Food Addiction: Binge Eating Signs and Treatment

Last Updated: January 15, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Food addiction is similar to other types of addictions where the addict cannot control the urge to continue eating, no matter how hard they try. Eating addiction is basically about eating junk and unhealthy foods and is considered similar to other disorders such as bulimia, binge eating, and other compulsive eating disorders. Like other addictions, it can have a negative effect on the user’s physical and psychological health, which, in turn, can lead to devastating consequences. Read along further to find about eating addiction, what are the signs of behavioral addiction to food, how to overcome food addiction, and all about food addiction help and treatment.

Food Addiction Overview

FA encompasses binge eating as well as compulsive eating. Binge eating involves excessive eating over a long time and then feeling guilt and shame after the eating episodes. On the other hand, compulsive eating is showing compulsive eating behaviors on a few occasions without feeling any distress. Not every compulsive eater is a binge eater, but every binge eater is a compulsive eater.

Some types of edibles are considered hyper-palatable, meaning that their flavor makes them easy for compulsive eating, which then can cause a dependence on them. Foods containing high fat, carbohydrates, sugar, and calories have addictive potential and can cause a number of dangerous diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other disorders.

Causes of Binge Eating Disorder

According to research, when the brains of addicts were compared with those of people addicted to cocaine and other drugs, the scans showed remarkable similarities. There are several factors that can contribute to the cause of binge eating.

Some of Them Include:

  • Certain biological factors, such as the genes with which people are born, can also become the cause of addictions.
  • The gender and ethnicity of a person also increase the odds of causing a binge eating disorder.
  • If there is a history of mental disorders in the family, the risk of having binge eating and other eating disorders increases.
  • Certain environmental factors such as peer pressure, sexual abuse, stress, exposure, and easy availability to high-sugar foods, and poor parental control can also cause this disorder.
  • Early exposure children to sugar can also lead to dependence later in life.
Hungry overweight woman holding hamburger.

Food Addiction Effects on the Brain

Studies have shown that the brain chemistry of a person changes with repeated exposure to highly palatable foods. It causes an increase in the activation of dopamine and opioid receptors, which consequently play a role in reward. The short-term physical effect associated with dopamine and endogenous opiate release in the brain reward center is low-level euphoria, a decrease in both anxiety and emotional pain. The study also showed that chocolate induces a persistent conditioned place preference response like that seen in the case of drug rewards.

Apart from these neurological effects, the psychological effects of binge eating can last years, leading to even bigger issues than before the dependence. Often relationships with family and friends are strongly affected, as feeding becomes a priority. It takes over every aspect of life, making a person unable to function in society.

Binge eating can also be a part of dual diagnosis problem or appear as a co-occuring disorder.

Eating Addiction Statistics

According to this research, people who are obese had 37.5% of them being food addicts. This percentage was 14% and 6.3% in overweight and normal-weight individuals, respectively. Interestingly, 10% of the underweight category of individuals were also addicted to food.

Another study suggests that the overall prevalence of FA was 5.4%, with increased prevalence among females. Similarly, the percentage increased for obese people.

Such addicts are also at increased risk of developing substance abuse or other eating disorders. Up to 50% of people suffering from FA also suffer from some kind of substance abuse disorder and other mental health disorders.

What Foods Can Trigger The Addiction?

Some types of edibles, such as those with high sugar, fat, and carbohydrate content, act as triggers for binge eating disorder. Some of the foods that are considered to be triggers for fast food addiction are listed below:

  • Chocolate
  • Icecream
  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Candy
  • Fried substances
  • Potato chips
  • White bread
  • Pasta
  • Cheese
  • Fast foods

Addicts can have uncontrollable urges towards them and other comfort foods when they feel stressed.

collection of junk foods.

Food Addiction Signs and Symptoms

There are certain signs that a physician can look out for to assess if someone is addicted to food or not.

These include the following:

  • If the individual eats certain things more than the planned amount.
  • If he continues to eat even after getting full.
  • If the person does not worry about certain kinds of things being unhealthy for him/her and does not cut down on them.
  • If he continues to eat till the point that he gets physically sick.
  • If he has the uncontrollable urge to eat something and if it is not available, goes to any length to get it and consume it.

The addict himself might feel certain symptoms, which can let him determine that he has a dependence so he can seek help.

These symptoms include the following:

  • The act of eating so much all the time that it starts to affect their work, relationship with friends and families, and seems to take over their lives.
  • The feeling of guilt and shame after eating too much of a certain item.
  • The act of avoiding certain places and situations where the user is aware that he would end up overeating.
  • The person feels unable to cope up with their work and school responsibilities because of their eating habits.
  • They start to eat whenever they feel depressed or stressed.
  • They eat more and more to curb negative emotions or to feel good.
  • They feel anxiety and agitation when they are unable to eat what they desire.
  • They also develop other physical symptoms of agitation and depression when they are unable to eat.
  • Every time they eat more than before, to feel the same pleasure and satisfaction.

How To Overcome Food Addiction?

If anyone has assessed that he is addicted to food, there are certain tips on how to overcome compulsive eating. These can include some lifestyle changes, some triggers to avoid, and choosing other healthy activities.

These are Further Discussed Below:

  • Avoid or try to cut down on junk foods.
  • Make a list of all the trigger foods and avoid them completely.
  • Eat healthy foods whenever the urge to eat arises.
  • Make a list of the pros and cons of eating healthy and unhealthy so that it can be read whenever one feels the urge to overheat.
  • Avoid caffeine.
  • Replace sweetened and processed edibles with their healthier alternatives.
  • Drinking plenty of water to experience the feeling of fullness.
  • Exercising regularly, but notice the former food addicts are vulnerable to fitness addiction.
  • Avoid eating outside at a restaurant or fast foods place, so one doesn’t feel cravings for unhealthy edible items and avoid fast food addiction.
  • Get enough sleep, so one is not restless or frustrated.
  • Try to cope up with stress through healthy coping mechanisms, so one does not resort to comfort eating.
  • Try to avoid crash dieting as the cravings will return when the diet finishes. Instead, focus on cutting back on unhealthy things and then slowly tapering them off completely from your diet.
  • Take help and consultation from a dietician and nutritionist so they can guide about which foods to eat and which ones to avoid in such circumstances.

Food Addiction Treatment

If someone feels he is addicted to food or has a fast food addiction, and he himself cannot fight it, there are always various treatment options that can help patients overcome their dependence and live a healthy and normal life. There is some difference in the approach of this kind of addiction treatment when compared with that of drugs since one can live without drugs, but we are dependent on feeding for our survival.

Young black woman taking body measurements at dietologist.

Therefore, abstinence from it is not an option. Some of the treatment options in this regard are discussed below:

Help From A Nutritionist And Dietician

A nutritionist or dietician can provide food addiction help to a patient by guiding and counseling about all the healthy and unhealthy options. They can help patients develop a healthy approach to choose edibles and help them plan meals. By following the meal plan devised by them, an addict can try to overcome his addiction and gradually move towards normal and healthy eating habits.

Psychological Therapies

One of the most effective therapies for FA addicts is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Through this psychotherapy approach, patients are taught how to identify negative thought patterns and change the way they think. They are also taught how to identify compulsive behavior triggers and cope with them in a healthy manner instead of compulsive eating.

Another therapy that is effective for eating addiction is Trauma therapy. Through this therapy, a therapist is able to help a person understand the underlying conditions that act as triggers for compulsive eating and then teaches the patient about ways of coping with them.

Support Groups

There are several support groups and 12-step programs that help patients with eating addiction connect with similar individuals and draw support and motivation to continue towards recovery.

These Include Groups Like: 

  • Overeaters Anonymous (OA)
  • GreySheeters Anonymous (GSA)
  • Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA)
  • Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA)

Medication

Some medications can also prove to be effective in the case of FA. These include depression medication or anti-anxiety medication that help relieve these symptoms, which may act as triggers.

Recovery from Addiction to Food

Living with any addiction is difficult and potentially life-threatening. Its effects on a person’s health, career, family, and future are tremendous and often severe. Also, addiction is rarely resolved on its own. Binge eating and fast food addiction is no exception. That’s why early intervention and treatment is imperative.

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Page Sources

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Published on: December 8th, 2017

Updated on: January 15th, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.