While food addiction is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it typically involves binge eating behaviors, cravings, and a lack of control around food (1Trusted Source).
What is Food addiction?
A food addiction or eating addiction is a behavioral addiction that is characterized by the compulsive consumption of palatable (e.g., high fat and high sugar) foods which markedly activate the reward system in humans and other animals despite adverse consequences.
While someone who gets a craving or overeats occasionally probably won’t fit the criteria for the disorder, there are at least 8 common symptoms.
Here are 8 common signs and symptoms of food addiction.
1. Getting cravings despite feeling full
It’s not uncommon to get cravings, even after eating a fulfilling, nutritious meal.
For example, after eating a dinner with steak, potatoes, and veggies, some people may crave ice cream for dessert.
Cravings and hunger aren’t the same thing.
A craving occurs when you experience an urge to eat something, despite having already eaten or being full.
This is pretty common and doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has food addiction. Most people get cravings.
However, if cravings happen often and satisfying or ignoring them becomes hard, they may be an indicator of something else (2Trusted Source).
These cravings are not about a need for energy or nutrients — it’s the brain calling for something that releases dopamine, a chemical in the brain that plays a role in how humans feel pleasure (3Trusted Source).
Cravings are very common. While a craving alone doesn’t indicate food addiction, if you often get cravings and ignoring or satisfying them is difficult, it may indicate a problem.
2. Eating much more than intended
For some people, there is no such thing as a bite of chocolate or single piece of cake. One bite turns into 20, and one slice of cake turns into half a cake.
This all-or-nothing approach is common with addiction of any kind. There is no such thing as moderation — it simply does not work (4Trusted Source).
Telling someone with food addiction to eat junk food in moderation is almost like telling someone with alcoholism to drink beer in moderation. It’s just not possible.
When giving in to a craving, someone with food addiction might eat much more than intended.
When giving in to a craving, someone with food addiction may not stop eating until the urge is satisfied. They might then realize that they have eaten so much that their stomach feels completely stuffed.
Eating until feeling excessively stuffed — either frequently or all the time — may be classified as binge eating
4. Feeling guilty afterward but doing it again soon
Trying to exert control over the consumption of unhealthy foods and then giving in to a craving can lead to feelings of guilt.
A person may feel that they are doing something wrong or even cheating themselves.
Despite these unpleasant feelings, a person with food addiction will repeat the pattern.
Feelings of guilt after a period of binge eating are common.
5. Making up excuses
The brain can be a strange thing, especially in regards to addiction. Deciding to stay away from trigger foods can cause someone to create rules for themselves. Yet, these rules may be hard to follow.
When faced with a craving, someone with food addiction might find ways to reason around the rules and give in to the craving.
This line of thinking may resemble that of a person who is in the process of trying to quit smoking. That person might think that if they don’t buy a pack of cigarettes themselves, they’re not a smoker. Nonetheless, they might smoke cigarettes from a friend’s pack.
Setting rules around eating patterns and then making excuses for why it’s okay to disregard them can be common with food addiction.
When people are struggling with self-control, they often try to set rules for themselves.
Examples include only sleeping in on the weekends, always doing homework right after school, never drinking coffee after a certain time in the afternoon. For most people, these rules almost always fail, and rules around eating are no exception.
Examples include having one cheat meal or cheat day per week and only eating junk food at parties, birthdays, or holidays.
Many people have at least some history of failing to set rules regarding their food consumption.
7. Hiding eating from others
People with a history of rule setting and repeated failures often start hiding their consumption of junk food from others.
They may prefer to eat alone, when no one else is home, alone in the car, or late at night after everyone else has gone to bed.
Hiding food intake is fairly common among people who feel unable to control their consumption.
8. Unable to quit despite physical problems
Which foods you choose to eat can significantly affect your health.
In the short term, junk food can lead to weight gain, acne, bad breath, fatigue, poor dental health, and other common problems.
A lifetime of junk food consumption can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and even some types of cancer.
Someone who experiences any of these problems related to their intake of unhealthy foods but is unable to change their habits likely needs help.
A treatment plan that’s designed by qualified professionals is typically recommended for overcoming eating disorders.
SUMMARYEven when unhealthy eating patterns cause physical issues, it can be hard to stop.
Tips to prevent overeating
People overeat for many different reasons. Some people eat too much when they feel stressed, while others overeat due to a lack of planning or because they use food as a pick-me-up.
While overeating has many different causes, there are as many ways to avoid or prevent it. Science-backed tips to prevent overeating include:
People often do other things while they eat. However, by not paying enough attention to what they are eating, many people overeat.
A 2013 review of 24 studies concluded that distracted eating could cause a moderate increase in immediate food intake and a more significant increase in the amount that people eat later in the day.
Limiting distractions as much as possible during mealtimes will allow the body to focus on the task at hand, which is eating. To do this, people should turn off computers, tablets, phones, and televisions when eating.
Researchers are not entirely sure why, but it appears that people who eat slowly have a lower body mass index (BMI) and eat smaller meals.
Eating slowly might give the brain more time to realize that the stomach is full and send the cue to stop eating. Taking more time to eat may promote a greater sense of fullness and make people feel as though they ate more than they did.
In a 2015 study, adults who slowly ate 400 milliliters of tomato soup reported feeling fuller after the meal than people who ate the same portion quickly. After a 3-hour interval, those who ate slowly also remembered the portion as being more substantial than those in the second group did.
To practice eating slowly, try putting the utensils down or taking a few deep breaths between bites. Some people also find it helpful to set a timer so that they are more aware of how quickly they are eating.
Eating healthful portion sizes
It is useful to know what meal sizes are healthful and how to portion out food. According to the CDC, people who have large portions on their plate often unintentionally eat more calories than they need.
To practice good portion control, try:
- splitting entrees or main meals with someone else when dining out
- asking for a to-go box and boxing up half of the meal immediately
- placing food on individual plates instead of leaving the serving dish on the table
- avoiding eating straight out of the packet
- putting small portions of snacks in bowls or other containers, especially when doing other activities while eating
- storing bulk purchases in a place that is hard to reach
- using smaller plates, bowls, or containers
It is hard to stick to a meal plan when the cupboards, fridge, or freezer contain unhealthful foods. According to the CDC, opening up a cabinet and seeing a favorite snack food is a common trigger of overeating.
Parting with favorite snacks or treats is a vital step toward adopting a more healthful diet. Try clearing the cupboards of tempting snack goods, and donate unopened items to charity where possible.
Eating fiber-filled foods
Fiber is a type of plant carbohydrate that occurs in many foods, including:
- whole grains
- beans, peas, and lentils
- many vegetables, including leafy greens and sweet potatoes
- most nuts and seeds
- oats and oat bran
- many whole fruits, especially berries and fruits with peels
Most people who are eating 2,000 calories daily should aim to get 25 grams (g) of fiber each day. Most people in the U.S. do not eat this much fiber.
Eating protein-rich foods
Protein-rich foods tend to create a longer lasting sense of fullness and satisfaction than other foods. Eating protein-rich foods, especially at breakfast, also appears to reduce the levels of the hunger-regulating hormone ghrelin.
A 2012 study examined 193 sedentary men and women who had obesity but not diabetes. The authors found that eating a high protein, high carbohydrate breakfast reduced ghrelin levels more than a low carbohydrate breakfast.
The high protein, high carbohydrate breakfast also seemed to improve fullness and reduce hunger and cravings more than the low carbohydrate breakfast.
In 2014, a small-scale study that involved 20 young women found that eating high protein snacks that were less energy dense, such as high protein yogurt, improved satiety and appetite control compared with snacks high in fat. The high protein foods also helped reduce food intake later in the day.
There are many healthful protein-rich snacks and meals. Some examples include:
- high protein yogurts and yogurt drinks, such as kefir
- most nuts and seeds
- most types of milk
- most beans, peas, and lentils
- fish, poultry, or lean beef
- protein powders, which people can add to smoothies, shakes, or healthful baked goods
Many people skip meals in the belief that it will help them lose weight.
However, according to the CDC, skipping meals can cause overeating at other times, leading to weight gain. Research also suggests that eating breakfast can help control appetite and reduce overeating later in the day.
Many experts recommend eating smaller, more frequent meals. However, the American Society for Nutrition note that most research now supports the idea of eating three structured, nutritious meals at regular times each day.
After a stressful event, raised hormone levels promote hunger to encourage the body to replace lost energy. As a result, chronic stress could lead to persistent hunger, overeating, and excessive weight gain.
There are many things that people can do to limit or reduce stress, such as:
- exercising regularly
- trying relaxing activities, such as yoga or meditation
- staying connected and asking for help from friends and family
- focusing on what needs doing straight away rather than on jobs that can wait
- noting accomplishments at the end of the day
Tracking the diet
Food diaries, journals, and diet tracking apps can often help minimize overeating and allow people to identify poor eating habits or patterns.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, food tracking helps make people more aware of what they eat. This awareness may help people stick to their dietary plans and either lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
People can start using food tracking tools by recording what they eat and when they eat it. Once this has become routine, they can also track other factors, such as how much they eat and the calorie content of meals and snacks.
Plenty of free resources exist to help people keep a record of what and when they eat. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer a daily food and activity diary that people can use.
People who practice mindfulness aim to focus on their moment-to-moment experiences, emotions, and thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.
More conclusive evidence is necessary, but it seems that mindful eating may help prevent overeating. A 2014 review of 21 studies found that 18 reported that mindful eating habits led to an improvement in targeted eating behaviors, such as binge eating and emotional eating.
To practice mindful eating, focus on the sensations that food produces on the tongue, how it smells, its texture, and whatever other qualities it may possess. While doing so, observe the thoughts and emotions that eating causes.
Limiting alcohol intake
People have used alcohol to increase the appetite for centuries, and many studies show that alcohol intake often correlates with obesity.
Researchers do not know exactly why alcohol provokes hunger and eating. However, a 2017 study using preserved brain matter found that exposure to ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, can cause hyperactivity in the brain cells that starvation typically activates.
To avoid accidentally overeating, try cutting back on or limiting alcohol intake. Alcohol is also full of empty calories, meaning that it may cause weight gain without providing any nutrition.
Avoiding last-minute food choices
Making last-minute meal and snack choices is a common trigger for overeating. When people make impulsive food decisions, it can be easy to pick nutritionally poor, calorie-dense foods.
To avoid overeating, prepare or plan meals for the week or days ahead. At the same time, prepare healthful snacks, such as chopped vegetables in containers.
Staying hydrated with water
Staying hydrated is an important way to prevent overeating. A 2016 study found that there was a significant relationship between being dehydrated and having an elevated BMI or obesity.
Researchers are still trying to work out the link between dehydration and overeating. One possibility is that people might sometimes eat when they are actually thirsty.
Choosing water over other drinks is also likely to help prevent overeating because water is free of calories. People may be unaware of the calories, carbohydrates, and fat in other drink choices, such as sodas, juices, smoothies, and coffees.
Working out what causes overeating and addressing it
Many people eat for reasons other than hunger, such as being stressed, tired, or sad. A lot of people also overeat because of certain habits, such as eating while distracted or eating too quickly.
Try making a list of things that trigger overeating and then coming up with ways to avoid or address them. For example, this might mean calling a friend to talk when feeling overwhelmed or not keeping snacks close to the TV.
Many people find it easiest to focus on changing one habit at a time instead of trying to break several patterns all at once. It is also usually best to try dealing with minor issues first before tackling more significant ones.
Food habits can take a while to break. People should be gentle with themselves while making dietary changes and focus on taking things a day at a time.
Eating with people who have similar food goals
It seems that the amount that people eat and the food choices that they make tend to be similar to those of the people they eat alongside. As a result, the social context of eating is likely to influence the risk of overeating.
To avoid overeating, try to dine with people who have similar eating goals. Eating around people who are also keeping track of their portion sizes may help reduce some of the temptation to overindulge.
The bottom line
The DSM-5 is a guide used by health professionals to diagnose mental disorders.
The criteria for substance dependence includes many of the symptoms above. They fit in with medical definitions of addiction. However, the DSM-5 has not established criteria for food addiction.
If you have repeatedly tried to quit eating or cut back on your consumption of junk food but can’t, it could be an indicator of food addiction.
Fortunately, certain strategies can help you overcome it.