December 5th, 2023
Many of us like to enjoy a sugary snack or indulgent treat every once in a while, but consuming unhealthy foods to an excessive degree can quickly damage one’s physical and mental health. Action Mental Health recently revealed that binge eating disorder affects one in fifty people. Of those who are suffering, just one in four people receive treatment, and one in three have considered taking their own life at some point.
These horrifying statistics indicate the need for better education and increased awareness of the damage that food addiction inflicts upon public health in the UK. This page defines food addiction and the common causes, plus signs and risk factors to help you understand this mental health disorder. We have also cited the various avenues of help available for those suffering from food addiction and how they can help you begin your recovery.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is typically characterised by a compulsion to consume excessive amounts of unhealthy ‘junk foods’ such as high-calorie, sugary, salty or fatty foods and drinks. When this compulsion evolves to the point where it becomes a requirement to function in daily life, the behaviour develops into compulsive overeating. This is usually defined as eating far beyond the number of calories your body needs to function normally.
Why do some people suffer from food addiction?
If you suffer from compulsive overeating, you may feel as if you have no control over your food cravings. This is because certain types of foods, such as highly sugary foods, react with the brain’s dopamine receptors to create feelings of pleasure. Once your brain becomes used to receiving excessive amounts of sugar, you might start to experience intense cravings, which result in you becoming addicted to food.
Food addiction is categorised as a behavioural addiction, also referred to as a process addiction. The physical act of overeating is often a symptom of an underlying psychological issue, such as stress or low self-esteem. Also known as emotional eating, the desire to subdue negative emotions through eating can be a psychological response to bullying or other forms of trauma. For these reasons, food addiction is a very serious mental health disorder that requires the appropriate forms of therapy to ensure a good chance of recovery.
Common signs and symptoms of food addiction
Different people can become addicted to different types of food, but there are many overlapping signs of compulsive overeating. Here are the typical signs of food addiction that you might identify in yourself or a loved one:
Your food addiction
- Eating when you are low or upset to try and make yourself feel happy
- Compulsively eating even when you are not physically hungry
- Eating beyond the point of fullness
- Lethargy and headaches due to overconsumption of sugar, fat or salt
- Obsessively thinking about your next meal or when you can binge
- Intense feelings of guilt following episodes of overeating
- Attempting to hide your overeating from others by eating in secret
- Feeling as if you are not in control of your cravings
- Attempting to compensate for binges through dieting or purging
A loved ones food addiction
- They have become socially withdrawn and eat alone on an increasingly frequent basis
- You notice them taking extra breaks at school or work with little to no explanation
- They demonstrate sudden mood swings, changing from sad and irritable in one instance to happy and hyperactive the next
- You have witnessed them hiding food amongst their belongings (bedroom, office etc.)
- They obsessively talk about food and calories or, on the contrary, actively avoid the topic of food when raised
- You have recognised that their weight regularly fluctuates every few weeks or months
What are the risk factors of food addiction?
Food addiction is a real and potentially life-threatening health condition. If left untreated, food addiction can cause significant damage to your physical and mental health.
Physical health risks of food addiction
Our bodies benefit from food groups such as sugar, carbs, fats, calcium and salty foods in moderation for the maintenance of energy and a varied diet. However, consuming an excessive amount of these foods over a long period of time can clog your arteries, increase body fat and place great strain on the body’s internal organs. Food addiction can cause chronic physical ailments, such as:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Pancreatic cancer
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Accidental injuries
Mental health risks of food addiction
There is a notable link between compulsive overeating and poor mental health, which can be both a cause and a risk of food addiction. The act of overconsumption is maladaptive, meaning that if you eat to feel better, the dopamine rush soon passes and leaves you with feelings of guilt or shame. The addictive nature of overeating can worsen these negative emotions over time, resulting in mental health conditions including:
- Low self-esteem
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Anorexia Nervosa
How prevalent is food addiction in the UK?
Unfortunately, food addiction is all too common in the UK. Recent statistics gathered by the National Centre for Eating Disorders reveal that one in two people who are trying to control or find help for losing weight ‘have binged in the last month’ or ‘consider themselves to be compulsive eaters’. This equates to around twelve million people throughout the UK.
Data published by the Public Health Outcomes Framework for 2020/21 reveals that 63.5% of adults (aged 18+) in England are ‘classified as overweight or obese’. This statistic also indicates the far-reaching impact of food-related disorders and addictions across the country.
Is there food addiction rehab available in the UK?
Those who suffer from food addiction may often become anti-social, withdrawing from social events and isolating themselves from others to conceal their addiction. However, the statistics prove that you are never alone in your compulsive eating struggle. Thanks to an increased understanding of food addiction in recent years, some inpatient rehabs around the UK now offer help with food addiction.
UKAT’s eight private inpatient rehab clinics around the UK offer holistic treatment programmes to tackle many forms of substance or behavioural addiction. UKAT’s behavioural addiction programmes involve Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). These therapies provide you with the right tools to understand the roots of food addiction and the best techniques to handle your cravings in the future.
Of the eight UKAT rehabilitation centres, Banbury Lodge in South Oxfordshire specialises in eating disorders and addictions involving food.
Which other forms of food addiction help are offered in the UK?
As nutritional scientists, psychologists and healthcare providers have developed an increased awareness of food addiction, the public has responded by offering charitable avenues of help for those in need. Beat is the UK’s leading charity for eating disorder awareness, with online and in-person resources available.
Support groups such as Food Addicts Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous provide weekly meetings across the UK, following the 12-step programme and offering you a safe space in which you can talk honestly about your food addiction.
Our advice for food addiction relapse prevention
Whether you decide to pursue inpatient treatment at a food rehab clinic or your local support group, it is vitally important to remember that rehab is not a cure for food addiction but the first step towards ongoing recovery.
Due to the affordable and widely available variety of unhealthy foods in supermarkets and public eateries, it can be all too easy to relapse into compulsive eating and bingeing episodes. We recommend that you utilise UKAT’s aftercare service following your treatment programme to help you stay focused on recovery. Alternatively, you could attend local food addiction support groups to connect with others facing similar struggles.
UKAT’s family support programme helps your loved ones to understand how rehab is helping you. Allowing your family members and loved ones to help you manage your cravings can play a huge role in continuing your recovery once you leave food rehab.
Frequently asked questions
What causes food addiction?
The causes of food addiction are complex and varied, often involving stress, poor self-image, past traumas, additional mental health disorders or personality disorders. At UKAT, our highly trained teams recognise how these symptoms manifest and just how difficult asking for help can be. You can take your first step towards recovery today by getting in touch with us for a free consultation session.
Can you cure food addiction?
Food addiction cannot be cured with medicine or therapy, but you can begin recovery by reaching out to eating disorder charities, support groups or inpatient treatment centres.
How much time does it take to break a food addiction?
It can take anywhere between a few weeks and several months to break the cycle of food addiction. Ending the negative cycle of guilt and trauma that fuels food addiction typically depends on the nature of the addictive food (sugar, salt etc.), genetics and your constitution. People form new habits and lifestyle routines at different rates, and everyone has their own unique timeline for food addiction recovery.
Can I stop a food addiction by myself?
You can take the adequate steps to remove addictive foods from your diet, but it can be difficult to maintain a long-term recovery from food addiction with no support. Receiving the support of a healthcare professional, such as one of our addiction support workers, will help you to confront the psychological factors of food addiction and learn how to manage cravings.
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