Is Food Addiction a Real Diagnosis?
Not all addiction involve drugs and alcohol. Many addictions are behavioral, and food addiction can fall into that category. People often wonder is food addiction real and if so what the symptoms of food addiction are and how it’s treated.
First—Is Food Addiction Real?
The question of “is food addiction real” is frequently heard. You’ll often hear people describe their food addiction, but does that make it a real diagnosis? Food addiction isn’t listed in the DSM-5, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real addiction. Many of the symptoms of food addiction are similar to the criteria used to diagnose both substance use disorders and other eating disorders.
The DSM-5 and Food Addiction
Does this mean food addiction isn’t real since it’s not in the DSM-5? Not necessarily.
The DSM-5 stands for the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is the manual used by health care and mental health care professionals to diagnose mental disorders.
The DSM is a collection of diagnosable mental health conditions, specific symptoms and other necessary criteria used to diagnose these disorders.
The DSM is the language used by practitioners and clinicians to ensure consistent communication and diagnoses among patients. It’s one of the most important things used to help ensure proper medication and treatment protocols for patients with diagnosed mental health conditions as well.
The DSM has been revised since it was first published in 1952 as new research and information becomes available.
Since food addiction isn’t included in the most recent version of the DSM, some people say it’s not real, and it does mean there’s not an official way to diagnose a food addiction. At the same time, there is an overlap between food addiction and other eating disorders that can create the basis for a consistent diagnosis.
While there isn’t the term Food Addiction in the DSM, Binge Eating Disorder or BED was recently added, and some health care providers and clinicians might use this as a way to make a diagnosis for food addiction.
What is Binge Eating Disorder?
Binge eating disorder is often used interchangeably with the term food addiction. Although there may be some differences, knowing what binge eating disorder is can provide a basis for understanding more about the condition of food addiction. Signs of binge eating disorder include:
- Eating much more quickly than would be seen as normal
- Eating to the point of being uncomfortably full
- Eating large amounts when not physically hungry
- Eating alone because of shame or embarrassment
- Feeling guilty or shameful after overeating
How Do Researchers Answer “Is Food Addiction Real?”
When answering the question is food addiction real, it’s important to note that experiments in both animals and humans have indicated that for some people the reward and pleasure centers in the brain are triggered by food in the same way as is seen in the brains of people with drug addictions to drugs like cocaine and opioids.
One of the defining characteristics of any substance use disorder is that people will continue to use the substance despite negative social or physical consequences.
This is very true with food addiction. Someone who is addicted to food will continue to eat even though it may cause problems in their daily functionality, with their relationships and to their physical health as well as their ability to sustain weight loss.
Someone with a possible food addiction may feel their weight gain, and unhealthy relationship to food is causing significant impairment and problems in their life, yet they continue to eat.
Additionally, as with a substance use disorder, someone who has a food addiction will want to stop or cut back and despite their efforts may find they’re unable to.
What Is Food Addiction?
Along with the question of “is food addiction real,” people unfamiliar with the topic may wonder what food addiction is. The Food Addiction Institute defines food addiction as a disease defined by the loss of control over eating certain foods. Anytime you lose control over something, it’s a key characteristic of addiction.
Food addiction can be characterized as a behavioral addiction. Most commonly when someone is addicted to food, it’s focused primarily on high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods like ice cream and packaged foods. Even when someone isn’t hungry, if they have a food addiction they will crave these rich foods.
Just as drug and alcohol addictions can have detrimental effects on a person’s life, so can food addiction. Food addiction can lead to obesity, and increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Food addiction can also contribute to or worsen other mental health issues, and it raises the risk of dying prematurely.
What Is a Behavioral Addiction?
Something else to consider when answering the question “is food addiction real”– When someone abuses drugs or alcohol, they may feel short-term rewards or pleasure, or they feel good from doing so. For example, using a drug like heroin can create a euphoric high. Due to the effects of that substance on the brain, over time the use of heroin can become compulsive meaning it’s no longer in the control of the person using the substance. When this happens, it’s known as an addiction. A lack of control is one of the defining features of substance addiction.
There is a similar component to behavioral addictions. Behavioral addictions are also referred to as process addictions. Imaging scans and research shows that many people get the same level of reward activation in the brain with behavioral addictions that people addicted to substances do. Examples of behavioral addictions include not only food addiction, but also gambling, sex, and internet addictions.
These addictions can also cause significant problems in a person’s life, but they are often unable to stop. While there may be short-term gratification associated with these behavioral addictions and fulfilling urges related to them, once the short-term pleasurable feelings end a person will usually feel ashamed and guilty.
While food addiction is similar in many ways to substance addictions, it also has shared characteristics to other eating disorders including binge eating disorder and compulsive overeating.
How Do People Develop Food Addictions?
When someone eats and in particular junk foods and highly processed foods, it affects the brain’s reward centers. Food can trigger a dopamine release in the brain, much like drugs and alcohol. Food addiction isn’t necessarily the result of a lack of self-control or willpower but is more likely related to the biochemistry of the brain.
How Do You Get Help for a Food Addiction?
The answer to is food addiction real is yes, which then leads to the question of is it treatable. As with other substance and behavioral addictions, food addiction is manageable and treatable.
Food addiction can be devastating to your life, but help is available. Some of the steps that you can take for food addiction you can do on your own. For example, create a list of trigger foods that you tend to crave the most or be most likely to binge on, and try to avoid them. You may have to clear out your kitchen and commit to not restocking it with these items.
You should also think about creating a list of eateries where you tend to go to when you’re having strong cravings and urges for certain foods. For many people who struggle with food addiction, these are fast food restaurants.
Work on being mindful when you eat, and rather than trying to restrict what you eat or going on a diet, try to make healthy changes in your thinking and eating habits as a whole. Restricting yourself or trying to significantly limit what you eat may sabotage your efforts and lead to relapse
Professional Treatment for Food Addiction
Along with taking steps on your own, you may benefit from professional treatment for food addiction. One option is to work with a therapist who has experience with eating disorders and food addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be one specific type of therapy used to help with food addiction.
There are also 12-step programs and support groups geared toward eating disorders.
Overeaters Anonymous (OA) is one option. There is also Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA) and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA).
The Takeaway—Is Food Addiction Real?
Is food addiction real? While there isn’t currently an agreed-upon set of diagnostic criteria for food addiction, most health care providers and clinicians would agree that it’s real. Food addiction has many of the same defining characteristics of substance addiction or other behavioral addictions. Food addiction can stem from changes in the brain and the reward response created by food, and in particular certain types of food. If you are struggling with food addiction, help and treatment are available.
WebMD. “Is Food Addiction Real?” Accessed March 1, 2019.
Eating Disorder Hope. “Food Addiction Versus Binge Eating: What Is the Difference?” August 17, 2016. Accessed March 1, 2019.
Buarras, Kris BSc. “How To Overcome Food Addiction.” Healthline. January 22, 2019. Accessed March 1, 2019.
NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Overlap Between Food Addiction and DSM-5 Eating Disorders in a Treatment-Seeking Sample.” Accessed March 1, 2019.
American Psychiatric Association. “DSM-5: Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed March 1, 2019.
Marx, Russell. “New in the DSM-5: Binge Eating Disorder.” National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed March 1, 2019.