Our bodies need food, and the energy it supplies to survive. That’s what makes eating disorders often so difficult to identify and treat. Seniors, particularly, can be hurt by eating disorders as many cases can be missed, since eating disorders are often considered a young persons’ disease. But not all eating disorders are forms of anorexia or bulimia. Sometimes, a love of food can become unhealthy. While your body will always need food, sometimes you can become so compulsive about food that it becomes an addiction. Yes, food addiction exists, and over 70 million adults in the United States are estimated to have it on some level.

In this article, we’re going to look at what food addiction is, how to identify the warning signs, and how to find help if you have food addiction. Keep in mind, if you fit the symptoms we describe below, it’s not meant as a diagnosis. Instead, use it as a sign that you may need to speak to a licensed mental health professional or your primary care physician to see if you truly have a food addiction. If you do, you can use our tips on finding help or work with the health care provider to begin treatment.

What is Food Addiction?

When we eat something that tastes good, it sets off signals in the pleasure regions of our brains. Foods that tend to set it off the most are those that are considered highly-palatable — a scientific way of saying delicious meaning “with alluring combinations of fat, sugar, carbohydrates and sodium.” You’ll notice these foods also tend to be pretty unhealthy. These sections of the brain are the same that light up for other addictions like drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol. These sections release the reward-hormone (dopamine) and other endorphins, which trigger the pleasing feeling those foods can create.

In this sense, emotional eating can be both a cause and sign of food addiction.

These signals can override others that tend to moderate eating habits like fullness or satisfaction, which can lead to overeating. As this continues, it can cross the line into compulsion. This compulsion causes the eater to indulge beyond the point of fullness. Eventually, the sufferer may lose control of their eating habits, and develop a full-blown addiction. Non-biological causes of food addiction can be emotional or psychological, as a reaction to abuse, trauma, or as a coping mechanism (to name a few). In this sense, emotional eating (eating not when you’re hungry, but rather to cope with an emotion) can be both a cause and sign of food addiction.

Symptoms of Food Addiction

Speaking of the signs of food addiction, it can be difficult to distinguish food addiction from chronic overeating or simply overindulging occasionally. By paying close attention to others or even yourself, you’ll be able to pick out a few signs, though. Since food addiction isn’t in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (called the DSM by professionals and considered the go-to source for mental disorders), there aren’t definitive signs of food addiction. You can look for the general signs of an addiction or eating disorder; however, there is a large overlap. These signs can be:

  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Secretive eating habits
  • Cannot stop using substance
  • Use to self-medicate for physical or emotional issues (mostly emotional for food addiction)
  • Sacrifice other aspects of their personal lives

There are some commonly named signs that connect directly with food addiction. Among these are things like getting cravings, even when you’re full, or eating to the point of discomfort. Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA), an organization similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), created a list of 20 questions that may point toward problematic symptoms of food addiction. While there are many signs that can point toward food addiction, one of the most significant (and a common thread among addictions) is a loss of control. If you can’t control your eating habits, red flags should be going off.

Treatment Options

So, what should you do if you believe you have an addiction to food? The first step would be to see a professional who can truly identify whether you have a problematic relationship with food, whether that’s an eating disorder, overeating, or food addiction. Once you’ve diagnosed the problem, work with your health care provider to begin treating the problem.

By working with a therapist, you can get help on any emotional or mental health issues that may be triggering the addiction.

You can attack this issue multiple ways. By working with a therapist, you can get help on any emotional or mental health issues that may be triggering the addiction. At the same time, you can work with a nutritionist to develop healthier eating habits and, ultimately, a healthier relationship with food. Some rehabilitation or eating disorder centers may also offer inpatient solutions if that becomes necessary. While your friends and family may be helpful while you undergo treatment, you may want additional support. Luckily, there are several groups you can turn to, like the aforementioned Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous or Food Addicts Anonymous, so that you never have to go through your recovery alone.

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Food addiction, like other eating disorders, can be incredibly dangerous or insidious conditions since we all need to eat. You can’t totally abstain from food, like with drugs or alcohol. This removes a major treatment option for addicts. Instead, learning how to mitigate the problem and essentially reforging your relationship with food becomes the solution. When you identify the problem and accept that help is out there for you, getting to that solution becomes much more possible.