Food addiction, technically called “compulsive overeating,” is characterized by an unhealthy, obsessive-compulsive relationship with food. Food addicts often crave unhealthy foods and think about eating constantly. Food addiction can lead to serious health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension. It’s also linked to clinical depression.
What is Food Addiction?
Compulsive overeaters don’t just eat a lot when they’re hungry. They often binge eat–a rapid, uncontrollable act that involves consuming massive quantities of food in a short time–even if they’re not feeling hunger. Unlike bulimics, food addicts don’t purge, or vomit, after a binging episode, though binges are often followed by bouts of depression and guilt.
Compulsive overeaters may also graze on food steadily throughout the day, despite the fact that they’re not hungry.
Compulsive overeating and obesity are strongly correlated. However, not everyone who is obese is a compulsive overeater, and not all compulsive overeaters have weight problems.
The Biology of Food Addiction
Eating disorders have complex biological and social causes, and research efforts have not yet provided answers to understanding food addiction. Some researchers suspect compulsive overeating shares the same brain pathways associated with drug addiction.
Researchers at Yale University (2007) found that looking at pictures of highly palatable foods and consuming high-calorie foods triggered both the dopamine and opioid systems–the neural systems also implicated in drug addiction–in the brains of study participants.
According to an animal study conducted by scientists at the Scripps Research Institute (2010), bingeing on junk foods could be just as addictive as cocaine. The report found that overeating high-calorie foods can trigger addiction-like responses in the brain, and turned the rats in the study into compulsive eaters.
Food Addiction Risk Factors
Women are slightly more likely than men to be binge eaters. People of all ages are vulnerable, with problems usually beginning in late adolescence and the early 20s. Other risk factors include a family history of eating disorders and difficulty dealing with stress or worry.
Food Addiction Warning Signs
Everyone eats too much once in a while, but regular, compulsive overeating not linked to hunger is a “red flag” of compulsive overeating. Other warning signs include:
- A history of unsuccessful dieting
- An obsession with food, eating and body weight
- Eating rapidly and/or binge eating
- Often eating alone and eating very little in public due to shame surrounding eating habits
- Overwhelming feelings of guilt after overeating, along with a general feeling of low self-esteem
- Weight gain or weight fluctuations.
Food Addiction Treatments
Compulsive overeaters have a variety of treatment options available to them. Since food addiction is a multifaceted disorder, it’s important to get help from a health care provider who can treat coexisting addiction and related physical issues, and tailor a treatment program to the needs of the individual.
Treatments include psychological counseling, outpatient therapy, support groups, nutritional counseling, antidepressant medication and residential treatment programs.
How to Seek Help
If you or someone you love is affected by compulsive overeating, organizations exist to help manage eating habits and connect compulsive overeaters with one another and form a support network. These include:
- Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous: http://foodaddicts.org/index.html
- Food Addicts Anonymous: http://www.foodaddictsanonymous.org/
Mayo Clinic. (2010). Binge eating disorder. Retrieved Aug. 4, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/binge-eating-disorder/DS00608
Reuters. (2010). Junk food addiction may be clue to obesity: Study. Retrieved Aug. 4, 2010, from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE62R23O20100328
The National Institute of Mental Health. (2007). Eating disorders. Retrieved Aug. 4, 2010, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml
Volkow, N. (2007). Common brain mechanisms in addiction and obesity: Insights from neuroimaging. Retrieved Aug. 4, 2010, from http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/reports/RuddCenterAddictionMeeting.pdf
Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. (2010). Food and addiction. Retrieved Aug. 4, 2010, from http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/what_we_do.aspx?id=262