When Food Addiction Is Real | What Are the Symptoms?

by Marsha Hudnall MS, RDN, CD


Food AddictionAs the subject gets more attention from the media and health professionals alike, many individuals self-diagnose themselves as food addicts. Just what is food addiction, and are you truly addicted to food?


In theory, we’re all addicted to food in a serious way. We can’t live without it. But the term “food addiction” implies a connection to food that goes beyond our dependence on it for survival. While food addiction currently has no formal definition, the term addiction implies:

  • dependence on substance
  • tolerance to a substance
  • withdrawal symptoms
  • repeat use of the substance despite negative outcome
  • use of substance interfering with normally healthy functioning
  • loss of control in limiting quantity of substance
  • compulsive behaviors regarding accessing/taking substance

In the past, addiction was more commonly used to describe a dependence on drugs, but today, many people replace the word “substance” with “food” or “sugar” to describe their current relationship with food or specific foods.

It’s understandable how someone could describe their relationship with food as addictive. So many of us today believe we are unable to control our eating – what, when, or how much we eat. Having a relationship with food like this can feel very scary.


So where do we start if we believe we’re addicted to food or a specific food? All too often abstinence is a preferred method for dealing with addictive behaviors. While abstaining from using drugs or alcohol is obviously a viable option, abstinence from eating isn’t. If we can narrow our struggles down to a specific type of food, say sugar or refined flour products, abstinence may be a little more plausible. But is it REALLY the best place to start?


Stage 1: Examine where the addictive behavior comes from.

The assumption is that the person has a physiological response to food that creates a need to increase the quantity over time, produces signs of withdrawal, etc. This, however, may not be the first point of attack.

Before labeling how you feel or act in response to eating as a true physical addiction, consider other triggers that can cause an intense focus on food, overwhelming food cravings, inability to say no to food when it’s available, and trigger overeating or binging. Do you recognize any of these behaviors that are known to distort our relationship with food?

  • Under-eating – following a very low calorie eating plan
  • Dieting – restriction in general
  • Skipping essential nutrients, such as avoiding carbohydrates or cutting fat down to a very low level
  • Too many dietary rules, especially those regarding “bad” or “forbidden” foods
  • Thinking errors such as self-fulfilling prophecy – convincing ourselves a situation can play out only one way. For example, “When I start eating M&Ms, I can’t stop until the whole bag is finished.” Or learned helplessness – feeling powerless to change a situation, such as “I’m a food addict; I’m out of control when it comes to dealing with food.”

Stage 2: Consider the specific food causing the addictive reaction.

Many foods that increase hunger or trigger cravings, or the desire for more, lack the essentials for satiety. A trigger food such as cake may create cravings for more because it’s not a very satisfying food when we’re hungry — it’s not balanced. When we’re hungry, choosing balanced meals and snacks based on whole foods, but including cake when we really want it, may completely change our physical response to cake, making it easier to handle and at the same time ruling out true food addiction.

Stage 3: Do the symptoms persist?

Take a closer look at whether a true food addiction exists if the problem/symptoms persist. There are many changes that go on in the body related to appetite-regulating hormones, neurotransmitters, catecholamines, and opioids that may start to create (or exacerbate) what could be viewed as a legitimate food addiction complete with tolerance, urgency about having access to food, withdrawal symptoms, etc. The best method for managing this is still yet to be determined, but strategies lean toward removing the addictive substances or using caution with how/when they are consumed. However, the restrict/binge cycle can cause brain changes that may increase the pull of certain foods such as those rich in sugar. In that instance, abstinence may not be the best approach as it replicates the issue that sets the cycle into play. Instead, a focus on healing brain changes may be a more effective approach.

Next Steps For Dealing With Suspected Food Addition

Just exactly what’s going on with feelings of food addiction and how to treat them isn’t clear yet. One encouraging note from our experience at Green Mountain: Many women find many of their addictive behaviors/urges disappear after immersion in a healthy lifestyle routine. Whether it’s because they’ve started to reframe their thinking, eat regular well-balanced meals, or reduce intake of certain foods such as large amounts of added sugars, we’ve seen many women improve their relationship with food in a relatively short time and begin to move away from feeling like they are powerless when it comes to certain foods.

If you think you’re addicted to food, join us at Green Mountain. At our pioneering non-diet healthy weight loss retreat exclusively for women, we can help you sort out your questions about food addiction and begin to take charge of your eating to develop a healthy relationship with food.

This was me until Green Mountain came into my life in 1984!  Thank you for continuing this wonderful mission to help women find themselves and the strength within.”
~ C.W., Herndon, VA

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