Food addiction, like addiction to drugs or alcohol, often begins as a way to manage stress, turn up the volume on pleasant emotions (like happiness or comfort), or dampen uncomfortable feelings (like anxiety, anger, or sadness).
Alcohol and drug addiction are specific in that they center on addiction to a substance. If you struggle with food addiction, this is what is called a behavioral addiction. In other words, you may be addicted to or dependent on behaviors rather than substances. Behavioral addictions can involve things like compulsive sex, gambling, or shopping; they can also involve restricting your food intake or bingeing (eating large quantities at one time). You may have difficulty stopping these behaviors and you may also get a sort of “natural high” similar to that seen with alcohol and drug addictions.
Any addiction—to food or to a substance—shares some common characteristics in that it is chronic, with numerous relapses. It involves compulsion to seek and “use” a behavior or a substance, and loss of control over how much and when you use or obsess about using. For food addicts, when your “food fix” is not available, you may feel panicked, angry, sad, or otherwise distressed.
Since 2010, researchers at Yale University have been using the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) to identify people with food addiction. Using the same criteria used to identify people with substance use disorders, they have found that 5 to 10 percent of the general population test positive on the YFAS, including 7 percent of children tested. The YFAS also shows that food addiction is 15 to 25 percent higher in those who are living in larger bodies. Even higher rates of food addiction are found in those who are seeking bariatric surgery or in obese individuals with binge eating disorder (30 to 50 percent).
Binge eating disorder shares a number of characteristics with what is being called food addiction. Fifty-seven percent of people diagnosed with binge eating disorder also meet criteria for food addiction. In both disorders, people experience a lack of control over their eating, continued overeating despite negative consequences, and the inability to change their behaviors. Though there is some overlap between binge eating disorder and food addiction, there are also differences. People with food addiction tend to experience higher levels of poor self-esteem, depression, and difficulty regulating their emotions.
Those who scored positive on the YFAS for food addiction tended to get more of their calories from fat and protein, rather than carbohydrates, as compared with those without food addiction. They also were more likely to have a history of child physical or sexual abuse.
Once you begin down this road of eating too much of certain foods that you obsess about, imbalances develop in your body and your brain that lead to food cravings—one of the symptoms of food addiction. This is exactly what happens with drugs of abuse. Again, not everyone who uses drugs or drinks or obsesses about particular foods becomes an addict.
If you are using food to deal with either positive emotions or negative emotions, if food is your way of feeling comfort or escaping from stress—then it is your use of food that’s the problem, not the food itself. Drugs are potentially addictive and, in many ways, eating is potentially addictive too—both affect the brain’s pleasure or reward center. Anything you do that gives you a reward can potentially be abused and you can become addicted to it—whether it is food, sex, gambling, drinking, or any other activity. But if you focus only on eliminating the food you feel is responsible for your addiction, you will miss out on a deeper form of recovery. This deeper form could be termed a journey to discovery because so many people with addictions have never known who they are at their essence.
I encourage you to just open your mind to the idea that what you’re addicted to is a particular kind of eating, because, unlike with drugs, you can’t abstain from food. If you decide that certain foods are bad or wrong or “addictive,” you will just continue in the same cycle of restriction, compulsion, and shame—the mindset associated with your obsession with food that has caused you so much pain and suffering already.
More than any medical risks, food addiction is psychologically debilitating. Thoughts about food, eating, your weight, or your size can take over your life and make you feel isolated, hopeless, and unhappy. Your food obsessions may cause low self-esteem, anxiety, or panic attacks. You may feel sad, irritable, or emotionally detached or numb. Your work performance may suffer and you may feel isolated from your friends and family members. Food addicts often avoid social events because of embarrassment about their eating behaviors. It’s important to heal your food addiction to enable you to get back into the life you want.