Are food addictions real?

If you’ve never eaten several slices of cake right after dinner or a whole tub of ice cream in minutes or a family-sized bag of chips as an appetizer you might be wondering “ Are food addictions even real?”  

Binging on highly palatable foods occasionally would not even raise a single brow on the face of a modern resident of an affluent country, we all do it.  After all, junk food companies would consider themselves a big failure if they did not set and accomplish a goal of making you eat food primarily devoid of nutrients and not being able to stop. 

But is it considered an addiction?   

When is it just an innocent indulging in junk food once every blue moon and when is it a full-blown addiction?  

Let’s look at what would be clear signs of any addiction, be it a drug, alcohol, nicotine, or anything else.

Generally, addiction is an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in behavior regardless of negative consequences.   When the supply of the substance or behavior is diminished or discontinued, withdrawal symptoms occur.   With time and prolonged use, tolerance to the substance is developed, and more is required to achieve the desired state. 

 Some of the symptoms of addiction may include: 

  • Frequent urges to use the drug
  • Having an intense desire for the drug with obsessive thoughts about it 
  • With time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect
  • Difficulty meeting obligations and work responsibilities, avoiding social or recreational activities because of drug use
  • Continuing to use the drug, despite the awareness that it’s causing you physical or psychological harm
  • Not being able to stop using the drug
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug

If you’ve ever felt the same way about a particular food, you may have an addiction to it. 

Let’s look at some of the signs and symptoms of food addiction:

  • Having obsessive thoughts about eating particular foods
  • Keep eating even after feeling full
  • Having problems with weight and poor self-image
  • Eating to the point of great discomfort 
  • Being anxious about not being able to get certain types of foods or limiting certain types of foods
  • Putting great effort into getting certain kinds of foods. 
  • Eating large quantities of food to the extent that it interferes with your work,  family time, and recreational activities.
  • Avoiding situations where certain foods are present for the fear of overeating them and feeling embarrassed
  • Developing nutritional deficiencies and digestive problems
  • Having feelings of guilt and low self-esteem after indulging in certain foods

If we compare drug and food addiction symptoms it clearly shows the similarities indicating that food addictions can be and are real and not a joke.  

Food addiction can be described as an uncontrollable impulsive and compulsive desire to eat certain foods regardless of the hunger level and negative consequences. 

Like other addictions, there is intense and uncontrollable craving for certain foods, a withdrawal phase when not having them, and the development of tolerance.

Food addictions can range from mild to severe, can affect people of any age or gender, and affect both the mind and the body.  If not addressed, food addictions may have unfavorable consequences:

  • Weight gain
  • Digestive issues
  • Malnutrition
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Negative body image
  • Guilt

What is the mechanism of food addiction? How does one get addicted to food? 

Experiments in animals and humans show that certain drugs, behaviors, and foods may trigger a release of the feel-good brain chemical, dopamine in the brain. 

And while this is a natural process happening all the time,  certain individuals become highly addicted to the release of dopamine thus doing everything to feel pleasure associated with dopamine release again. 

If specific foods give you a boost of dopamine, it creates a dependency on those foods and you will likely feel the need to have them over and over again. 

Highly palatable foods like sugar, fat, salt, and simple carbs are considered addictive foods that people tend to go to for a dopamine boost. 

Pleasure from eating those foods may even override your signals of fullness and satiety and keep you eating, way past your fullness threshold. 

When the pleasurable effects subside, or when you limit or stop eating the addictive food, withdrawal symptoms appear. As with any drug or alcohol detox, withdrawal is a basic component of any addiction. Anxiety, irritability, moodiness, or anger are some of the food withdrawal symptoms. 

You also may develop a tolerance to food. That means that the more you eat, the less you’re satisfied. 

Food addiction like any other addiction draws you into a vicious cycle. You eat because you want to feel better,  shortly after eating you feel bad again and are pushed to eat more to feel better again.   

What could be the risk factors for developing a food addiction?   

Why can some people walk past chips or ice cream or cake without giving it a single thought when others will not stop thinking about it even after the food is long out of their line of vision? 

Some people are more susceptible to the effects of the addictive substance than others.  Research shows that childhood trauma, stressful environment, PTSD, extreme diets, and other conditions are associated with developing an addiction.  

Emotions play a significant role in food addiction.  Learning about how you feel and what you crave as a result of it is one of the crucial components of overcoming food addiction.  

So, is there hope? What can be done to overcome this stubborn dependency on unhealthy food? 

Any addiction is a complex issue and should be approached holistically.  There are multiple layers to addiction; physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral, and when all of them are addressed, success is much more likely to happen. 

  1. It can be highly beneficial to work with a nutritionist or functional practitioner to create balanced meal plans and address any nutritional deficiencies and hormonal imbalances that might cause or contribute to increased appetite and cravings.
  2. Addressing stress levels and lack of sleep can have a big positive impact on appetite and cravings. 

Sleep deprivation affects our appetite-regulating hormones, which can increase your appetite and intake of calorie-dense foods. 

High levels of stress cause your body to produce high levels of cortisol. Cortisol increases cravings for sugary and fatty foods. It is also associated with increased appetite in general. 

Finding ways to deal with stress healthily will not just help you with cravings, it will improve every other area of your life. 

3. Looking at what drives the craving on an emotional level will shed light on what might be emotional reasons for cravings or overheating. 

We are emotional beings, driven by emotions in everything that we do.  Emotions like sadness, loneliness, anger, or frustration often trigger cravings, making us use food as emotional support.  

4. Making even small changes in behavior might bring significant results. 

  • Avoid going grocery shopping when hungry or tired.

Research shows that going grocery shopping when hungry or tired or both will cause you to buy 50% more junk food than when you do your shopping in a restful and satiated state.  

  • If you know which foods are your downfall, don’t buy them; don’t go to the isles of the grocery store where they sell them. 

It sounds like a no brainer but you would be surprised how often we think “ I will buy it and just have a little bit, no big deal” 

There can be no portion control with highly addictive foods.  You just need to avoid them, at least for a while, until you get a handle on being highly dependent on them. 

5. Find out what triggers you and either avoid those situations or make adjustments to them.  

  • Do you find it unable to control what you eat at a buffet or lunch with friends or colleagues?  Pick different places to eat or limit the number of times you go to lunch with them. 
  •  Is there a coffee and doughnuts snack table at work?  Bring coffee and healthy snacks with you and stay away from the snack table. 
  • Do you stay at work so late that by the end of your day have no energy to cook and just eat anything readily available?  Have some healthy snacks with you at home and do some meal prep in advance.  

6. Becoming aware of your habitual eating patterns.   

  • Do you buy a large popcorn and a drink every time you go to a movie theater? 
  • Do you need to munch on something when reading a book or sitting at your desk at work?  

Rethink those habits and either stop them or modify them.  Choose healthier, low-sugar options whenever possible. 

A holistic approach is not a quick fix. It is not just a diet or an exercise routine,  it is going deeper into the root of the addiction, understanding it, and healing it from the inside out.   In the end, you are not just overcoming an addiction; you get to understand yourself, understand what drives your behavior, and discover new ways to be healthier and happier. 

If you are still wondering if food addictions are real, the answer is yes, they are.  But you do not have to live with them. You have the power to overcome them.  

This blog is dedicated to broadening the awareness and understanding of habits, addictions, human behavior, and ways to live a happier and freer life.  

This blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice and is not designed to treat or diagnose any physical or mental condition.