Food Addiction: Facts and treatment options

This Page was last reviewed and changed on September 19th 2022

Our culture does not normally associate overeating with food addiction. Nonetheless, there are a number of medically recognised eating disorders that would constitute some sort of compulsion toward eating. These compulsions are every bit as powerful as the compulsions that might lead someone to take drugs, drink excessively, or engage in reckless gambling or sexual behaviour. Whether we apply the term ‘food addiction’ really is irrelevant in terms of treatment. People who eat compulsively need some of the same kinds of treatments applied to other compulsive behaviours.

UKAT is the UK’s leading provider of treatment services for people dealing with addiction and/or compulsion. We include services for eating disorders. When you get to the end of this guide, we encourage you to contact us for more information about how we can help. If you are struggling with any level of food addiction, regardless of how minor or serious, we can help you find and access the treatment you need.

What is Food Addiction?

Food addiction is a behavioural addiction – characterised by the compulsive consumption of high fat, high sugar foods. High fat/sugar foods activate the brain’s reward system, the same way drugs and alcohol do. Both food and drug related disorders can result in psychological dependence, leading to withdrawal symptoms when an individual opts for low fat or low sugar alternatives.

A Definition of Terms

We need to set the table for discussion on food addiction by defining two very important terms: binge eating disorder and compulsive eating. The two are very different in a number of important ways.

Binge eating disorder is a medically recognised disorder that is characterised by excessive eating over long periods of time. Perhaps the term ‘binge’ is not the best choice given that we associate binge drinking with consuming too much alcohol in a short amount of time – whether it occurs over weeks or months. Nonetheless, the chosen term has been officially adopted for clinical purposes.

A person who suffers from the disorder will typically demonstrate the following symptoms:

  • Compulsions to eat when not physically hungry
  • Routinely eating past the point of feeling full
  • Routinely eating more quickly than others
  • A tendency to try and keep eating habits a secret
  • Feelings of guilt after eating episodes
  • Persistent feelings that one is abnormal
  • Persistent feelings that food is taking over one’s life
  • Routinely attempting to compensate for overeating through dieting or purging.

People suffering from binge eating disorder often mention not having the ability to restrain themselves from eating. They eat because their bodies and minds crave food at a level that would otherwise be deemed irrational.

As for compulsive eating, this is a condition in which a person feels compelled to eat for reasons other than the fact that physical hunger exists. It is possible to be a compulsive eater without also suffering from clinical binge eating disorder. However, every person suffering from the disorder is also a compulsive eater.

Dangers of Food Addiction

You may not consider food addiction a serious condition; it is nonetheless. Food addiction does not necessarily have the same kinds of immediate impacts associated with alcohol and drug addiction, but the danger is every bit as real. Food addiction and binge eating disorder can lead to a whole host of problems, including:

  • Obesity – Obesity is a serious physical condition that can kill. Obesity is a contributing factor in a long list of potentially deadly conditions including heart disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, etc.
  • Accidental Injuries – The added weight that often results from food addiction makes a person less nimble, less flexible and more prone to accidental injuries. People with food addiction commonly suffer from musculoskeletal injuries including blown knees, slipped discs, and so on.
  • Other Disorders – Unfortunately, not diagnosing and treating food addiction early on can result in more serious conditions developing in the future. Bulimia is a good example. A person suffering from food addiction may try to control his or her eating through forced vomiting after meals.
  • Antisocial Behaviour – Binge eaters tend to develop antisocial behaviours over time. Fortunately, not to the same extent as drug and alcohol addicts who may become violent, but the behaviours are present nonetheless. Food addicts can become withdrawn, avoiding all social interaction to the point of total isolation.
  • Depression and Anxiety – It is not uncommon for food addicts to eventually develop depression or anxiety as a result of their condition. They are so overwhelmed with guilt that the associating mental illness slowly begins to manifest itself until it becomes an equally serious condition that needs to be treated.

There is no doubt that food addiction is a serious problem that can lead to physical and mental issues. Not treating the addiction only makes matters worse. A person who is struggling with food to any extent, whether through binging or compulsive eating, needs to seek out treatment right away.

How Food Addiction Is Treated

Although food addiction, as exemplified by conditions such as binge eating syndrome and compulsive eating, does share many similarities with other kinds of addictions, it has one characteristic that makes it unique: human beings cannot live without food. We can live without drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and so many other things; stop eating and you will die of starvation. Therefore, abstinence is not a cure.

The goal of food addiction treatment is to identify what causes compulsive thoughts and behaviours so that these can be managed. Some of the more common triggers of food addiction are:

  • underlying emotional stress
  • poor self-image
  • more and stronger cravings for food
  • a need for comfort that only food can provide
  • an inability to say no to food when entertaining or being entertained.

Treatment tends to focus on counselling therapies and individual strategy building sessions. Patients will be counselled about the underlying emotional and physical issues that trigger addictive behaviour; they will work with their therapists to develop effective strategies to prevent future overeating.

If you are suffering from food addiction or any compulsion to eat that is unreasonable, you do not have to continue living with it. UKAT takes food addiction seriously. We work with clinics throughout the UK that are more than capable of addressing your issues. We can help you overcome binge eating disorder, compulsive eating, or all out food addiction.

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If you successfully complete our 90-day inpatient treatment programme but experience a relapse within 30 days of leaving, we will welcome you back for complimentary 30 days of treatment.*

* Click here to learn more or contact UKAT directly for rehab availability.

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