Food Addiction Treatment: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Potential "Cures"

Before getting into food addiction help, we need to figure out whether you are classified as “addicted”.

First, a bit of trivia… Which is more addictive: cocaine or Oreo’s?

Click here for the answer

While the scientific community is not ready to say Oreos are as addictive as cocaine, they have found that the brain has similar responses to both substances. For example, according to a 2013 Connecticut College study, mice showed the same amount of activation in their pleasure centers from cocaine as they did from Oreos (1).

And, come on – who in the history of the world has ever eaten just one Oreo?

Now on to whether you are actually addicted. We have adapted a "quiz" developed by a Yale researcher in order to give us some information about your status.

Click Here to Take the Food Addiction Quiz

Section 1

In The Past 12 Months:

NeverOnce /Month2-4 /month2-3 /week4+ /week
  1. 01.

    I find that when I start eating certain foods, I end up eating much more than planned

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  2. 02.

    I find myself continuing to consume certain foods even though I am no longer hungry

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  3. 03.

    I eat to the point where I feel physically ill

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  4. 04.

    Not eating certain types of food or cutting down on certain types of food is something I worry about

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  5. 05.

    I spend a lot of time feeling sluggish or fatigued from overeating

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  6. 06.

    I find myself constantly eating certain foods throughout the day

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  7. 07.

    I find that when certain foods are not available, I will go out of my way to obtain them. For example, I will drive to the store to purchase certain foods even though I have other options available to me at home

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  8. 08.

    There have been times when I consumed certain foods so often or in such large quantities that I started to eat food instead of working, spending time with my family or friends, or engaging in other important activities or recreational activities I enjoy

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  9. 09.

    There have been times when I consumed certain foods so often or in such large quantities that I spend time dealing with negative feelings from overeating instead of working, spending time with my family or friends, or engaging in other important activities or recreational activities I enjoy

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  10. 10.

    There have been times when I avoided professional or social situations where certain foods were available, because I was afraid I would overeat

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  11. 11.

    There have been times when I avoided professional or social situations because I was not able to consume certain foods there

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  12. 12.

    I have had withdrawal symptoms such as agitation, anxiety, or other physical symptoms when I cut down or stopped eating certain foods. (Please do NOT include withdrawal symptoms caused by cutting down on caffeinated beverages such as soda pop, coffee, tea, energy drinks, etc.)

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  13. 13.

    I have consumed certain foods to prevent feelings of anxiety, agitation, or other physical symptoms that were developing. (Please do NOT include consumption of caffeinated beverages such as soda pop, coffee, tea, energy drinks, etc.)

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  14. 14.

    I have found that I have elevated desire for or urges to consume certain foods when I cut down or stop eating them

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

  15. 15.

    My behavior with respect to food and eating causes significant distress

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4 /month

    2-3 /week

    4+/week

  16. 16.

    I experience significant problems in my ability to function effectively (daily routine, job/school, social activities, family activities, health difficulties) because of food and eating

    Never

    Once/Month

    2-4/month

    2-3/week

    4+/week

Section 2

In The Past 12 Months:

NoYes
  1. 17.

    My food consumption has caused significant psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, self-loathing, or guilt

    No

    Yes

  2. 18.

    18. My food consumption has caused significant physical problems or made a physical problem worse

    No

    Yes

  3. 19.

    I kept consuming the same type of food or the same amount of food even though I was having emotional and/or physical problems

    No

    Yes

  4. 20.

    Over time, I have found that I need to eat more and more to get the feeling I want, such as reduced negative emotions or increased pleasure

    No

    Yes

  5. 21.

    I have found that eating the same amount of food does not reduce my negative emotions or increase pleasurable feelings the way it used to

    No

    Yes

  6. 22.

    I want to cut down or stop eating certain kinds of food

    No

    Yes

  7. 23.

    I have tried to cut down or stop eating certain kinds of food

    No

    Yes

  8. 24.

    I have been successful at cutting down or eating these kinds of foods

    No

    Yes

Section 3

In The Past 12 Months:

1 or fewer times2 times3 times 4 times5 or more times
  1. 25.

    How many times in the past year did you try and cut down or stop eating certain foods altogether?

    1 or fewer times

    2 times

    3 times

    4 times

    5 or more times

Click here to see results

And your quiz results are…

Because addiction is not one size fits all, this quiz looks at several different components of addiction. We have broken your results down by each component below. Then, the final paragraph summarizes your results for you.

01. More food eaten than originally intended:

02. Persistent desire for or repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop overeating:

03. Large amounts of effort to obtain, use, and/or recover from eating habits:

04. Important life activities (i.e. work or family) given up or reduced because of eating habits:

05. Overeating continues despite knowledge of adverse consequences (e.g., failure to fulfill obligations, negative health consequences):

06. Developing tolerance (need to eat more to get the same feeling):

07. Characteristic withdrawal symptoms; you continue to overeat just to feel "normal":

08. Overeating Habits cause noticeable impairment or distress:

Would you like to start the quiz over?

Would you like to return to your original answers?

Click here to Learn More about the Quiz?

Addiction can be a very difficult thing to pin down, especially when it comes to food. The difference between normal hunger and a compulsive need for food can seem pretty small sometimes, especially when you are feeling really hungry.

One of the most widely accepted diagnostic tools for seeing the signs of food addiction was developed in 2009 by Yale researcher Ashley N. Gearhardt. This questionnaire (which was used as the basis for the quiz below) was largely based on other addiction questionnaires and can be an excellent place to start if you are trying to diagnose the signs of food addiction (2).

The questionnaire will ask you to respond to some questions on a 1 (not often) to 5 (very often) scale and some questions that just require a yes or no. The scoring for the quiz can actually be fairly complicated, so we go ahead and score it for you and give you the breakdown of your results. This will give you a good start in understanding you or your loved one’s situation.

If you do not want to go through the bother of filling out the entire questionnaire, ask yourself some very basic questions…

  • “Do I ever feel like I need to lie about or hide my eating habits?”
  • “Do I let eating ever interfere with other aspects of my life, like friends, family, or work?”
  • “Do I ever find myself worrying about my food, sometimes to the point of hiding food ‘so I have enough.'”
  • “Do I spend an excessive amount of time on food, whether that’s eating, grocery shopping, or even just worrying about it.”

If you answered yes to these questions it might be a good idea for you to talk to a professional. But, answering yes might not necessarily mean that you’re a food addict either, as most people have had similar experiences at least a couple of times in their life. If you find this to be a reoccurring problem, seeking some professional help is probably the single best thing you can do to overcome these compulsive behaviors. Continue reading this page for more information…

Now that you have some idea where you stand with food addiction, review and click the sections below for all you need to know about food addiction.

01What Is Food Addiction?
  • Definitions
  • Science of food addiction

We all have to eat to survive, so aren’t we all food addicts?

In a way, yes, which is why compared to other forms of addiction, food addiction is particularly complicated.

Fortunately, the scientific and psychological communities, along with our culture in general, are beginning to recognize and clarify the issue (3).

This section explains food addiction and the current debate surrounding it, including…

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as:

A primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors” (4).

In short, food addiction is when the need for food leads someone to desire and pursue it over other reasonable considerations such as personal health, family, friends, work, or strong personal desires like appearance or avoiding obesity related health issues like diabetes.

For most of human history, finding enough food to survive was difficult. In some environments, food was extremely scarce, and people who stored extra nutrients, such as fat, were able to survive, while those who did not store as much fat didn’t make it.

Over the course of only a few decades, we’ve experienced a rapid shift that flipped this evolutionary benefit on its head. We now have an abundance of food at our fingertips, and the human body simply has not keep up with the speed of change.

Organic Gardening

One fun and satisfying way to get in your daily exercise and end up with yummy, delicious food is to start a little personal garden. It gets you up and moving, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a healthy sandwich or salad with ingredients from your own garden. Plus, playing in the dirt never gets old. Here is a great resource to learn more about the best ways to garden organically.

We have also altered the kinds of food we eat in significant and important ways. “Junk food” is now a substantial part of many modern diets. Junk food even has its own scientific term: hyperpalatable food. It is so appealing to our basic craving for fats and sugars that we have serious difficulty resisting it – possibly to the level of a cocaine high.

This is an especially big problem because of how our bodies and brains are wired. Our bodies secrete certain hormones that tell us when we’re full, but hyperpalatable food may be overriding those hormones by overstimulating our reward centers, much like our bodies and brains react to an addictive drug.

If left unchecked, this process can cause us to overeat and eventually lead to obesity, even for people who were not previously overweight. In fact, many in the obesity community are suggesting that a large part of the obesity epidemic is caused by food addiction.

If you’re interested in more information click here for a deeper dive into obesity and our genetics.

02Classifications
  • Food addiction is not universally recognized
  • But it is gaining acceptance as a legitimate problem

Food addiction treatment becomes even more difficult when considering it alongside other more “established” food disorders. This has led to a debate in the community about the exact place food addiction should occupy in the area of eating and substance abuse conditions.

Reasons Food Addiction Is Not Universally Recognized

The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Version Five) (5) is the final word on anything psychiatric and is where the discussion usually begins for mental health diagnoses.

FoodAddictionWordGraph

During the transition from the 4th to the 5th version, some advocated that obesity and addiction be viewed as essentially the same thing. This, however, was not ultimately accepted – many understandably did not want to label obese people as essentially mentally insane.

Some also argued that the addiction model for understanding food behaviors had some shortcomings, as well as gaps in hard support (6). As a result, food addiction was not officially recognized, still leaving its exact classification a little murky.

Reasons Food Addiction Is Gaining Acceptance

The idea of treating food addiction as a true addiction now has many advocates. For example, Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, controversially announced her support in 2012 for treating food addiction similar to other forms of addiction (7). While this and other advocacy have not led to full acceptance of the concept of food addiction, it has led to a greater awareness of it.

Food addiction also seems to stand on its own when comparing it to other overeating disorders. For instance, one disorder recognized by the DSM-V that is commonly misrepresented as food addiction is Binge Eating Disorder, or BED.

Food Addiction and BED do have many similarities such as (8):

  • Diminished control over consumption of food
  • Continued eating despite the negative consequences (personal weight or relationships)
  • Diminished ability to cut down or abstain from eating
  • Elevated comorbidity with mood/anxiety disorders

However, there are a few key differences like:

  • BED is associated with elevated concerns about shape or weight, whereas addictive behaviors might not incite such strong concerns
  • BED must happen over a specific period of time, whereas addiction does not have a time cut off
  • BED does not place greater emphasis on the substance itself, whereas addiction diagnoses place a greater emphasis on the substance (so for food addiction this diagnosis would pay attention to the types of food being eaten, not just the fact food was being eaten generally)

As you can see, distinguishing between an eating disorder and food addiction can be surprisingly complicated.

Back to Your Food Addiction Treatment Options

If you feel that you may have food addiction, seek out personal, individualized help. Although there is disagreement among the professional community, experts can still help you navigate those disagreements and help you make the best decision possible.

As referenced above, consider contacting one or more of the following:

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03Treatment Options
  • Special diet
  • Prescription drugs
  • Medically supervised weight loss, professional counseling, and peer support
  • Weight loss surgery

Is there a cure to food addiction?

Because food is a vital part of life, it is more complicated to treat food addiction than other addictions, such as alcohol or gambling. Ultimately you have to eat to survive, but you don’t have to drink or play cards.

While the scientific understanding of food addiction is still evolving, and there is no hard and fast food addiction cure, there are a few options that can help:

Food Addiction Diet

Instead of being specially designed to help you lose weight, these diets are crafted to help you adjust your habits and lifestyle.

For example, they help you properly portion your food so that you receive all the nutrients you need while also helping you to avoid overeating.

Explore the following resources for sample food addiction diets:

Prescription Drugs

There have been several attempts at creating a drug to “cure” addiction. However, this effort has been somewhat disappointing:

  • Belviq (Lorcaserin) stimulates something called the serotonin 2C receptor, which has been shown to reduce nicotine desire in rats and may have other application to addictive behaviors. Its effectiveness in humans has been less than ideal, with weight loss less than 10% of body weight.
  • Rimonabant has been shown to reduce the desire for food. Unfortunately, it has also been linked to negative psychological side effects, like depression, and seems to be a long way away from being a viable weight loss option.

Talk with your doctor to determine whether these, or other prescription drugs, may be an option for you.

Medically Supervised Weight Loss, Professional Counseling & Peer Support

foodAddictionSupport

Professional counselors, dietitians, and support groups are a very worthy option to try if you haven’t already. The personal interaction and support of experienced professionals and other people battling the same demons as you has been found to be much more effective than going it alone.

The following resources will help you find support groups, both online and off, in your area:

Worldwide & Online Help:

  • In-Person Support Groups:
    • Meet Up is a platform for people to organize local, in-person groups, such as weight loss groups.
  • Online Support:
    • SparkPeople offers free nutrition advice, health-and-fitness tools, and a large online community and resources to help you lose weight.
    • PEERtrainer "teams" you with a small group of others like you to share with each other your diet, exercise, and other weight loss habits. Through this regular logging and peer support the chance you’ll lose weight is much increased.

Country Specific:

It is difficult for us to understate the effectiveness of these support groups if you are trying to lose weight.

For example, one study from the Baylor College of Medicine found that patients who had access to support groups lost 10.1 pounds on average, compared to 1.3 pounds for those who did not attend meetings (9). Another study from 2011 looked at all the studies published to date on weight loss and support groups. Out of the 20 studies they looked at, ALL 20 found a positive relationship between weight loss and attending support groups (10).

These are pretty conclusive results. If you want to lose weight, find a group to help you.

One effective approach often used by these professionals and groups to help battle food addiction is a variation of the 12 Step Program Approach. Developed in 1939 by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to treat alcohol addiction, groups like Overeaters Anonymous and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous have adopted these 12 steps which includes:

  1. Honesty – We admitted we were powerless over our food addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Hope – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Faith – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
  4. Courage – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Integrity – Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Willingness – Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humility – Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Self-discipline – Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Love – Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Perseverance – Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Spiritual Awareness – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Service – Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to food addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs (11) (12).

If you are interested in trying this approach, these resources will help you get started:

Weight Loss Surgery

Weight loss surgery, also called bariatric surgery, helps patients lose weight by reducing the amount of food they can eat, making them feel full sooner, and/or reducing the amount of food that the body can absorb.

Some weight loss surgery procedures, including gastric sleeve, gastric bypass, and duodenal switch, also impact hormones secreted by your body that make you feel hungry. In theory, this means that fewer "hunger signals" will be sent to your brain following surgery, making you less likely to want to eat.

Gastric Sleeve Surgery

If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into bariatric surgery, the gastric sleeve procedure is a good place to start. One of the most important results from our surgeon’s survey was the growing popularity of this procedure. The combination of high weight loss and low complications vs other procedures has made gastric sleeve the new "gold standard" bariatric surgery.

If you’re curious, read more about the gastric sleeve here.

At a minimum, weight loss surgery helps patients lose weight by causing them to feel full sooner, making them less likely to overeat, and prevents their bodies from absorbing as much food.

Despite the impressive average weight loss and health improvement results (for example, the average gastric sleeve patient loses between 64% and 75% of their excess weight), many patients still struggle with food addiction over the long term. These patients must figure out other ways to address their addiction or risk long-term weight regain.

Most weight loss surgeons and practices have access to an experienced psychologist and support groups to help with ongoing food addiction issues, and many offer free in-person or online seminars to help you determine whether surgery is an option for you.

Click here to find a top weight loss surgery practice.

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* Disclaimer: The information contained in this website is provided for general information purposes and your specific results may vary depending on a variety of circumstances. It is not intended as nor should be relied upon as medical advice. Rather, it is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her existing physician(s). Before you use any of the information provided in the site, you should seek the advice of a qualified medical, dietary, fitness or other appropriate professional. Read More