While food is an important part of life, our food habits can sometimes be unhealthy (like eating at night!). Food is a source of nourishment and pleasure but sometimes eating can move past a pleasurable part of life and move into addiction territory.
Is Food Addiction Real?
Evidence suggests that food addiction is very real, especially when we’re talking about processed, sugary, and salty foods. These foods are considered highly palatable, meaning that they please the palate and the brain.
Food, especially these highly palatable foods, stimulate the reward center of the brain, and for some people, this stimulation can replicate what happens in drug or alcohol addiction.
In nature, the brain rewards us for engaging in survival behaviors (like eating and sex) through dopamine (feel-good chemical) release. Usually, satiety happens after eating which is also a satisfying feeling.
But reward signals can override signals of satiety as well, According to the Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition, this means that some people can get stuck in hunger and reward and never make it to satiety.
Industrialized Food and Addiction
Food addiction is a relatively new ailment, and it’s not just because food is more readily available for most of us than ever before in history (though that plays a part too).
Industrial food companies employ research teams to figure out the right combo of palatable ingredients to make addictive foods. This is one more reason why it’s so important to eat real food.
We are all reliant on food. As explained above, there is a biological reason for us to seek food (and a biological reason for it to be rewarding). It’s okay to enjoy food and find pleasure in food.
Symptoms of Food Addiction
Researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy have developed a questionnaire that can help identify those with food addiction. Here are the symptoms the questionnaire screens for:
- Eating addictive foods in larger amounts and for longer periods than intended (e.g., eating to the point of illness)
- Persistent desire or repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop eating excess food
- Spending a lot of time and energy in obtaining, eating, and recovering from use
- Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities
- Use continues despite knowledge of adverse consequences (loss of relationships, weight gain, etc.)
- Developing tolerance (need to eat more and more, and the resulting “high” is continually decreasing)
- Withdrawal (having physical withdrawal symptoms like anxiety or agitation when reducing food intake and/or eating to relieve them)
- Significant distress caused by eating (depression, anxiety, guilt, etc.)
If you think you may have some of the symptoms of a food addiction, a supportive doctor or holistic practictioner may be able to help.
Is the Addiction Physical or Emotional?
Like many other addictions, food addiction can be emotional, physical, or both. Cravings are the body’s way of trying to get back in balance (homeostasis). Physical imbalances (like not having enough of certain micronutrients) can play a part, but Dodier notes that food addiction often has an emotional component.
Physical Causes of Food Addiction
There are a few important ways that food addiction can be caused by physical issues.
It’s no secret that stress is a big problem in modern life. But stress can also play a big part in feeding food addiction. The fight or flight response that we are all familiar with is an ancient response that keeps us safe. When the wolf is at the cave door, this response boosts blood sugar levels (for quick energy), elevates blood pressure (to control for the possibility of a bleeding wound), and activates the immune system through inflammation (important for dealing with an infection from an attack). This all works perfectly in this scenario because once the threat is over, all of these systems return to normal.
In modern life though, stress comes from sources that don’t necessarily go away. A difficult work environment, busy family schedule, and other everyday stressors are all example of modern stressors. They cause the body to respond the same way it would to the wolf, except the threat doesn’t go away (or is quickly replaced by another).
Stress hormones (like cortisol) are released during this cycle and can cause the body to crave sugar, salt, and fat. Experts explain in an article published on Cleveland.com that we crave these foods because they are the harder to find foods in nature.
In times of stress, the body naturally drives us to seek these foods since they are a quick source of energy and easily stored as energy (fat) on the body for later. In the wild, this is a perfect system for survival.
But in modern society, these foods are readily available, which is why addiction becomes a problem.
Stress hormones play a role as mentioned above, but other hormones can also affect food addiction.
A 2015 study found that deficiency of a hormone (GLP-1) causes mice to overeat, especially fatty foods. This makes sense since fat is required to synthesis hormones. However, the unhealthy fats that are readily available in processed foods are not the best building blocks for hormones, so it would make sense that eating these high-fat foods wouldn’t satisfy the body’s need for hormone building fats (and allow the food addiction loop to continue).
The 2018 review discussed earlier also found that there are differences in hormones (myelin, prolactin, thyroid-stimulating hormone) in those participants who met criteria for food addiction and those that didn’t. This suggests that hormones may play another role in food addiction but researchers call for more research in this area.
Nutrient Deficiency/Poor Diet
I’m a huge advocate of nutrient-dense diets for all (especially kids!). Research published in 2010 shows that the nutrient density of food is more important for hunger satiety than the calorie count.
So, eating low nutrient foods can cause more hunger, and eating more low-nutrient foods will just keep the cycle going.
Additionally, cravings are often a sign that the body needs something. Hunger will persist until that something is obtained. Low-nutrient foods probably won’t give the body what it needs. So, the body will continue to seek food.
Emotional Causes of Food Addiction
When food addiction has an emotional component, it can be more complicated. Here are some of the emotional causes:
Inability to Cope With Negative Emotions
Much like recreational drugs, the good feeling you get from eating sweet, salty, or fatty foods can mask negative emotions. Eating is one way of dealing with these negative emotions since it provides the dopamine release that makes us feel so good. When we don’t have skills for coping with negative emotions it can be easiest to look to substances (including food!) for relief.
According to the journal Physiology & Behavior, food addiction is focused more on relieving or avoiding negative feelings rather than seeking positive ones.
An article in Psychology Today argues that food addiction is actually a desire for love and security, two things we all need. The article explains that many people who have emotional eating issues also have relationship issues because both food and relationships are a way to seek these feelings. However, using food for comfort, instead of finding a way to meet these needs can be unhealthy.
Many people who have emotional eating issues or a food addiction have low self-esteem but it’s unclear which one caused the other. A 2001 study found that binge eating (in both men and women) was associated with negative emotional traits of depression, low self-esteem, and neuroticism.
While we don’t know whether low self-esteem is a direct cause of food addiction, dealing with it can only help.
What to Do About Food Addiction
Dealing with food addiction is complicated and often involves addressing more than one underlying cause. If you think you may have a food addiction or emotional eating issue, talk with your healthcare provider about natural ways to reset food cravings and stop emotional eating.
I recommend Sarah Fragoso’s book Hangry, Susan Pierce Thompson’s book Bright Line Eating, and Stephanie Dodier’s Intuitive Eating courses (and you can hear more about my conversations with both Sarah, Susan, and Stephanie on the topic on episodes 87, episode 95, and episode 271 on the Wellness Mama podcast.)
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
It’s not easy to think about, but do you fit the food addiction category? What do you think is the biggest contributor?