Can you get addicted to food? Learn everything about food addiction


Last Updated December 20th, 2021

What is Food addiction?

Food addiction is a substance use disorder characterized by bouts of consuming large amounts of food at regular intervals. The bouts are often followed by periods of guilt and forced vomiting in extreme cases. There are three types of food addictions which are commonly observed in people. These are:

Binge eating disorder (also known as compulsive eating disorder)- In this type of food addiction, individuals eat food at odd times and in a surplus amount. The craving for food is out of proportion to the normal hunger pangs that most of us feel at periodic intervals during the day. Obesity is the most common complication in these individuals.

Bulimia (also known as bulimia nervosa)- This type of food addiction is similar in one aspect to the binge eating disorder mentioned above-the individuals indulge in binge eating episodes. However, after a bout of compulsive eating, they either use laxatives to rid their body of the food consumed or induce vomiting in order to prevent weight gain. Some resort to vigorous exercising to lose calories. A deep-rooted feeling of guilt is the reason behind this apparently bizarre behavior.

Anorexia nervosa – Though this disorder is often classified as a food addiction disorder, the reverse is true as far as the clinical features are concerned. Individuals who suffer from this condition fear gaining weight. They not only limit the consumption of the food that they consume but also are obsessed with weight loss.

Is Food addiction a disease?

food addictionThe recently published fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) features Binge eating disorder (BED) as a distinct clinical entity. However, the opinion is still divided if food addiction should be considered a disease as the demarcation line is thin between hunger and food craving. Moreover, there are no clear signs of intoxication or withdrawal, no overt interruption of normal daily functioning, and no danger for overdose or death as far as food addiction is concerned.

The ominous signs of Food addiction

The main feature of food addiction is eating a huge amount of food in one go, repeatedly, over a prolonged period as if there is no self-control. The associated symptoms involve-

  • Consuming food at a rapid pace.
  • Eating till you feel bloated and uncomfortable.
  • Gorging on food even when you are not hungry.
  • Eating alone.
  • Eating covertly.
  • Feeling depressed and ashamed after the bouts of binge eating.
  • Being preoccupied with the thought of food.
  • Repeatedly setting goals to lose weight and failing at attaining the desired results.
  • Unable to resist from bingeing despite appearance of physical ailments.

Can we diagnose Food addiction?

The following warning signs should set the alarm bells ringing that you suffer from food addiction:

  • You eat a lot of food at a very rapid pace.
  • You tend to hide the amount of food that you are consuming.
  • You buy and store surplus food which is much more than your actual requirement.
  • You have started to put on weight. This however is not seen in all the cases. You may be suffering from food addiction and still be underweight or having normal body mass index.

Are some foods more addictive than others?

Jack in the box fast foodA person suffering from food addiction does not crave for all types of food. Some foods are more addictive than others. Most of these food types are processed foods-high in sugar and fat content. You won’t find a person addicted to fruits, salads or soups or similar healthy diets. Some of the most addictive foods are-

  • Pizza
  • French fries
  • Burgers
  • Fried chicken
  • Popcorn
  • Steak
  • Bacon
  • Muffins
  • Ice cream
  • Soda
  • Cookies
  • Chocolate
  • Cheese

On the other extreme of the food spectrum are the articles which are least addictive. Not surprisingly, these comprise of whole, unprocessed foods. These are-

  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Broccoli
  • Beans
  • Apples
  • Banana
  • Corn
  • Brown rice
  • Salmon
  • Nuts
  • Lean meat

Risk factors for Food addiction.

Food addiction can manifest in men and women of all ages, but this disorder classically begins in the late teens or early twenties. The exact pathogenesis of food addiction is still not completely clear but the following risk factors predispose you to this disorder-

  • If you have a family history of food addiction or substance abuse including alcohol addiction.
  • If you suffer from depression or if you have a family history of depressive disorders.
  • If you are a type A personality or a perfectionist.
  • If you are prone to anxiety disorders.
  • If you suffer from low self-worth.
  • If you have been at the receiving end of abuse-physical, mental or sexual.

Why does Food addiction occur?

There is a center in our brain that is referred to as the reward center. It releases dopamine-the pleasure hormone when we indulge in activities that encourage survival.

Eating is one activity which is paramount if we need to live on. Though inherently designed in order to help us survive, there are certain pitfalls associated with this reward system.

The junk food that we consume leads to the release of more dopamine than the bland health food which is good for our body. As a result, most of us crave for a cup of ice-cream instead of pining for a bowl of salad.

What can be the complications of Food addiction?

Food addiction can lead to several complications. These can range from hampering of general growth to life threatening conditions. The severity of the complications depends on the severity and chronicity of the food addiction that one suffers from. A few of the complications are discussed below-

Health related issuesObesity is the most common complication of food addiction. It is a prominent risk factor for multiple health disorders including hypertension, diabetes mellitus, hypercholesterolemia and the serious diseases belonging to the cardiovascular variety.

Growth and development issues– If food addiction occurs in children, it can lead to a detrimental effect on their general growth and development. In the growing years, the body requires a nutritious and well-balanced diet which is not possible if one is suffering from food addiction. A diet deficit in essential minerals and nutrients can lead to stunted mental and physical growth.

Depression and anxiety-People indulging in bouts of binge eating are often aware of the situation they are in. They suffer from periods of guilt and low self esteem when they can’t control their food cravings. This can lead to anxiety and severe depression.

Suicidal tendencies-Food addiction is a chronic disorder and the individuals suffering from it are constantly struggling to come to grips with the helpless situation that they rend to find themselves in. Grappling with repeatedly failing to control their cravings often puts them at risk of suffering from psychiatric disorders. Suicidal tendencies are seen in the more severe cases of food addiction.

Relationship problems– Food addiction converts a person into a social outcast. In this instance, it is the person suffering from food addiction who chooses to distance himself from general public. Eating alone and eating secretly are two main signs of this food disorder. Hence, people tend to spend time alone so that they can gorge on food without raising the eyebrows of their near and dear ones. This can lead to association problems ranging from strained relationships at school/work place to severed ties with family or spouse.
Substance use disorders- A strong will is required to resist temptation of any kind. A person suffering from one kind of addiction is prone to suffer from another. Individuals suffering from food addiction can easily fall prey to the lures of substance use disorders. These may include alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.
Death- Over the years, food addiction can lead to multiple health issues affecting various organ systems. Death may be the culmination of the multiple insults suffered by the weakening body.

What is the treatment for Food addiction?

Presently, 2.1 billion people are considered obese or overweight in the world. This is akin to a global epidemic. The culprit in most cases is excessive consumption of unhealthy food items. So, the time is ripe to take food addiction seriously and not dismiss it as ‘lack of will power.’ It also should be kept in mind that mere dieting or resorting to the many ‘fad’ diets available online or in the market is not the solution to this deep-rooted issue. A multipronged approach is the need of the hour.

  • Self-awareness is the key– Food addiction is not merely due to lack of a strong will-it has its core multiple issues; biological, emotional and mental. These issues need to be addressed on priority.
  • Identify the triggers– An important intervention at treating food addiction is identifying and then facing up to the triggers that lead you on the path of binge eating. Some people are emotional eater-any strong emotion can lead to a binge. Be honest with yourself and try to change your response to the said trigger.
  • Break the routine– Man is a creature of habit and most of us follow a set pattern every day. A simple intervention of swapping the morning ‘parantha’ with a bowl of fruits can break the cycle. Hang out with friends who eat healthy and choose actives which are not food-centric. Do not go too hard on yourself. Aim for ‘reduction’, abstinence will follow for sure.
  • BULIMIA NERVOSA vomitingAsk for help– Do not be shy in asking for help. Talk to your partner or your family members regarding the food addiction that you suffer from. Creating a healthy life style change can be hard and time consuming. But if you have people around you who are willing to help you out or be a part of the journey to a healthier ‘you’, half the battle is won.
  • Psychological counselling– Talking to a counsellor about your condition can be a cathartic experience. You can share your doubts, misgivings and any deep-rooted emotional issues with a psychologist and try to get to the root of the evil-food addiction in this case.
  • Medical intervention– Psychiatric ailments like depression and anxiety lead to food addiction in some cases. Therefore, medical intervention at healing these disorders can be a way to arrest the food binges. Another intervention approved by the FDA is a combination of bupropion and naloxone. These drugs aid in fat loss.

Food addiction is a disorder like any other-nothing to feel ashamed of. Self-awareness coupled with a multidisciplinary approach can heal the mind and the body, ensuring a healthy and a joyful life

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