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Food addiction

What is food addiction? How does it work? What are the most common symptoms of food addiction? How is food addiction different from overeating?

Food addiction has been increasingly talked about recently.


Although food addiction is difficult to define and is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is becoming an increasingly common problem

Its existence is confirmed by brain imaging and other studies on the effects of overeating on pleasure centres in the brain.


What is food addiction?

There is no one universally accepted definition of food addiction, but these are 3 of the most popular:

  1. Food addiction is a concept that applies the criteria of substance abuse to food and eating styles. It is a new and controversial concept and a new field of research. The premise is that people with food addiction have developed a physical and psychological dependence on certain foods (usually those high in sugar, fat and, salt). People with food addictions will continue to overeat despite the negative consequences – they will change their lifestyle to overeat, they will devote time and effort to the process of overeating, and they will not be able to control or stop overeating.
  1. Food addiction is any type of behavioural addiction characterized primarily by an obsessive compulsion to eat tasty and overly tasty foods. These foods are often high in sugar, fat, and salt and stimulate the reward system in humans and other animals. People with food addictions often overconsume such foods despite the negative consequences associated with overconsumption (e.g. weight gain).
  1. Food addiction is an addiction to highly palatable foods (often rich in fat, sugar, and/or salt) that cause chemical reactions in the brain that lead to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This reaction is comparable to that of a drug addict, as it activates the same reward centre in the brain.

How does food addiction work?

Experiments in animals and humans show that in some people, food activates the same pleasure centres in the brain as addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Moreover, the same neurotransmitters are involved, and many of the symptoms are identical.


Addictive foods are usually high in calories and high in:

  • Sugar.
  • Fat.
  • Salt.

In other words – these products, like drugs, trigger the release of feel-good chemicals, including dopamine.


If we feel pleasure when eating certain foods – we may quickly feel the urge to eat them again.

Pleasure signals from very palatable foods can suppress satiety, and we may continue to eat even when we are not hungry.

Overeating is essentially a form of behavioural addiction – like gambling, shopping or anything else that produces intense pleasure.

As a result, we lose control of our eating behaviour and, in addition to regularly overeating, we also spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with food, thinking about food or the emotional consequences of eating, etc.


People with food addictions can also develop a kind of food tolerance – the more they eat, the more they need to eat to feel full.


Scientists believe that food addiction plays an important role in the obesity ‘epidemic’.


Food addiction can also occur in people without signs of obesity – it may be that your body is genetically programmed to cope better with extra calories (e.g. carbohydrates are poorly absorbed in the gut, etc.) or you increase your physical activity to compensate for the extra calories you take in as a result of overeating.

Either way, if you are addicted to food, you will continue to eat despite the negative consequences (weight gain, damaged relationships, etc.) – just as drug addicts cannot give up drugs and gambling addicts cannot give up gambling.


The 8 most common symptoms of food addiction

1 Craving for food even though you are full

It is not unusual to crave ice cream for dessert even after a nutritious and satisfying meal.

Such cravings are very common and do not in themselves indicate food addiction.


If, after a satisfying meal, food cravings are frequent and increasingly difficult to satisfy or ignore, they may be a sign of food addiction.

In other words, these cravings are not related to a need for energy or nutrients, but to the brain’s desire for something that releases dopamine (a chemical that plays an important role in feelings of pleasure).


2 Eating more than expected

There are people for whom one piece of chocolate or cake is not enough – one bite of chocolate turns into 20, and one small piece of cake into half a cake.

This all-or-nothing approach is typical of all addictions – moderation simply does not exist.

Telling a person with a food addiction to eat junk food in moderation is almost like telling a person with an alcohol addiction to drink beer in moderation – it is simply not possible.


3 Eating until you get sick

If a person with a food addiction starts eating, they may eat until their stomach is full and they feel sick.


4 Feeling guilty after overeating, but soon you overeat again

Trying to control unhealthy food intake and the subsequent overeating can lead to guilt.

The person feels that he is doing something wrong or cheating himself.


Despite these unpleasant feelings, he cannot control himself and overeats again and again.


5 Making excuses

The brain tends to work in strange ways, especially when it comes to addictions.

People decide to avoid addictive foods, set rules for their eating habits, and then look for excuses not to follow them.

This mindset is similar to that of a person who is trying to quit smoking and, therefore, does not buy cigarettes himself but regularly “treats” himself to cigarettes from friends or acquaintances.


6 Repeated but unsuccessful attempts to refuse certain foods or to impose rules on their use

People who have difficulties with self-control often try to set rules for themselves.

For example, homework must be done immediately after school, coffee can be drunk after a certain time in the afternoon, you can eat only until 6pm, you can eat only one unhealthy meal a week, you can eat unhealthy food only at parties, on birthdays or holidays, etc.

However, most people fail to follow these rules.


7 Eating in hiding from others

People who are unable to control their eating habits often start to hide their consumption of unhealthy foods from others.

They prefer to eat alone:

  • When no one else is home.
  • In the car.
  • Late at night when everyone else has gone to bed.

8 Inability to change eating habits despite health or other problems

What we eat has a major impact on our health:

  • In the short term, unhealthy food can cause weight gain, acne, bad breath, fatigue, dental problems, etc.
  • Long-term consumption of unhealthy foods can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and even some types of cancer.

A person who faces any of these problems and cannot change their eating habits is likely to need professional help.

In other words, even if unhealthy eating habits cause physical problems, people with food addictions cannot change them on their own.


The presence of four to five of the symptoms on this list indicates a serious eating disorder.


Six or more symptoms indicate severe food addiction.


Is food addiction a serious problem?

Although the term “addiction” is often used lightly, true addiction is a serious condition that usually requires treatment to overcome.

The symptoms and thought processes associated with food addiction are similar to those seen in drug addiction. The only difference is the substance causing the addiction and that the social consequences may be less severe.


Food addiction can lead to chronic health problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

It typically has a negative impact on self-esteem and self-confidence, causing dissatisfaction with one’s body.


Like other addictions, food addiction can have emotional consequences and increase the risk of premature death, if only due to obesity or cardiovascular disease.


Help for food addiction

Although there are several medical centres around the world specializing in the treatment of food addiction – unfortunately, there is no specific, well-established, and effective treatment methodology.

The treatment of food addiction must take into account not only the biochemical effects of the specific products but also the emotional and psychological needs of the individual.

Some experts believe that the recovery from food addiction can be more complex than the treatment of other addictions – if only because, for example, alcoholics can abstain from alcohol while food addicts still need to eat.


What is the difference between food addiction and overeating (“bingeing”)?

On the surface, food addiction and overeating can seem very similar.


Overeating is classified and diagnosed as a mental illness, often resulting from a combination of biological, emotional, environmental, and psychosocial factors.


Food addiction is more biochemical, as it creates a dependence on the physical response triggered by the consumption of certain foods.


The major difference between the two eating disorders is:

  • Food addicts crave specific foods, and they cannot control these cravings no matter what they do to stop the addiction (dieting, limited exposure to certain foods, exercising, etc.).


  • Overeating involves eating large amounts of food in a short period (e.g. emotional eating), and although overeating can be regular, it is not an overwhelming craving for a particular food.

Overeating often starts in adolescence or adulthood, for example as a result of a restrictive diet. People start following a strict diet (because they want to lose the weight they have accumulated over the years within a few days or weeks) but find it too difficult to follow (especially if food is also a way of coping with emotional problems).


Sooner or later, a breaking point is reached – the “forbidden” food is eaten. The person then feels guilt and shame and resumes the diet, but after a while binges again, resumes the diet again, and binges again… because – the diet is, just, too restrictive.

Read more about crash diets HERE.

Read more about the Yo-Yo effect HERE.


Also, the treatment of these two eating disorders is different because:

  • Overeating is often not related to food but to emotional deficits.


  • Food addiction is related to specific, addictive foods that a person eats in large quantities, regardless of the costs and consequences (health, social, etc.).

Key takeaways

Food addiction is thought to be caused not by a lack of willpower, but by dopamine, which affects brain biochemistry.

In other words, food addiction works like other addictions – people simply cannot control themselves, no matter how hard they try.

That’s why.

Just like those addicted to alcohol or drugs, people addicted to food need professional help.

Currently, available treatments for food addiction include identifying the addictive products, addressing medical and nutritional problems, and psychotherapy.


Eat well, eat balanced, exercise, and – be healthy!

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