In this post, we address the issue of food addiction

Many of us overeat from time to time, but some will go on to develop an addiction to food.
The very idea of a food addiction was laughable all but a few short years ago. And many people still erroneously believe that addiction is solely about drugs and alcohol.

But things have changed.

The official term for food addiction is ‘compulsive overeating’.
Many people refer to the disorder as ‘binge eating.’
The condition is principally characterised by the sufferer consuming vast quantities of food while feeling powerless to stop.

Like other addictions, the person is not in control of their behaviour. This means the food addict is feels very guilty and depressed following an episode of binge eating.

Sufferers even report feeling a sense of self-disgust .
But just what is food addiction? And how can you identify if you suffer from it?
Well, the answer is simple. But before I give you the answer, I want to tell you about Mary.

Case study, Mary, 35 years old

Mary is a 16-year-old school student. Her peers frequently insult her appearance.

Mary is overweight and considered clinically obese.

At an early age, Mary turned to food to ‘bury’ her sorrows and to blank these insults out of her mind.

As a result, she put on more weight. This made Mary feel even worse.

Mary is now 36 years old.

She’s now dangerously overweight, and still binge eating to make her feel better.

She eats all the wrong foods to make her feel better.

Foods such as pizza, fries, ice-cream, fried chicken and milkshakes.

When Mary finishes work, she stops off at a fast food drive-through.

And when Mary returns home, she eats all the food in his fridge until she vomits.

Following episodes of binge eating, Mary feels very depressed and a strong sense of self-disgust.

What is going on?

science of food addiction

The science of food addiction

Food addiction arises because eating lots of food makes us feel better.

But why does food make us feel better? And why does this cause addiction?

The answer is simple: foods rich in sugar, fat and salt stimulate the brain’s ‘reward centre’ i.e. ‘feel good’ hormones such as dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that allows us to feel good about ourselves.

Over time, the brain becomes more tolerant to dopamine. This means an ever greater quantity of food is needed in order to achieve this ‘feel good’ factor.

Activities such as sex, exercising and eating all trigger dopamine. Each activity is essential for survival, so it’s essential we feel good when doing these activities.  

Otherwise, we might not do them and die (or fail to reproduce).

Popcicle production in ice cream factory, Venezuela

A culpable food industry

Many people believe the food industry ‘spikes’ food with processed sugars and flours knowing this will lead to food addiction.

Indeed, many supermarket ‘premade’ dishes contain more sugar than a bar of chocolate! The sweetness of these dishes is often hidden by an infusion of salt and spices.

In fact, some even say processed sugar is more addictive than cocaine!

I recommend you read the book ‘Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us‘ by Michael Moss.

Studies conducted on rats exposed to junk food prove the rats suffer withdrawal symptoms when the junk food is removed similar to that suffered by rats addicted to drugs or alcohol.

This was particularly the case for rats addicted to sugar. When sugar was withdrawn, the rats suffered several withdrawal symptoms: shaking, anxiety and a change in body temperature.

Scientists say you’re least likely to become addicted to unprocessed natural foods such as vegetables, nuts, beans and seeds.

The science of sugar addiction

Since sugar is by far the most addictive food type, it makes sense to cover the science behind sugar addiction.

The biochemical underpinning for sugar addiction can be explained in four simple steps:

  • Step 1 – An increase in blood sugar forces the pancreas to secrete insulin. The insulin breaks down sugar so blood sugar levels drop
  • Step 2 – When blood sugar levels drop, a signal is sent to the brain telling it blood sugar levels need to rise
  • Step 3 – The brain releases hormones that cause cravings for sugar. The person also feels weak and slightly agitated
  • Step 4 – The sugar addict then binges on sugary items in order to satisfy these cravings

the name of the medical term and stethoscope

Identifying if you suffer from a food addiction

Food addiction carries a number of tell-tale signs. These signs are commonly known as ‘ symptoms‘.

Below I list these symptoms:

  • You eat food in order to cope with negative emotions such as stress
  • Your mind is constantly preoccupied with food to the point of obsession
  • You eat food even though you are aware of the negative health consequences of doing so
  • You eat so much food that you suffer from nausea or to the point where you vomit (unlike with bulimia, this is not voluntary)
  • You do not possess any self-control when it comes to your appetite
  • You lie about how much food you eat
  • You feel a sense of self-disgust about your appearance and you eat to ‘drown’ your sorrows
  • You wake up in the middle of the night to eat food
  • Eating is more about pleasure than satisfying your appetite
  • You hide food around the house/office
  • You hide food away from your loved-one
  • You feel depressed/regret/guilt after binge eating
  • You eat long after you are full
  • Binge eating episodes last for around two hours, but sometimes lasts an entire day
  • You get very angry when food is not available/denied to you

Although an addiction to food may begin at any age, most sufferers will develop the addiction in their adolescence or early adulthood.


Health consequences of food addiction

Food addiction has grave consequences for your physical and psychological wellbeing.

Here’s a list of health ailments caused by an addiction to food:

  • Stress
  • Insomnia
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Gallbladder disease

Stress emotional issues and concepts word cloud illustration. Word collage concept.

The causes of food addiction

Whilst the exact cause of food addiction is unknown, scientists claim the disorder is probably caused by a complex combination of genetics, the sufferer’s social environment and emotions.

We shall now deal with each.

 #1. Genetic factors

The link between genetics and food addiction is well established.

For instance, scientists have located a mutation in the hypothalamus that could cause food addiction.

The hypothalamus is the region of the brain that controls appetite.

Scientists believe a mutation could cause the hypothalamus to send faulty and too frequent hunger signals causing the person to overeat.

Other studies say people who are susceptible to food addiction have fewer dopamine receptors in their brain.

Thus, it is claimed, these people need to eat more food in order to reach a point of satisfaction.


#2. Social causes of food addiction

Scientists believe there are many social pressures that contribute to food addiction.

This includes social pressure to be thin and the social disapproval for people who are overweight.

This pressure fuels the food addicts self-disgust.

The resulting depression causes the food addict to overeat in an attempt to feel better about themselves.

#3. Emotional causes

Food addiction is commonly the result of a poor self-image. This includes depression, low self-esteem, social isolation and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance.

Food addicts overeat in an attempt to hide negative emotions. When food addicts hit ‘rock bottom,’ food may seem like their only friend.

Thus, food is used to block out negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety and depression.

However, the relief that over-eating brings is short-lived. Happiness soon turns into self-disgust, regret and guilt.

Time for Change business proverb or message on a traditional silver chrome clock face

7 Tips for Overcoming Food Addiction

Now we offer some tips for overcoming food addiction by changing your diet.

This advice is not intended to replace the need to seek out professional help.

Unlike an addiction to drugs or alcohol, people addicted to food cannot just go ‘cold turkey.’ This is because food is essential for survival.

Therefore, it’s essential that you work hard to redefine your relationship with food.

Here’s some tips for improving your relationship with food:

Tip #1: Invest in your knowledge of healthy eating

This is my #1 tip for losing weight and eating more healthy.

Clever tricks to cut down on the amount of food you eat is not as effective as learning about low carb, low calories and high nutrient eating.

I’ve just waded through my personal collection of books on healthy eating and I’ve included links below where you can purchase these books:


If you’re looking for addiction recovery books, check out our guide on the best books on addiction recovery »

#2. Avoid sugar

If sugar has been identified as the most addictive food type, then it naturally follows that sugar must be avoided at all cost.

I also urge you to avoid fructose.

That means many common fruits are off the menu, such as bananas, apples and oranges.

Tip #3: Throw out all your diet books

Yes that’s right!

I am advising you to stop following fad diets.

Instead, educate yourself on healthy eating by purchasing the books I recommend above.

Tip #4: Harm reduction

Harm reduction is a term I’ve borrowed from the field of drug addiction treatment.

A classic example of harm reduction is substituting heroin for methadone.

But how does this apply to food addiction?

The answer is simple: food addicts are advised to substitute unhealthy foods for healthier alternatives.

So instead of eating chocolate throughout the day, eat cashew nuts or gluten-free chocolate.

Or instead of eating ice cream, eat frozen yogurt.

Instead of pouring white sugar on your porridge, use honey.

The examples could go on and on!

Tip #5: Reduce your portion sizes

This means you must aim for moderation.

Whenever possible, try to half your portion sizes.

Eat just enough to satisfy your cravings for food and absolutely no more!

Reduce your intake of food by 10% every day until you are eating around 50-70% less than your original portions.

Tip #6: Only insist on eating when you are hungry

Try to eat only three meals per day.

If you must have a snack, insist on eating a healthy, sugar-free snack such as cashew nuts, Greek yogurt or almonds.

Personally, I buy cashew nuts in bulk every Saturday.

I buy 600g for £4.80 in ASDA (in the UK).

And make this last me all week.

This works out at around £10.20 per kilogram.

And I then split this amount so that it lasts for seven days. This ensures I’m covered for snacks for an entire week.

Tip #7: Remove temptations

Remove all unhealthy snacks and foods from your home.

Purge your fridge and cupboards of sugary foods. Replace these foods with items you discovered by following tip #1 above.

When you drive home from work, avoid fast-food restaurants that will test your resolve.
computer assisted CBT

Seeking Help for your food addiction

If you suffer from three or more of the above symptoms, then you may suffer from a food addiction.

If so, then I urge you to consider seeking professional help.

Often you will feel stigmatised because of your addiction to food. This is perfectly normal. People addicted to drugs and alcohol often do not seek out help because they are concerned they will damage their good image.

Unfortunately, this negative belief also applies to food addiction.

However, we urge you to get over these emotions and instead seek out professional help.

Treatment for food addiction

Therapy is known to effectively treat food addiction. Therapy helps food addicts discover their ‘triggers of addiction.’

For instance, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) may be used to identify dysfunctional emotions and through patterns that enable food addiction.

CBT then seeks to challenge and re-write these beliefs to healthier, more rational alternatives.

Furthermore, therapy typically includes an element of nutritional education.

If you attend a residential or outclient food addiction centre, you will typically attend group and individual therapy sessions.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: September 8, 2023

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.