What is Food Addiction? How does it happen?


Food is essential to human existence, maintaining our health, also is a means of pleasure and enjoyment. The taste, smell, texture of food make it easier to achieve satisfaction. However, food addiction can become as serious as drugs are to a substance abuser.


With processed foods becoming more readily available — fast food restaurants and food delivery — the numbers on food addiction are climbing. A 2014 review by Yale Food Addiction Scale showed that up to 20% of people may have a food addiction or exhibit addictive-like eating behavior. A news article from the Orlando Sentinel showed that in 2016, more than 70 million adults in the United States were addicted to food, and this number is still rising. 


What is food addiction?


Currently, the most common symptom of food addiction is addiction to junk food, which usually manifests in the intake of a large amount of food that exceeds the body's energy needs, usually high in salt, fat, and sugar. Food addiction shares some common symptoms with other pathological eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder, bulimia, and compulsive overeating.


The reward and pleasure centers of the brain that are triggered by addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin are also activated by food, especially very tasty food. 


Symptoms of food addiction


  • Frequent cravings for certain foods, despite feeling full and having just finished a meal
  • Often eating a craved food much more than intended
  • Eating to the point of feeling excessively stuffed or ill
  • Often feeling guilty after eating particular foods, but eating them again soon after
  • Worry about not eating particular foods
  • Sometimes making excuses about why eating too much
  • Trying to quit eating certain foods sometimes
  • Hiding the consumption of unhealthy foods from others
  • Feeling unable to control the consumption of unhealthy foods, despite knowing that they cause physical harm or weight gain


Food addiction is a serious health problem.


One study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that, when the definition of addiction is explained to obese or overweight subjects, up to 29% of them describe themselves as addicted to food. 


One in eight Americans over the age of 50 show signs of a food addiction, according to a new poll published on January 30, 2023. Potential addictions to processed foods were much more likely among older adults who were overweight or had poor mental problems or were lonely.


The most commonly reported symptom of highly processed food addiction among older adults polled was intense cravings. Almost a quarter (24%) said they had such a strong urge to eat highly processed food at least once a week.


Like other addictions, food addiction can lead to emotional despair, depression, and hopelessness. Other problems are heart problems, chronic fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, and headaches. 


It also results in obesity and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. Repeated self-blame can negatively affect self-esteem and can lead to depression and even suicide.


How does food addiction happen? 


We don't feel an urge to eat a certain unprocessed food. When you see raw carrots, cocoa beans, or a can of sugar, you don't want to stuff them in your mouth immediately. Unless, you have tasted them.


Even if we tasted them, we wouldn't be addicted to them because they're not what the brain likes. But a mix of fat, sugar, and salt can stimulate the brain to produce pleasure. That's why people generally like pizza, burgers, potato chips, and ice cream.


This also happens in animals. In a 2013 study led by Connecticut College neuroscientist Joseph Schroeder, researchers found that Oreos stimulated the pleasure center neurons in the brains of rats more powerfully than cocaine. 


These findings suggest that high-fat, high-sugar foods trigger addiction processes in the brain to the same extent as drugs of abuse.


People can find joy in food, which is a kind of moderate joy and good for releasing stress. But high-fat, high-sugar processed foods turn that pleasure into a spin out of control.



1. Nutrients, "The prevalence of food addiction as assessed by the Yale Food Addiction Scale: a systematic review."

2. Orlando Sentinel, "Food addiction numbers rising."

3. Front Psychiatry, "How Prevalent is ‘Food Addiction’?"

4. Science Daily, "One in eight Americans over 50 show signs of food addiction."

5. Time, "Food Addictions Are Real Addictions—And More and More People Are Getting Hooked."

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