Does Food Addiction Exist? What Does Research Show?

Grilling meats can help with a food addictionThe topic of food addiction is one that is debated in both the general public and amongst professionals. Is it possible to be addicted to food in the same manner as an individual might struggle with a drug addiction or the way alcoholic struggles with the drink?

The idea of being addicted to food is seemingly more complex, as one cannot practice abstinence from the very substance needed to sustain life and existence, as we know it. In the case of being addicted to food, what would be the best forms of treatment? In order to answer these questions, it is important to look at research on the subject.

What Is Food Addiction?

An addiction to food has been defined as an uncontrollable craving for excess food that follows the ingestion of refined carbohydrates, flour substances, and sugary foods that are quickly metabolized and turned into sugar in the bloodstream1. Some of the most common symptoms of being addicted to food include the following behaviors:

  1. Feeling a loss of control with food intake, especially with foods that are primarily carbohydrate-based
  2. Continuing to eat certain foods even if no longer feeling hungry
  3. Eating to the point of feeling uncomfortable and overly full
  4. Avoiding certain social situations that involve food for fear of overeating
  5. Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed due to the amount of time and effort spent in eating
  6. Feeling guilty, anxious, depressed or ashamed after eating
  7. Turning to food to stimulate pleasure or in attempt to negative emotions
  8. Eating alone or in private to avoid having other people see how you are eating
  9. Hoarding or stealing foods
  10. Being unable to function in normal daily activities due to food eating behaviors.

Young woman using her smartphone while breakfastResearch in the area of food addiction has demonstrated striking similarities between an addiction to food and addiction to drugs/alcohol. Scientists have uncovered gene markers that are exactly the same in food addicts, diagnosed alcoholics and other drug addicts2. 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 That Give More Insight into Addiction to Food

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 sugar3. These tool has been instrumental in helping professionals identify “problem behaviors in feeding behaviors similar to that encountered in other forms of addiction”3.

Approaches Towards Treating Addictions to Food

Picnic basket with fruit and bread to help fight a food addictionScience has also identified important approaches towards food addiction that can help individuals struggling to get to a place of freedom and peace. It is believed that traditional approaches towards addiction behaviors can be helpful in an addiction to food as well, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, twelve-step programs, motivational talks, support groups, etc.

Though therapy for alcohol and drug addiction requires abstinence from the substance one is addicted to, this principle cannot be applied to being addicted to food, as food is necessary to survive. Instead, individuals who struggle with food addiction can learn to renegotiate their relationship with food, body, and emotions. The assistance of professionals, such as a therapist and dietitian, can help guide treatment approaches for the addiction recovery process.

If you think you may be struggling with an addiction to food, be sure to talk with your doctor about this. Connecting to treatment can be the most important tool to overcoming a condition that is often misunderstood.


  1. Food Addicts Anonymous, “Are you a food addict?”. Accessed 20 July 2015
  2. “Science of Food Addiction”, Food Accessed 20 July 2015

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 31st, 2015
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