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What is Food Addiction?

When You Use Food to Cope Emotionally

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Updated August 18, 2013

Picture of chocolate brownies, often a target for food addiction

Food Addiction Can Often Focus on Sweet Foods Like Chocolate

Photo © April Cooper

In a sense, we are all addicted to food. Think about what it feels like when you aren’t able to eat. You start to crave food, and become more physically and emotionally uncomfortable the longer the cravings go on for, until eating becomes the most important thing for you to do. This is the constant experience of people struggling with food addiction, even if they have plenty to eat.

Food is essential to survival, and unlike other addictive behaviors, it is normal to eat repeatedly every day, and to look forward to eating for pleasure. But several characteristics separate normal or occasional binge eating from a food addiction.

Firstly, food addiction is maladaptive, so although people overeat to feel better, it often ends up making them feel worse, and gives them more to feel back about. Food addiction can threaten health, causing obesity, malnutrition, and other problems.

Secondly, the overeating that people with food addiction do is persistent, so a person addicted to food eats too much food -- and often the wrong kinds of food -- too much of the time. We all overeat on from time to time, but people with food addiction often overeat every day, and they eat, not because they are hungry, but as their main way of coping with stress. Then if they are unable to overeat, they experience anxiety.

The Controversy of Food Addiction

As a behavioral addictions, the concept of food addiction is a controversial

Read more about the controversy of food addiction.

The field is divided between those who think that overeating can be a type of addiction, and those who think that true addictions are limited to psychoactive substances which produces symptoms such as physical a href="http://addictions.about.com/od/glossar1/g/tolerance.htm">tolerance and withdrawal. Although this has been demonstrated in research with sugar and fat (the two most common obesity-causing constituents of food), and other studies show that food produces opiates in the body, many think that this does not necessarily constitute an addiction.

However, the growing epidemic of obesity over the past 20 years has raised public health concern. In almost all US states, one in five adults is obese. Childhood obesity was ranked as the top health concern for children in 2008, higher than either drug abuse, rated second, or smoking rated third, both of which were ahead of obesity in 2007.

This concern, along with effective treatments for addictions, which are being successfully applied to more and more problematic behaviors, is contributing to a movement towards understanding over-eating, and the consequences of obesity and related health problems, in terms of addiction.

Food addiction is now included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), named as Binge Eating Disorder, and categorized with the Eating Disorders. Excessive eating is also a characteristic of another eating disorders outlined in the DSM, known as Bulimia Nervosa. Some controversy remains over whether eating disorders are actually addictions, but many experts believe that they are.

How Is Food Addiction Like Other Addictions?

There are several similarities between food addiction and drug addiction, including effects on mood, external cues to eat or use drugs, expectancies, restraint, ambivalence, and attribution.

Neurotransmitters and the brain's reward system have been implicated in food and other addictions. In animal studies, for example, dopamine has been found to play an important role in overall reward systems, and binging on sugar has been shown to influence dopamine activity.

Food, drugs and other addictive substances and behaviors are all associated with pleasure, hedonism, and social, cultural or sub-cultural desirability. When advertising or the people around us tell us that a food, drug or activity will feel good, it sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are more likely to seek it out, and we are more likely to experience pleasure when we indulge.

A Unified Theory of Addiction and Mental Health?

Similarities between food addiction and other addictions suggest a universal process underlying food and other addictions. Some experts go further, theorizing that overlaps, similarities, and co-occurrences of mental health problems, including addictions, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders, and the phenomenon of a new addiction or mental health problem developing when an old addiction is treated, indicate that they are expressions of related underlying pathologies. It has been argued that viewing these conditions separately hinders the development of a comprehensive view of addictions.

More evidence is needed to support these proposed ideas, and at present, professionals differ in the extent to which they see these problems as related.

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- Fifth Edition. APA, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Obesity Trends 1985–2007. 8 Jan 2009.

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, the University of Michigan Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases, and the University of Michigan Child Health Evaluation and Research (CHEAR) Unit. National Poll on Children’s Health. 8 Jan 2009.

Food & Addiction Conference on Eating and Dependence New Haven, Connecticut. July 2007.

Joranby, L., Pineda, K, Gold, M. "Addiction to Food and Brain Reward Systems." Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 12:201-217. 2005.

Kayloe, J. "Food Addiction." Psychotherapy 30: 269-275. 1993.

Le Magnen, J. "A Role For Opiates In Food Reward and Food Addiction." In P. T. Capaldi (Ed.) Taste, Experience, and Feeding (pp. 241-252). 1990.

Orford, J. "Excessive Appetities: A Psychological View of Addictions. Second Edition. Chichester: Wiley. 2001.

Pelchat, M. "Of Human Bondage: Food Craving, Obsession, Compulsion and Addiction." Physiology and Behavior 76: 347-352. 2002.

Power, C. "Food and Sex Addiction: Helping the Clinician Recognize and Treat the Interaction." Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 12: 219-234, 2005.

Rogers, P. and Smit, H. "Food Craving and Food Addiction: A Critical Review of the Evidence From a Biopsychosocial Perspective." Pharmocology Biochemistry and Behavior 66: 3-14. 2000.

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