Understanding the Differences Between Food Addictions and an Eating Disorder

Woman with struggling with eating disorder Recovery Imperfection

Food, like drugs and alcohol can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, which is related to pleasure and reward. Dopamine can create a positive link between food, emotion, and well-being [4]. When a person is addicted to food, the food itself can act as a drug. As food increases the feeling of pleasure and reward, the addict needs a higher increase of food to create that sensation.

The Yale Food Addiction Scale, created by Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, assesses how addicted a person is to food. Using this scale, it is estimated that 5-10% of the US population may fit the description for a food addiction. Food addictions is not that food is a problem, but that specific foods are addicting to an individual [6, 7].

Typically food addicts have several rules to try to keep their behaviors under control, similar to how alcoholics and drug abusers do. The issues is when the food addict begins to eat, it is very difficult to not follow their rules and find it difficult to stop eating [2].

Understanding a Food Addiction

For those with a food addiction, the issue is the food itself but for those with an eating disorder, the behavior is psychological [1].Treatment for eating disorder professions uses a psychological approach to include cognitive therapy, behavioral modification, and mindfulness to help sufferers learn a healthy relationship with food and resolve underlying mental health disorders. For food addictions, treatment focuses on identifying and encouraging abstinence from the foods that create the addictive response.

Understanding the Differences Between Food Addictions and Eating Disorders means looking at the basis of both. Food addiction is a disorder which can cause loss of control over the ability to stop eating certain foods [8]. Food addiction can be defined as a cluster of chemical dependencies on specific foods, after the ingestion of highly palatable foods such as sugar, fat or salt, and develop physical cravings for those foods.

Woman with eating disorderOver time, like drug and alcohol addictions, the progressive eating of these foods distorts the thinking around food, and the individual is unable to stop. A study in 2010, published in the Current Opinion in Gastroenterology showed that food addictions are the result of changes in the person’s neurochemistry and neuroanatomy [4].

What Does the Research Show?

In 2015 a meta analysis on the temperament in eating disorders showed high harm avoidance in all eating disorder types as compared to controls [5]. In bulimic patients, high novelty seeking temperaments were notices and higher persistence in both anorexic and bulimic participants. In another 2010 study, lab rats were given high-fat, high-sugar foods and changes in their brain activity were seen [8]. Changes in brain activity were similar to those caused by drug abuse.

Food addiction can be defined as a constant obsession with what to eat, when to eat, and how to obtain more food; overeating behaviors; hiding or hoarding foods, secretive behaviors, and inability to stop overeating or continued eating [8]. Food addiction is a psychological and emotional addiction to specific foods and substances [9]. Even though not directly the same as a substance addiction, food activates the taste-reward and pleasurable regions of the brain.

So how does this differ from eating disorders?

Understanding the differences between food addictions and an eating disorder means to also look at what eating disorders are. Eating disorders are identified into categories, specifically

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder

Eating disorders include both psychological, behavioral, and physiological symptoms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM), eating disorders are defined as a potentially fatal illness that causes severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors.

Obsessions with food, body weight, and shape can also be a part of an eating disorder. Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder that includes extremely restrictive eating, extreme thinness, and a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight.

Anorexics typically have an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image, and low self esteem that is influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape. Physical symptoms can include osteopenia or osteoporosis, anemia, brittle hair and nails, lanugo in severe malnutrition, low blood pressure, and heart rate, potential brain damage, and periods of time without a menstrual cycle (in females), or delay or absence of puberty in both males and females [10].

Bulimia Nervosa is defined as recurrent and frequent episodes of binging with lack of control or perception of lack of control, over binging episodes. The binge eating is typically followed with compensating behaviors, such as

  • Purging
  • Excessive exercise
  • Laxative abuse
  • Fasting
  • Or a combination of behaviors.

Individuals with bulimia tend to have a healthy or relatively healthy body weight compared to those with anorexia. Symptoms typically include:

  • Inflamed or sore throat
  • Swollen glands in neck and jaw
  • Eroded tooth enamel and sensitivity
  • Acid reflux and GI distress
  • Dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance.

Food AddictionBinge eating is when individuals feel a loss of control over their eating, with periods of binge eating that are not followed by compensatory behaviors.  Typically those who binge eat struggle with obesity or being overweight.

Symptoms include eating large amount of food in a 2 hour period, eating when not hungry, eating significantly fast, and eating until uncomfortably full.  Those who binge eat, typically do so in secret, may engage in various dieting behaviors without success, and may have separate financial accounts or money for binging, and state feelings of distress, shame and guilt around binging.

In conclusion, eating disorders and food addictions vary considerably. Even though food addictions seem to be similar to binge eating, food addictions are more related to eating patterns and pleasure and reward. Eating disorders are a psychological disorder that are both environmental and genetic in nature.


Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS is a specialist in the eating disorder field. Libby has been treating eating disorders for 10 years within the St. Louis area, and enjoys working with individuals of all ages.


[1] https://www.addiction.com/expert-blogs/food-fights-dsm-v-binge-eating-disorder-vs-food-addiction/
[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/23/food-addiction-eating-addiction_n_5844712.html
[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/eating-disorders-news/201104/if-food-addiction-is-real-how-do-we-treat-eating-disorders
[4] http://www.healthline.com/health/addiction/food#Complications5
[5] http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00061/full
[6] http://www.interventionservicesinc.com/food-addiction/
[7] https://tsnnews.com/difference-food-addiction-eating-addiction/
[8] http://foodaddictioninstitute.org/what-is-food-addiction/
[9] http://psychologyofeating.com/what-is-food-addiction/
[10] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 18, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com