FAQ: The Facts About Food Addiction

Dr. Ramani Durvasula answers common questions about the signs and symptoms of food addiction.

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What is food addiction?

Food addiction is a preoccupation with food – the person finds themselves chronically thinking about food, worried about it, planning around it, and obviously eating it. In addition, a person with food addiction typically uses food to manage emotions – turning to it to manage negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, boredom, loneliness and frustration. It can overtake a person to the point where they can be distracted from the people in their lives, their responsibilities and be more interested in thinking and talking about food than in other topics. People with food addiction may find themselves needing to eat more to get the same emotional effects. They may also become so wedded to planning around food that they will think little of inconveniencing other people with their need to eat at certain times or at certain places. People with food addictions may also find themselves needing to eat more food to get the same numbing or positive effects, and may even experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, irritability and loss of concentration when they cut out certain foods, especially sugar. They will often describe craving food, and having made repeated attempts to try and beat their addiction and not being able to succeed. For persons with a food addiction, food often starts as a reward (eat and then feel good) and then can jump the rails with food being used to avoid a bad feeling (eat so you won't feel bad). That's when it tends to get "stuck" as something that feels like an addiction. 

What is the difference between food addiction and other types of addictions?

The key difference between food addiction and other types of addictions is that all of us have to eat. When talking about other addictions such as drugs and alcohol, remember that a person can live without drugs and alcohol. The goal in the treatment of many addictions, particularly drugs and alcohol is typically abstinence, which is an impossible goal in food addiction. In addition, other addictions, particularly drugs and alcohol, may result in more physiological changes in the brain and dangerous withdrawal. Finally, while food addiction can be harmful to health via weight gain and the potential impact on other markers such as cholesterol and triglyceride levels, the daily and necessary nature of eating make managing these symptoms uniquely challenging – and it has implications for how we clinically manage this with patients.