Food Addiction: Causes, Symptoms, Signs & Treatment Help

Food is essential to human survival and is an important aspect of our wellness, in addition to a means of pleasure and enjoyment.  Food not only provides needed sustenance, it also adds a gratification factor through various tastes, smells, textures, etc.  However, for many individuals, food addiction can become as serious as drugs are to a substance abuser.

What is Food Addiction?

For men and women suffering from an addiction to food, highly palatable foods (which are often rich in fat, sugar, and/or salt) trigger chemical reactions in the brain that induce feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.  This reaction has been explained as comparable to an addict’s response to their substance of choice, as it activates the same brain reward center.

Food addicts become dependent upon the “good” feelings that are obtained from consuming certain foods, which often perpetuates a continued need to eat, even when not hungry.  These behaviors generate a vicious cycle.  As the food addict continues to gorge upon foods that induce pleasurable feelings, they often overindulge and eat beyond what is required for satiety and normal nutrition.

This can lead to several physical, emotional, and social consequences, such as digestive issues, heart disease, obesity, low-self esteem, depression, and isolation.  A food addict will often re-engage in these destructive behaviors, even amidst undesired consequences, due to the need for induced feelings of pleasure.

Because of the ferocious cycle of food addiction and the detrimental consequences associated with this behavior, it is crucial that professional help is sought.  If you or a loved one has been struggling with an addiction to food, consider the possibilities of a life free of this burden.  You can find peace from an addiction to food by seeking the appropriate care and help you need.

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [2]. Food addiction is a psychological and emotional addiction to specific foods and substances [3]. Even though not directly the same as a substance addiction, food activates the taste-reward and pleasurable regions of the brain.

Gene Markers

Scientists have uncovered gene markers that are exactly the same in food addicts, diagnosed alcoholics and other drug addicts[5]. Further research has uncovered several other possible causes and influential factors that lead to the development of an addiction to food, including genetics, serotonin malfunction, endorphin overstimulation, brain imaging, opioids, cross addictions and more.

Scientific Tools

While the classification of being addicted to food can seem relatively new and difficult to diagnose, there are scientific tools developed by researchers to further obtain insight into the construct of being addicted to food. The most commonly used scale applied towards identifying matching criteria of being addicted to food is the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a standardized tool constructed in 2008 by Ashley Gerhardt and associates.

The tool was designed to identify those who demonstrate symptoms of dependence on certain types of foods, such as foods higher in salt, fat or sugar. These tool has been instrumental in helping professionals identify “problem behaviors in feeding behaviors similar to that encountered in other forms of addiction”[7].

What Are the Causes of Food Addiction?

Food addiction is likely the culmination of several factors that interplay in the overall cause of this disorder.  A man or woman may develop an addiction as a result of biological, psychological, or social reasons.  Biological causes that may influence the progression of this eating disorder might include hormonal imbalances, abnormalities in various brain structures, side effects from the use of certain medications, or having family members with this type of addiction issues.

It also might also be the result of psychological factors.  Factors included in this category might include emotional or sexual abuse, being a victim or survivor of a traumatic event, having an inability to healthily cope with negative situations, chronic low-self esteem, or experiencing grief or loss.

Psychological factors such as these can influence an individual to use food as a coping mechanism to relieve the painful emotions that may have resulted.  Lastly, there are social implications that may be involved with food addiction, including factors such as disturbances in family function, pressure from peers or society, social isolation, child abuse, lack of social support, and stressful life events.

An addiction to food can also be associated with other co-occurring disorders, such as eating disorders or substance abuse.  Because food addiction is a complex mental health issue that can have serious complications if left untreated, it is highly recommended that professional help be sought to effectively heal from this disorder.

Signs and Symptoms You May Be Addicted to Food

This Eating Disorder can be recognizable by numerous signs and symptoms.  The following are possible symptoms of an addiction to food:

  • Gorging in more food than one can physically tolerate
  • Eating to the point of feeling ill
  • Going out of your way to obtain certain foods
  • Continuing to eat certain foods even if no longer hungry
  • Eating in secret, isolation
  • Avoiding social interactions, relationships, or functions to spend time eating certain foods.
  • Difficulty function in a career or job due to decreased efficiency
  • Spending a significant amount of money on buying certain foods for bingeing purposes
  • Decreased energy, chronic fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disorders, such as insomnia or oversleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Digestive disorders
  • Suicidal ideations

If you or your loved one has been experiencing any of these above symptoms as a result of food addiction, seek out professional help immediately to work through these pertinent issues.

Effects of Being a Food Addict

If you or your loved one had been struggling with a food addiction, you may understand the implications this may have on the various aspects of your life.   If food addiction is left ignored or untreated, it can rapidly begin consuming your life, creating damaging and chronic symptoms.   Understanding how this may affect the different aspects of your life may encourage you to get the help you need and deserve.  The following are some of the effects of an addiction to food:

AdvertisementPhysical Effects

Food addiction can result in many negative physical consequences on the body as an excess of food is consumed.  These are some physical effects that may be experienced:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive Problems
  • Malnutrition
  • Obesity
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain
  • Sleep disorders
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Headaches
  • Lethargy
  • Arthritis
  • Stroke
  • Kidney/Liver Disease
  • Osteoporosis

Psychological Effects

An addiction to food can be debilitating to mental health, especially if there is a lack of support or inadequate help.  Some of the psychological effects that may be experienced include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Increased feelings of anxiety
  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or in despair
  • Increased irritability, especially if access to desired food is restricted
  • Emotional detachment or numbness
  • Suicidal ideation

Finally, food addiction can have an impact on your social life and relationships.  Social effects of food addiction include:

  • Decreased performance at work or school
  • Isolation from loved ones
  • Division within family units
  • Lack of enjoyment in hobbies or activities once enjoyed
  • Avoidance of social events or functions
  • Risk of jeopardizing finances or career

How Is Food Addiction Different 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 [4].

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.

Binge 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.

Food Addiction Help and Treatment

If you or a loved one has found yourself stuck in the vicious cycle of an addiction to food, you have likely experienced a roller coaster of emotions, including despair, frustration, and hopelessness.  Living with an addiction to food may be preventing you from enjoying a life you once lived, though the possibility for healing always exists.

By seeking the appropriate help and care you need, you can find the resources to address your addiction to food in an effective manner.  Thankfully, there are specialized food addiction treatment centers that can help you approach this disorder in a holistic and comprehensive manner.  Food addiction treatment centers offer multi-specialty treatment that will focus on and address medical issues and nutritional concerns while integrating psychotherapy.

There is also a myriad of support groups that you can become involved with, such as Food Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.  These groups are 12 step-based programs that effectively address this on the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects, offering much-needed support to individuals seeking to heal from their addiction to food.

Attempting to deal with your addiction to food alone can possibly further draw you into fear or isolation.  Having guidance, help and support from an eating disorder center that treats food addiction, specialist, or support group can provide you or your loved one with the tools and resources you need to recover and heal from an addiction to food.


[5] Food Addicts Anonymous, “Are you a food addict?”. Accessed 20 July 2015
[6] “Science of Food Addiction”, Food Accessed 20 July 2015

Contributor: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS
Last Reviewed and Updated By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 12, 2017