, is an emotional state triggered by the brain’s need for dopamine.
Carbs and sugar trigger food cravings because they increase the level of serotonin, a feel-good neurochemical.
Cravings come out of thin air and spike an uncontrollable desire for a specific food, despite already being full.
3. Eating In Secret
Eating in secret and eating alone are two very different things.
Research shows that secretive eating may increase the risk of eating disorders. (7)
When you eat alone, you’d feel okay if someone else walked in and saw you eating.
However, when you eat in secret, you’d feel embarrassed or guilty if someone caught you eating.
This could be because you feel ashamed or guilty for eating so much.
You may even avoid social events so that you can spend time eating certain foods in private.
If you prefer to eat alone in your car or after everyone else has gone to bed, it could be a sign of food addiction.
4. Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is when you use food to soothe your emotions.
You don’t eat because you’re hungry, but because it comforts you.
Negative emotions can trigger addictive cravings when feelings of fatigue, boredom and stress make you feel empty.
Food is believed to fill the void and create a feeling of temporary “fullness.”
Plus, research shows that stress and worry are the main causes of emotional eating. (8)
Some tell-tale signs of emotional eating include:
Buying foods specifically for emotional relief
Changing your eating habits when you have more stress in your life
Eating more food to increase pleasure or reduce negative emotions
Using food as a reward
Eating to cope with a stressful situation
Studies show that emotional eating is common among people with obesity. But ultimately their sadness, anxiety, loneliness, and depression are the main causes of their eating disorder. (9)
In order to get better, they need to focus more on healing their emotions.
5. Feeling Guilty About Your Eating Habits
Guilt is a natural response to behaving badly.
In a world with so much focus on diet, weight loss and dietary restrictions, it’s no wonder why guilt around eating is so common.
We’re constantly bombarded by what food is either “good” or “bad.”
Eating candy may feel good at the time, but it makes you feel guilty afterwards.
This is okay if it happens every once in a while, but if you feel guilty everyday and keep doing it, it may be a sign of food addiction.
If undealt with, this can trigger more negative emotions like shame, embarrassment and failure.
Worst of all, these feelings can ultimately lead to debilitating anxiety and depression.
6. Unable to Eat Less Despite Health Problems
It’s widely known that healthy eating plays a vital role in overall health.
We’re constantly reminded of the negative health implications that junk food can have on us, including:
More often than not, eating junk food can lead to serious problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Sadly, even serious conditions like these may not be enough to snap food addicts out of their bad habits.
7. Making Excuses
It’s common for people with food addiction to make excuses for their overeating.
The same is true for someone addicted to cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol.
In fact, research shows that junk food and drugs can trigger similar brain activity. (10)
For example, you might stop buying cigarettes, and this tricks you into thinking you’re no longer a smoker.
However, you still smoke from your friend’s pack.
This is the same for someone who is addicted to food.
You’ll constantly find reasons to break your food rules and come up with excuses like:
I deserve it
I don’t want to waste food
I’ll work it off later
I’m on vacation
I’ve been good all week
If you find yourself giving in to food cravings and making excuses, you may have a food addiction.
Effects of Food Addiction
Food addiction can worsen medical problems.
It can also interfere with your social life and professional relationships.
You may find yourself spending more time alone and feel guilty throughout the day.
Over time, food addiction can lead to life-threatening complications like obesity, heart disease and stroke.
Other physical effects of food addiction can include:
If you have any more questions about the signs of food addiction, feel free to contact us at Complete Care Health Centers.
We’re happy to answer any questions you may have.