Written by: Dale Conlon
Medically Reviewed by: Dr Mateen Durrani – MBBS, DPM, MSc, BCPsych
Last Updated: January 10th, 2023
Food addiction may seem like a paradoxical statement given that food is something that none of us can live without. Hunger can make us feel mentally exhausted, emotionally irritable and physically uncomfortable. But the moment we can satisfy our hunger, most of us feel satisfied and our focus shifts away from food until the next mealtime.
For some people, however, food provides a source of consolation that goes beyond its nutritional benefit. It can be difficult for those struggling with addiction to food to feel satisfied despite having plenty to eat, thus invoking constant feelings of tiredness, irritability, and discomfort in those suffering. Read on to find out more about how food addiction develops and the myths surrounding this condition.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is a mental health condition that causes someone to become physically and emotionally reliant on food to distract from underlying trauma. It can happen to anyone, regardless of their background, and is not something for you to feel ashamed about. Addiction to food is not so different from drug addiction, in that both substances release feel-good chemicals within the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, which causes people to repeatedly crave the same source of pleasure.
Junk foods high in fat, sugar, and salt induce these chemicals and activate the brain’s reward system, defying the physical feeling of fullness, causing people to crave more of these foods, even when they are far from hungry.
Furthermore, like with drugs and alcohol, people may build a stronger tolerance, in that the more food they consume, the less satisfied they become – resulting in them taking greater portions and eating more frequently.
How do I know if I’m addicted to food?
We all like to indulge from time to time, and food, by its very nature, can be a pleasure. It’s natural to crave certain foods (especially junk food) and to want extra portions if our tastebuds fancy. Many of us tend to comfort eat now and then, and it’s not uncommon for people to prefer staying in with a pizza to going out socialising with others. So how do you know if you are addicted to food? If you can relate to these food addiction symptoms below, it may be time to seek some help.
Symptoms of food addiction
- Eating so excessively that you neglect work, friends, family, and hobbies
- Facing problems at work because of food and eating
- Being secretive or untruthful about your eating behaviours- such as bingeing in secret
- Feeling guilt and shame after overeating (this may materialise into self-deprecating thoughts or self-harm)
- Feeling as though food controls your life
- Rapid weight gain from overeating
- Experiencing cravings despite feeling full
- Eating alone or deliberately away from others, e.g., in your car, in your room
- Unable to quit despite physical problems presenting (e.g., excessive weight gain)
- Avoiding social situations or time with others and preferring to spend time eating instead
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling irritable before you eat food
- Feeling guilty after you eat food
- Going out of your way to obtain certain foods
- Digestive problems
- Sleeping problems
Why am I addicted to food?
There are many underlying reasons why people develop an addiction to food. For some, it is due to depression, stress and anxiety; food can be seen as a clutch to hold onto whilst enduring turbulent times either in your personal or professional life.
- Some people turn to food as means of feeling safe and loved. For example, if you’re experiencing loneliness, grief, or heartbreak, you may use an excess of food to self-soothe.
- Poor self-image and lack of self-worth may also trigger a food addiction as some people find acceptance in food.
- Existing mental health issues such as Obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD or prior eating disorders may also impact excessive eating and can create limitations to healthy eating patterns.
Whatever the reason, it is vital you understand that it is not a weakness, nor is it something you have brought on. Remember, you are human, and we all face tumultuous times in our lives, which show up in a multitude of ways.
Is food addiction the same as a binge-eating disorder?
Although they are similar in nature, there is a subtle difference between food addiction and binge eating disorder. Addiction to food is considered to stem from a biochemical reaction in the brain. In comparison, binge eating disorder is said to derive from a more psychological route. Somebody who is suffering from a binge eating disorder does so as a result of many emotional or environmental issues. Doctors believe that food addiction is more of a biological illness, as a person dealing with food addiction has a chemical dependency on certain foods. As with any substance-based dependence, specific foods stimulate the same neurotransmitters of the brain.
However, it is likely that the biochemical and psychological causes can overlap. Many medical professionals agree that food addiction can stem from many emotional and psychological factors too. Therefore, it’s vital that both food addiction and binge-eating disorder require thorough professional treatment for an effective recovery.
Causes of food addiction
Listed below are causes of food addiction that you need to look out for:
- Low self-esteem
- Poor self-image
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Breaking the stigma of food addiction
According to the national centre for eating disorders, around twelve million Britons seek help as a product of over-eating. Today, food addiction often gets misunderstood and can have many stigmas attached to it. One common misconception is that people who overeat are greedy or lazy. This is not true, but shaming others for their addiction to food often induces feelings of humiliation within the person suffering, which only propels them further into a destructive habit.
The vicious cycle
Food addiction is just like any other addiction. It is maladaptive behaviour; people may eat excessively to relieve any negativity such as stress, depression, or anxiety, but the feeling is fleeting, and the inherent addiction issues don’t go away. Sufferers often feel worse after extreme eating, which further catapults them into despair, where they seek comfort in their next edible fix.
This vicious cycle can take its toll on a person’s mental well-being and bring about damaging consequences in their personal and professional lives. Furthermore, food addiction can lead to obesity, eating disorders, malnutrition, and other physical health complications.
How can I break my food addiction?
The first and most crucial step towards recovery is acceptance. Once you accept that your eating habits have gotten out of control, you can take the appropriate steps to combat food addiction. It is a good idea to confide in a trusted loved one- somebody who can support you through your recovery.
Primrose Lodge treatment focuses on counselling therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and individual therapy sessions. Our specialist therapists encourage you to explore any underlying emotional and physical issues that trigger food addiction. Plus, you will work with your therapists to develop efficient approaches to prevent future overeating.
If you think you or a loved one is suffering and want help with food addiction, get in touch with us today, either by live chat or telephone; our team of fully trained support staff is here to help with any questions you have.