Unlike addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol, food isn’t something we can do without, of course. But for some people eating goes beyond sustenance and pleasure to become compulsive and even addictive. While food addiction isn’t recognized as a disorder in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the handbook of psychiatric disorders used by mental health professionals, the manual does recognize what it calls “feeding and eating disorders.” These include bulimia, binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa and other conditions that are different from food addiction, though there is often overlap among these problems.
Although there isn’t yet a universally accepted definition of food addiction and the concept remains controversial, research increasingly supports the idea that some foods, combinations of foods or volume of food can be addictive. It’s now known, for example, that the so-called “hyperpalatables” – sugary, fatty, salty food combinations – affect the brain’s reward center in a way identical to that of drugs and alcohol, triggering an abnormally large release of the “pleasure chemical” dopamine. Repeated overstimulation of these reward pathways can trigger brain adaptations that can lead to compulsive consumption despite negative consequences. Some researchers, however, believe it is the behavior of eating rather than the food itself that is addictive; they propose using the term “eating addiction” rather than food addiction.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), developed in 2009 by Yale University researchers using criteria for drug and alcohol dependence as their guide, has provided a standardized way to identify and treat those with an addictive response to food. With this tool, researchers have discovered that food addiction touches a wide spectrum of people, but it appears especially common in those who are overweight or obese, female, over 35, have an eating disorder (such as binge eating disorder or bulimia) or who have experienced trauma. There are no hard figures on how many people are affected by food addiction, but a 2013 study of 652 men and women in the general population put the figure at more than 5%.
If untreated, addictive eating can cause many aspects of the person’s life to spiral out of control. Someone with food addiction is likely to feel great distress, often including anxiety, depression and shame. Overeating unhealthy foods also brings with it increased risks for high cholesterol and blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and a host of other medical problems, including disability associated with obesity, according to the National Institutes of Health. Not surprisingly, those who are addicted to food often want desperately to stop the addictive eating cycle.