A lot of people love their junk food—candy bars, potato chips, donuts and greasy french fries, to name just a few. They know all these foods are bad for them, but they just can’t help themselves. Are these people “addicted”—the way that others are hooked on alcohol or opioids?
The concept of “food addiction” has been kicked around since the 19th century, but only recently—as obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the US—have doctors and scientists taken it seriously.
Now: With mounting scientific evidence showing that certain patterns of food consumption do have much in common with drug and alcohol addictions, many of the mysteries of out-of-control eating patterns are finally being unraveled.
Are you—or someone you know—a food addict? What you need to know…
How Addiction Affects the Body
Doctors diagnose an addiction when the use of a substance, such as drugs or alcohol, or a behavior like gambling is beyond a person’s control. When it takes hold, you can’t stop your addiction—despite the toll it’s taking on your health, work and personal relationships.
Satisfying your “appetite” for the substance or behavior consumes considerable time and energy. You may experience intense cravings for the object of your addiction and suffer physical and emotional pains of withdrawal without it.
On a biological level, the brains of individuals who are addicted to a substance or behavior are different from other people’s brains. Circuits that process reward are overstimulated, and those that regulate self-control are less active. In other words, in addiction the strong desire for the drug is coupled with weaker brakes, which makes it hard to stop the behavior even when it is getting you into trouble.
Recent scientific evidence: Using brain imaging and other analyses, researchers have seen similar biological patterns in people whose food consumption fits the “addictive” pattern, according to research published in 2018 in Nutrients.
Still, the diagnosis of food addiction remains controversial. Unlike alcohol or painkillers, food can’t be an “addictive” substance, some argue, because we need it to survive.
There’s some truth to that argument because people don’t become addicted to food in general, but almost always to certain highly processed products—typically salty snacks like potato chips and food products that are high in fats and refined carbohydrates, particularly added sugar, and low in protein and fiber. Junk food, in other words.
The simple carbs of these highly addictive edibles hit the bloodstream rapidly to spike blood sugar, and the oral pleasure of high-fat or salty foods further amps up the brain’s reward system. Whole foods—or those that are less processed—affect blood sugar levels and the brain much more gradually.
Who Becomes a Food Addict?
Contrary to what many people assume, not all addicts are obese or overweight. In fact, 11% of people whose weight is normal have significant symptoms of food addiction, according to a systematic review published in Nutrients.
However, the more you weigh, the greater the risk—among obese individuals, the rate of food addiction is 25%. At the same time, as these figures show, many obese—even morbidly obese—people are not addicts.
As scientists investigate the connection between body weight and food addiction, it appears that being overweight can be a cause—as well as a consequence—of this addiction. There is evidence that obesity changes how the brain’s reward system operates, making it necessary to have more food to get the same emotional charge—you need two slices of pizza where one used to do.
Food addiction affects both men and women, although some studies suggest that rates are a bit higher in women. Middle-aged women (ages 45 to 64) are more likely to have food addiction than older women, according to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It appears to run in families—children of food-addicted parents are more likely to develop the problem themselves, possibly reflecting the influence of both upbringing and genetics.
The Biggest Danger Zones
While the US isn’t the only country plagued by food addiction, surveys show that the problem is significantly less common in other countries. Americans live in what many call a “toxic” food environment—junk food is cheap, always available and relentlessly advertised.
What’s more, many of these foods are designed to be addictive. So-called “Big Food”—the major food manufacturers—invest heavily in research to develop products that have precisely the effects on the brain and body that lead to their compulsive consumption.
The harmful effects of food addiction are, not surprisingly, mainly those that occur with obesity—increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, orthopedic problems and certain cancers. But there is also evidence that the surplus of fat and refined carbs of addictive foods raises cholesterol and the risk for diabetes even if you’re not overweight.
Regardless of your body weight, as the continuous urge to overeat addictive foods robs your energy and time, more wholesome activities are neglected, and the out-of-control feeling damages self-esteem. It’s common for food addiction to also lead to isolation and depression.
Help for Food Addiction
You can take steps on your own to improve your relationship to food—especially if your addiction symptoms are not significantly interfering with your daily life. What to do…
Keep a journal to identify foods that trigger compulsive eating or craving. Note the situations in which you struggle for control—are you stressed, angry, frustrated or bored?
Find nonaddicting foods that you enjoy—clementines, unsalted nuts, baby carrots, air-popped popcorn and hummus, for example—and keep them handy. Whole foods are good choices because they do not have the amped-up reward levels of junk food.
Don’t miss meals or deprive yourself to make up for yesterday’s bingeing. When we are hungry, it tells our brain’s reward system to be extra responsive to food. That’s why being really hungry can make us more vulnerable to addictive foods.
Be alert for signs of stress and/or boredom, and use nonfood remedies—take a short walk or listen to your favorite music. When you’re hit with a craving, distract yourself. Research shows that even intense cravings often subside quickly on their own.
Get professional help. If preoccupation with food stays out of control and interferes with your life despite your efforts to curb your addiction symptoms, you need more help than you can give yourself. See your doctor for a physical exam—problems like a malfunctioning thyroid can amplify the drive for food.
The field is new, so there are few clinicians who treat food addiction. Your best bet is a therapist who uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for eating disorders and can adapt it to addiction. To find a CBT professional near you, consult the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies at ABCT.org.
There is little scientific evidence that 12-step programs, such as Overeaters Anonymous, help with food addiction, but such a program may be worth considering if other options have failed.