In a similar function to drugs or alcohol, food releases the brain chemical, dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that signals the brain to experience pleasure. It typically creates a positive link between emotional comfort and food, which may cause the brain to see food as a drug. Food addiction affects many people in this way.

Food addiction is a complicated disorder which has many similarities to drug addiction or alcoholism. For food addicts, they treat food in much the way a drug addict or alcoholic views drug or alcohol. There are several things that come into play with both food and drugs. Such factors include brain stimulation, chemical properties, reward and relief centers, comfort, and secretive behaviors.

Food, just like water, is an essential part of our everyday lives. It helps to keep us energized, healthy, nourished and supply us with the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that are a key part of our survival. Food not only provides us with the essentials to keep us alive, but it also gives us a feeling of fulfillment through factors such as smells and tastes, with this feeling of fulfillment, but it can also cause some persons to develop food addiction similar to other persons get addicted to drugs and alcohol.

How Does Food Become Addictive?


eating disorder
How is food addictive?


Food addiction begins when the individual begins to feel dependent on the food due to the high pleasure that they often get while eating. When food dependence is formed, then there will be a continuous need to eat, even when not truly hungry. The release of dopamine in the brain can be triggered by many comfort foods, just like the release of dopamine happens with drugs.

Food addiction stems from food being highly palatable or very appetizing to the individual. Eating foods such as these are most often very rich in fats, sugar or salt which triggers a chemical reaction within the brain, similar to those activated when one takes drugs such as heroin. The chemical reaction is what enhances the pleasure sensation. When a person eats a certain food that is highly saturated with flavor, the chemical reaction within the brain activates the brain’s reward center thus giving a highly satisfactory feeling.

Causes of Food Addiction

In a similar function to drugs or alcohol, food releases the brain chemical, dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that signals the brain to experience pleasure. It typically creates a positive link between emotional comfort and food, which may cause the brain to see food as a drug. Food addiction affects many people in this way.

Food addiction can stem from a number of factors including biological, mental or social factors.

Biological factors

Biological causes of food addiction may influence heightening this habit and may include hormonal imbalances, having a close family member with this type of addiction, side effects caused from the use of certain medications or abnormalities in the structure of the brain.

Psychological factors

This may include how the individual copes with pain relief, stress relief or just plain boredom. An individual with food addiction which has been developed due to some psychological factor may use food as a means of escape from reality. Another psychological factor where one has body issues such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) which causes an individual to be obsessively concerned and become preoccupied with their body image.

Food addiction is a real illness and may also be developed through other personal factors which include:

  • Binge eating
  • Mistaking the feeling of being thirsty for hunger
  • Peer pressure
  • Imbalances within the family
  • Social isolation
  • Low or lack of self-esteem
  • Trauma faced from loss
  • Weight issues
  • Abuse

Co-occurring disorders

This includes eating disorders as well as a struggle with substance abuse. Some drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine promote the feeling of hunger or what is often referred to as “the munchies.” Food addiction can be a highly complex health issue and can lead to severe complications if left untreated.

Because food is part of the everyday lives of every individual, it can be tricky to gain control over. Unlike hard drugs, alcohol, or gambling, nobody can successfully abstain completely from food. Eating disorders see an increase more and more through the years as people turn to food as the most common silent addiction.

eating disorders
Signs of food addiction

Signs of Food Addiction

Food addiction is diagnosable through psychological evaluations. However, it may also be noticable simply by watching the behavior or an individual when it pertains to food. Common signs of food addiction include:

  • Obsessing about when to eat, how much to eat, getting more food and what to eat next
  • Constantly overeating even after you are full
  • Binge eating / Snacking, usually to pass the time
  • Eating in secrecy
  • Knowing that a certain food is harmful but eating it anyway
  • Eating to ease depression or stress
  • Excessively eating and then taking laxatives to get rid of the excess and eating again (this is binge and purge, a sign of bulimia)
  • Eating more food than you can actually handle
  • Hiding the consumption of certain foods from others
  • Feeling guilty after certain meals

Side Effects of Food Addiction

People with food addictions, similar to those with drug and alcohol addictions, will often have negative side effects which stem from their overeating. More often than not, side effects typically stem from large quantities of food that are often unhealthy. Side effects include:

  • Suicidal tendencies due to severe discomfort from overeating
  • Digestive disorders
  • Headaches
  • Relentlessness
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disorders
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Decrease in energy
  • Financial decline due to overspending on food unnecessarily
  • Difficulty concentrating

Physical Effects of Food Addiction

Food addiction can cause a negative impact on the physique of an individual. The body is not naturally designed to constantly receive an excessive amount of food in unhealthy quantities. Some physical changes that may occur due to overindulging in food may include:

  • Obesity
  • Malnutrition
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Kidney / Liver disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Chronic pain
  • Arthritis
  • Lethargy
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

Many people who suffer silently with food addiction experience weight issues and embarrassment that can come along with it. In our society, a majority of people tend to place more value on fitness and thin appearances. Being overweight can bring feelings of shame, inadequacy, and insecurity for many. Simply look at all the advertisements for weight loss and dieting in America. Billions of dollars are put to cosmetic surgery and losing weight every year.

Long-Term Effects of Food Addiction

Like drug addiction, those who suffer from food addiction are prone to developing serious health issues that may not start to affect the person immediately but will begin to show up over time. These issues are very costly and dangerous and can affect all aspects of a person’s life. Long-term effects can be physical, psychological or social.

Food Addiction – Physical effects

Many negative consequences may follow the issue of food addiction. Some examples are:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Coronary Heart Disease
  • Hypertension
  • Cancer
  • Reproductive problems
  • Stroke
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sleep apnea

Food Addiction – Psychological effects

Food addiction poses a great threat to mental health and can cause one to feel mentally unstable, especially if help is not received. As a downside, some effects that mentally affect a food addict are:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Panic attacks
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Depression
  • Increased irritability, especially if access to desired food is restricted
  • Emotional detachment or numbness
  • Extreme anxiety

Food Addiction – Social Effects

The effects of food addiction include challenges in interpersonal relations and withdrawal of social activities. These other effects are:

  • Isolation from loved ones
  • Decreased performance at work or school
  • Avoidance of social events or functions
  • Division within family units
  • Lack of enjoyment in hobbies or activities once enjoyed
  • Risk of jeopardizing finances or career

Most Addictive Foods

Studies repeatedly show the most addictive foods are primarily made up of refined, powdery, and processed ingredients. Sugar, flour, processed fats, and chemical additives are the number one cause of that “addictive” spike in dopamine that happens in the brain. Ironically, if you think of the most addictive drugs we know about, most of them tend to be fine, white, powdery substances as well!

Although it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, the most addictive foods are usually high in sugar, fat, or both. Each food addict will obviously have their different favorite food vices, but a general rule of white, powder, processed foods remains the same. As such, the eight most addictive foods include (ranging from the highest to lowest):

  • Fast food
  • Pizza
  • Chocolate
  • Chips
  • Cookies
  • Ice cream
  • French fries
  • Cheeseburgers
  • Soda
  • Pastries and baked desserts
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Fatty meats, cheeses, and pasteurized milk
  • Candy, sugary snacks, and junk food in general


eating disorder
How to treat a food addiction

Treatment Options for Food Addiction

Food addiction, like drug and alcohol addiction, is typically treated in the same manner since all brains with addiction disorders tend to work in the same way.

Treatment options to combat food addiction include psychotherapy, nutritional therapies, and twelve-step programs. In some cases, food addicts are placed on medications that are linked to mental disorders in order to help with the stability of the mental state. Medication may often include antidepressants which help to address the main cause of severe food cravings. If you or your loved one is struggling with a food addiction, do not feel ashamed. We know how delicious food can be which may cause us all to become in a state of happiness. Prevail Intervention is ready and waiting for your call to help you start your journey to a healthier and balanced life.

In some cases, a residential treatment facility may be able to offer assistance for severe food addiction or dual diagnosis and mental health issues. Call our free Addiction Helpline with any questions or concerns you might have. We can help you find the support and healing you need.

Treating Food Addiction

Most people have a history of several failed attempts before they manage to succeed in the long run. By seeking the appropriate help needed to combat food addiction, resources are available to address this illness in an effective manner. Our health professionals at Prevail Intervention and support groups are ready to help food addicts overcome this problem and help you or your loved one get healthy again.

Specialized programs designed for the treatment of food addiction offer holistic and comprehensive approaches to treat addiction. Some of these programs or treatments include psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, social group (such as Food Addicts Anonymous or Over-eaters Anonymous).

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