Can People Really Be Addicted to Food and Eating?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Do you ever feel like you just can't stop yourself from overeating? Are there some foods that are extremely hard for you to resist even when you aren't hungry? Is it very hard to stop eating once you've started, even though your intention is to have just a small amount?

If so, you're definitely not alone. But what's going on here? Is it possible you might be addicted to food?

Not long ago, most experts would have said "no." The prevailing wisdom was that people with the right biological susceptibility might get addicted to drugs or alcohol, but food was just not an addictive substance in the same league with, say, alcohol, crack cocaine or meth. After all, people don’t get addicted to broccoli, oatmeal, or chicken breasts. Even though eating certain foods (usually refined sugars and/or fatty, salty foods) is known to increase appetite in some people and/or turn off the satiety signals that normally would tell them when to stop eating, and even though certain psychological problems can lead some people to become compulsive eaters, these problems were not seen as the same kind of thing as a true substance addiction.

More recently, though, the evidence has been painting a different picture…

Studies like the one reported in this N.Y.Times article have shown that people with a family history of alcoholism also may have a substantially higher risk of being obese than people without such a family history. More significantly, recent animal studies have made it clear that rats (our close relatives when it comes to the neurobiology of eating behaviors) can indeed become addicted to certain types of foods, exhibiting the same kinds of behaviors observed in humans with late-stage addiction to drugs.

And most telling of all are new insights stemming from advances in brain imaging technology, which make it possible to "see" inside the human brain and witness what’s going on when people eat certain foods and/or get caught up in compulsive overeating. It turns out that this brain activity looks very much the same, regardless of whether the individual is a drug addict taking a drug or a habitual overeater eating a double cheeseburger with fries.

Thanks to these developments, the definition of "addiction" has been changing a lot recently. It now includes addiction to behaviors that don’t involve use of any substance at all. Many health professionals and researchers now consider it possible for people to become addicted to gambling, sexual activity, shopping, online gaming/internet use, and other such behaviors. The common denominator in all addictive behavior, according to this new perspective, is that in people with a neurobiological susceptibility to addiction, any behavior that triggers a strong response in the primitive pleasure/reward centers of the brain can be heavily reinforced by this pleasure response. Over time, this potent reinforcement can overwhelm the individual's "normal" judgment and self-control processes, and make the behavior very difficult to control. In effect, it's not the external substance or behavior we get addicted to, it's the chemical reaction in our own brains. As this article suggests, we may need to rethink the whole concept of emotional eating, which may not be just about using eating to deal with uncomfortable feelings.

It's possible, I think, to make too much of all this information and jump to conclusions that go too far. There's no reason, for example, to think that all or most people who struggle with overeating, emotional eating, or obesity are struggling with a "food addiction." Nor does having the "addiction gene" mean an individual is automatically doomed to a lifetime of compulsive overeating--it takes the combination of many factors operating over an extended period of time to produce that kind of uncontrollable behavior. And even long-term addicts can and do recover, with the right kind of help and effort.

At this stage, maybe the most important implication of all this research is that eating the kinds of food found in fast food joints and the junk food sections of your local grocery may be a major risk factor for developing problems with compulsive or addictive eating. In his book The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler describes how "hyperpalatable" foods high in refined sugar, fat, and/or salt can alter brain chemistry, triggering the brain’s reward systems and generating a neurobiological response that stimulates people to crave more of those foods, even when they are not hungry and don’t need the energy. If you also happen to have a predisposition towards addiction, a diet high in these foods could easily lead to a full-blown food addiction over time. According to this research, even looking at pictures of highly pleasurable foods can trigger an intense urge to eat—a fact that hasn’t escaped food advertisers.

This new science should also tell us, I think, that blaming overeating problems on lack of willpower or some personal character flaw is neither accurate nor helpful. To avoid or recover from out-of-control eating we need to put our energy into identifying the foods and/or situations that trigger problems for us, and coming up with good strategies for helping ourselves control what and how much we eat. That starts with recognizing that we do, in fact, have this capacity.

For some of us at least, what we eat may play a big role in how much trouble we have sticking to a healthy diet and achieving or maintaining a healthy weight. It's not just a matter of how many calories there are in these "hyperpalatable" foods, but also the effects they have on our ability to stop eating when we want and/or moderate the amount of particular trigger foods we include in our diet. This could mean that susceptible people may need to avoid certain trigger foods completely, rather than trying to moderate their intake--just like an alcoholic has to avoid all alcohol.

I don’t consider myself a full-blown food addict, but I do know that I can't easily control how much of certain trigger foods I'll eat once I've started eating. If it's there, chances are very high I'll keep eating until it's gone. I either need to avoid these foods entirely (no more Italian sausages for me), or make sure I don't have them around the house in large enough quantities to cause trouble—no more kidding myself that I can make a big pot and get several meals out of it. I stay away from fast food places and restaurants that serve huge portions of things I like a lot.

What do you think? Does the idea of "food addiction" make sense to you? Are we living in a food environment that makes it harder than it should be for many people to actually be fully responsible for their own choices? Do you have to avoid trigger foods completely, or can you moderate your use of them?

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JIMA681 4/8/2019
I am also addicted. People don't believe me but it is true. I really like certain foods and enjoy eating them. Report
DRAGONFLY631 3/23/2019
Good info. Guess I’m not alone. Report
KHALIA2 3/12/2019
Well stated! I am guilty of this one. I like ice-cream. Report
JBOYLEBSN2 1/14/2019
for ME:The shame of yoyo dieting for 50 years.The isolation and guilt because I'm fat: the dishonesty of thinking after a successful diet that I can now eat small bites of trigger foods and NOT regain the weight and more over time:the hours spent logging portions/calories/meals...only to gain weight:I've found OA to help me ... Report
good article Report
Great article! Report
This is a good article. I do believe that I have trigger foods that once I start I have a hard time controlling one of which is mashed potatoes. I love them loaded with butter. I do know I love butter but I can limit my intake and do have it around the house. Mashed potatoes on the other hand I only have when company comes and it will be all eaten. Report
I am definitely addicted to carbs. I had intense withdrawal symptoms when I had to cut them drastically after bariatric surgery. It was worse than when I quit smoking. I am okay now, but I really have to steer away from grain products because even a few crackers, chips or potatoes makes me go crazy and the the cravings are there all over again. Report
Good article. Report
In my case I do agree with staying away from some foods totally. I find that once I get the taste of them I will eat it until it is all gone. It is like I don't have a shut off valve. My choice in regards to them is to not buy them at all. I do have an addiction problem.
Thanks for the article... Very reaffirming in my belief. Report
Some people have addictive personalities, whether to food, alcohol, deviant behavior or religion.

An obese person may lose the weight, but become addicted to exercise!

An alcoholic might eventually become sober and in time become something else...enter the recovering alcoholic, "born-again Christian." Report
Salt is definitely 1 addictive component.
It acts on the opiate centres of the brain as per this article
The point the author made about a person not being addicted to a food, per se, but the pleasure center stimulation meshes nicely with a conversation I had with a psychiatrist I used to work for. Report
I am definitely a carbohydrate addict and have been for years. (just never heard of the correct description) Report
I believe that I am a food addict. There are some foods that I just cannot have in my house because I will not be able to eat a small amount. I will eat all of it in one sitting. I am trying very hard to overcome this but it is very difficult. Report
I don't think it's really helpful to describe overeating as a food "addiction," and I don't think this article is saying food is addictive. I think it's saying some people experience an addiction-like response to certain foods. Here's the problem: our bodies are already hard-wired to seek out food that is higher in fat, sugar and salt, because that's what we need to survive! There are still countries in this world where people don't get to eat every day, so naturally when they do get to eat (when the food is available) they will naturally gravitate to the highest caloric foods available. We're kind of fighting biology here. In America the biggest problem is that, unlike those other countries we have an overabundance of food, and we don't have to work that hard to get it. No foraging, not alot of prep time, just hit the drive-thru. Further, I'm an ex-smoker, and you CANNOT treat "food addiction" like any other addiction. You don't need cigarettes to live, but you can't live without food. Just my opinion, but there you are. Report
What he says is so true. I see myself in the past thinking that I can have a certain food in the house that's a trigger food. I can't. I can eat the whole things. I believe that it is possible to be addicted to food. Report
What do you think? Does the idea of "food addiction" make sense to you? Are we living in a food environment that makes it harder than it should be for many people to actually be fully responsible for their own choices? Do you have to avoid trigger foods completely, or can you moderate your use of them?

I think people can be addicted to food, especially certain types of food like you mentioned. It also can be about a certain time, or things going on in the person's life that might make them feel like eating more. I've tried binging before, to see what they were saying about the euphoria you can feel. And it's true! It can make you feel really good. If that isn't like a drug, I don't know what is! I don't binge now, because I know it's really unhealthy. For me, personally, I really do have a difficult time with chocolate. I do NOT buy chocolate. But people buy it for me for holidays, and there's always this weight gain. I am going to have to put a stop to this. I really don't want any until at least my life is looking better, because I am just so sad, and I think that has something to do with my will power being almost completely nonexistent. Report
What a good article.
I definitely resonate with this, and while I may not be "addicted" per se to certain foods, it does make sense that our bodies crave those endorphins and "good feelings" that come from eating our trigger foods.
Through God's strength, I am in recovery from eating disorder and have been freed from it for over a year and a half!

What a good article.
I definitely resonate with this, and while I may not be "addicted" per se to certain foods, it does make sense that our bodies crave those endorphins and "good feelings" that come from eating our trigger foods.
Through God's strength, I am in recovery from eating disorder and have been freed from it for over a year and a half!

This just about sums me up. Addictions of all sorts run in my family. My father was bulimic and for years I tried everything to control my food intake but the more I controlled it, the less in control I became. You can overcome it, but DIETING will not help, only make it worse, in fact dieting will trigger it. Treating food addiction like the mental illness that it is can help you regain control of your eating. There isn't a diet in the world that will cure mental illness. People who have the need to feel morally superior to others who are struggling will be naysayers but for those of us struggling with this debilitating disorder know that self-control is not the answer to overcoming it. Report
I have ocd. That said, I used to think about food 24/7, even dream about it. My addiction was to fat. I was fooled, like the majority of Americans, into thinking I should concentrate on consuming as much protein as possible. I was fooled into thinking that foods like bread, rice, and potatoes were "bad" foods. No longer. I became a starchivore on January 20th of 2014 and never looked back, and my fat cravings have all but disappeared. My body was telling me for years that it needed real, whole food, plant based nutrition and I kept feeding it garbage in the form of processed junk, cheese, oil, and vitamin and calcium pills. Now I eat a whole food plant based diet that's centered on starches, with plenty of fresh vegetables and limited fruits; no added fats whatsoever and no animal products whatsoever.
I don't fight my diet. My diet is a wonderful lifelong sustainable diet, that's rich in nutrients, and I don't crave junk because my body is getting exactly what it needs to help me continue to live and function. I'm training for a marathon right now, and weight loss is slow but body reshaping is amazing, and I don't miss all that protein I never needed, and certainly I don't miss that fat!!
Long live starches!! It's the answer to food addictions! Report
I'm sure I am addicted to foods. I don't think people understand and food is all over the place. I lost 30 lbs and was doing so well and over the past month slowly I am stuffing myself and overeating every day. I realized after staying away from certain foods, mostly breads and sweets, that I cannot control myself. I cannot have foods in the house and be able to have a little bit every day. It feels like a sickness. I want others to understand and reading the article brought my feelings and thoughts about food addiction out in the open. Report
I've always known I have an "addictive personality". I've had problems with alcohol and other substances as well as food. It makes total sense to me that we can get addicted to the endorphins our bodies produce. Report
There is a reason it is called comfort food. I am addicted to sugar. If I eat a little I won't stop until I have eaten all that I have. It makes me feel good while I'm eating it. This article is very informative. Report
This is very helpful. For me, an over-eating session typically starts when I am tired but can't take a rest (or don't even think of a rest as a possibility). I'll eat something to "perk myself up." But then I eat something else, and then something else. Although the initial snack might be something quite healthful (e.g. an apple with a teaspoon of peanut butter), in no time at all I am eating peanut butter by the spoonful, seeking out chocolate bars or ice cream, etc. The trigger isn't just the food -- it's the situation. Which I think can be the same for other addictions. Once the downhill slide starts, whatever sets it off, it's really hard to stop mid-course. I'm not happy about having to organize my life around not starting down that slope. But I know that if the trigger that set off my addiction was going into bars or cocktail parties, I would need to organize my life to avoid those situations, at least for a while. I think I need to do the same for myself now -- to avoid getting over-tired, because that's like the trigger for an avalanche of food. Report
I am a pretty healthy eater but I find that there are certain foods that I just can't quit eating once I start. I can eat one potato chip, but I can't eat one will be the whole pan if they are available. Even though my head tells me that it is not good for me and in the long run I am going to regret it, my immediate desire and craving I just don't have those certain foods in the house. If I am out somewhere and can get just one serving of said food (brownies for example), I will on occasion treat myself. Report
Food addiction is very real. We are, with fast foods and foods packaged with all sorts off (as Kessler says in his eye-opening book) "hyperpalatable" ingredients, where the cigarette industry was 40 years ago. Working harder and harder to advertise and sell all kinds of harmful food combinations to a public who chooses to be blissfully unaware of the dangers. But beyond that, for every person on SP, who is here (or at least dieting) for the umpteenth time, and the fact that there has long existed a savvy 12 step group devoted to compulsive eating, food addiction is far from hypothetical. It is all too real. We have to do more to expose the ways the food industry exploits this! Excellent blog! Report
I wonder how much longer the government and food companies can stick their head in the sand and outright deny that the foods/policies are hurting the people, and that susceptible people become addicted, perhaps many more than estimated as addiction is progressive. They are finding that the younger a person is addicted, the tougher the addiction. The more younger people overeat the junk provided at inexpensive subsidized prices, the earlier and sicker and in greater numbers than ever before.

I think the problem is entwined with long time habits and beliefs towards celebrating & socializing with food. Only the foods changed. The knowledge wasn't there, the information is emerging through research, and the answer will likely require adjustment and change in many aspects of food; the way it is marketed, prepared for school children, subsidizing whole natural real foods instead of processed crap. A change in the medical culture, what is taught in schools to help educate the people, a change in insurance to help people heal from their addictions and medical conditions, just as we would drug or alcohol addicts.

I am discouraged because of the denial and pushback from the food companies, the sheer lack of politicians who are willing to do the right thing (what is truly good for the Country and the people, instead of what is good for the politicians and big business.)

It will take time and good people demanding change in foods/policies, and while we're at it, demanding an end to fatitudes & discrimination that somehow fat people are stupid with no will power and should just shut their mouths.

We've shut our mouths and put up with that nonsense far too long...

i'll stop for now, but I won't shut up about this, ever... Report
Food addiction makes sense to me. When I first tried to lose weight, right after high school, I gave up soda, and it was as bad as giving up smoking. Now I don't like the taste of soda, and don't drink it anymore. I still have an addiction to sugar that I am trying to get over, and sometimes when I want something sweet the craving is so bad it physically hurts. If that is not a sign of an addiction, not sure what is! Report
I have certain foods that I can't stop when I start eating them. It is a matter of mind over matter and that is sometimes hard to do. Report
While I believe in trigger foods and addictive-like foods and that some foods are problematical, I don't believe eating behavior raises to the level of true addiction. Report
Thanks for the info. I believe that food is an addiction. My nephew lived with me fir eight years and I kept him on track he been with his mother next week will ne a year. He left me was 128 and now he weigh about 270. Because he love to eat. He's only 12. Report
it is way to easy to be addicted to food...i found myself eating all the time !!!!! Report
Food addiction is an absolute real thing. I have lived it. It was not until I treated my eating habits like an addiction that I was able to successfully deal with it. I had to remove all bad foods, all bad food places, and forbid any bad things from coming back into my house before I could control my eating. To describe my struggle to my husband I asked him if I were a alcoholic, would he keep alcohol in the house. Of course his answer was no. So I asked him to help me by not brining junk food into the house. After that conversation he understood, and I have lost 45 lbs. Report
Many,many years ago I read that children who like to eat white sugar have a much greater tendency to alcoholism later on. The body, at least they thought then, metabolizes sugar and alcohol the same way. I know in my own family background, the proclivity towards alcohol, sugar and white flour baked goods all strongly co-exist. I believe I am addicted to food. At least I have developed a dependency to it, over so many years of being exposed to it, and having it used as a feel better, or treat thing, since babyhood. Report
I believe it's very possible for people to become addicted to certain foods. After all the manufacturers spend a lot of money on their research to make foods taste appealing enough to keep people coming back for more. Report
WHOA !!!! What insight to a serious problem!!! Report
I don't think that I am a food addict. When I do overeat, it's usually for comfort from stressful emotions; I can typically control myself if certain trigger foods are around. I do believe in the concept of food addiction though. It definitely makes sense for some people Report
Good article. I've been addicted to food most of my life! Report
Looking at triggers foods, and the all you can eat through in the fattitude, I am making strides. I agree that I am an addict, but now, what do I do with that information. NO carbs, lots of veggies and fiber and one day, one meal, one decision at a time. Report
I have to stay away from cake and cookies. I can't stop at one. I can't take one bite or I'm at risk of going on. But I'm learning to overcome it with the attention to eating habits since starting Spark People. Report
I drove out in the middle of the night to get my food fix. Ordered 5 entries from a restaurant and tried to eat everything in one sitting. Had thoughts of food 24/7. Every fast food commercial was a trigger for me to eat compulsively.

Food addiction is very real. Report
I know for a fact that I ma addicted to sugar, especially in my sweet tea that I make. I drink it when I am bored and can go days to a week w/o drinking anything else. Doing this causes me several problems but going w/o is a worse thought to me. If I try to cut back or go w/o I get headaches, chills, itchy crawly skin, and sometimes if I try to cut it cold turkey I vomit. I am glad I found this article because it explains what I have been thinking all along: That I am addicted to the sugar in the tea. Report
Absolutely!! People can become addicted to eating 'cushion' and toilet paper, so why can't people become addicted to junk food? Report
I believe I am addicted to sugar but I'm not sure I was born that way. By that I mean, I think I started overeating and binging as response to feeling bad, but It became a physical response/need at some point. I can feel the sugar rush and it makes me feel good. I think that I have to avoid sugary foods all together. Weird thing is, I'm afraid of fruit. It has sugar, too.

I think realizing sugar is an addiction helps you deal with it. When I have cravings, I don't have to beat myself up. It is a physical response and knowing that helps me deal with it. Report
This article, along with all your comments are VERY helpful for me. I am going thru a realy tough moment as for autocontrol. I will fight hard for a mindset RIGHT NOW! Report
Food addiction makes sense to me, but it doesn't cause all my binging. For instance, I'm pretty sure I'm addicted to chocolate, so I only buy a serving at a time and don't keep candy or other chocolate treats in the house. The same applies to sugary treats. But often I'm tempted to binge on any food, not just carbs, simply because I'm tired. Being tired is a major overeating trigger for me. The article mentions a study which showed "people with a family history of alcoholism also may have a substantially higher risk of being obese than people without such a family history". I made that connection a long time ago. My Mom's family tend to be addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, or obese, or sometimes both. But usually the alcoholics are very slender! I think it's related to depression, since bipolar disorder also runs in Mom's family. Some self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol, others with food. As for the question: "Are we living in a food environment that makes it harder than it should be for many people to actually be fully responsible for their own choices?" I don't think so. Looking at family photos, I see I come from a long line of obese persons. They weren't subject to the temptations we are now, they didn't even have televisions. Report
A WARNING ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF ADDICTION: I'm a person who has struggle with food "addiction" on and off, so I know what I'm talking about. I'm having much more power overcoming it since I began to look at it differently...yes, just looking at something differently can make a big difference!

But before I go into it, I do want to give this article the credit it is due. It DID give me insight into the idea that maybe I do actually need to avoid certain "trigger foods" rather than try to moderate them. Those "small portions" of cake or pie, for me, could spell trouble, so maybe I need to always eat an orange or apple for dessert instead of a portioned slice of cake or pie? I think there may be truth to this.

And I do appreciate how the author let us in on his own struggle with trigger foods. He made it real!

However, one of the worst periods in my life was when I went to Overeaters Anonymous! Looking on my overeating as an addiction made me get worse---a lot worse! I would binge and say, "Oh this disease I have is terrible! I just can't help myself sometimes!" The 12 steps begin with "I am powerless..." and I really did become powerless! (So yes, how one looks at things can really make a difference.)

Later, thankfully, I found a book called "Taming the Feast Beast" by Jack and Lois Trimpey. This book helped me understand that addiction is merely "the pursuit of pleasure" and it is something within our control. The book even speaks of the "primitive pleasure centers" that this article mentions--and how we CAN control them. To ever allow ourselves to say "we are powerless...we have an addiction" is to give up our power to something else---don't do that!!!!

Also, since the medical scans reveal that the same areas of the brain "light up" with food cravers just like it does with drug and alcohol cravers....doesn't that just mean that the strong pleasure centers of the brain are lighting up? I believe so. Yes, for some of us it lights up more than most folks because the food indulgence gives us so MUCH pleasure...but it's still just pleasure, and we can control that if we try really hard!

Always know that you have within yourself the power to overcome anything! Never doubt your ability to make a decision and stick to it. (But also maybe be wise enough to know that there are those foods that trigger you to overeat, and maybe be wise enough to outright avoid them! This is something I'm doing right now.)

May we all realize our power to make choices and may we never give up our power to an "idea". The way we think about something makes all the difference!

---Terry Report
Wintertexan comment 277, you are sooooo right. I love pastry, and if its available I can forget all sense of portion control, diet, and reason!
Pies, savouries etc, I can devour copious quantities, and really love, and not be aware of what I have done until later!! At the time of consuming I am in seventh heaven!!!! Report