Food addiction is a concept that researchers use to describe compulsive eating habits in humans, which may resemble addiction-like behaviors.
Research indicates that some individuals may be more likely than others to experience addiction to palatable foods — meaning foods that are high in fat and sugar.
Other studies suggest that those who may experience food addiction exhibit “seeking” behaviors, as well as other symptoms and cravings similar to those that people typically experience as part of a substance use disorder.
There is no universally accepted clinical definition of “food addiction,” and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not list it as a condition. However, researchers have identified some behaviors associated with this concept. These include:
- compulsive overeating, even in the absence of hunger
- cravings for high fat and sugary foods
- difficulty in controlling food intake
- binge eating and disordered eating patterns
What do we know about food addiction?
Publications from 2009, 2011, 2016, 2018, and 2019, among others, have highlighted that palatable foods — or even foods in general — stimulate the same parts of the brain and share the same neuronal activities as illicit substances.
The hippocampus, caudate, and insula are three brain regions that researchers have pinpointed as being implicated in this relationship.
For instance, foods and illicit substances both result in the release of the hormones, such as dopamine, and endogenous opioids that the body naturally produces.
These hormones are a part of the “reward system” — or the mesolimbic circuit — in the brain, which is responsible for motivation, want, desire, and cravings.
Some studies even suggest that it is the anticipation of food rather than the consumption itself that may trigger food addiction — a “seeking” behavior that people with substance use disorder often display.
In theory, it is possible to explain this behavior by the phenomenon of incentive sensitization, which posits that it is possible for a person to want something even if they do not like it, as long as it stimulates the pleasure centers in their brain.
For example, people may crave a sugary beverage because it makes them feel good due to the release of dopamine rather than because they genuinely enjoy drinking that beverage.
Even though the DSM-5 does not list food addiction as a condition, researchers have referred to both the DSM-4 and DSM-5, as well as the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), when studying this phenomenon.
In fact, researchers developed the YFAS based on information in the DSM-4 about the symptoms and associated behaviors of substance use disorders. The YFAS contains 25 self-reported questions that may help identify food addiction.
The concept of food addiction has drawn a lot of interest in the scientific community, with some proposing it as a potential underlying contributor to obesity and others seeing it as a symptom of having excess body weight.
Whichever way this association may lie, a 2017 review cites evidence that behaviors linked with food addiction occur at notably higher levels in people seeking bariatric or weight loss surgeries.