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Causes of Food Addiction

By Julia Simkus, published March 21, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD

What is a Food Addiction?

Food addiction is the uncontrollable consumption of highly palatable foods in quantities beyond necessary energy requirements.

Like addictive drugs, highly palatable foods trigger chemical reactions in the brain’s “reward circuit” that induce feelings of pleasure and comfort.

Similar to how individuals become dependent on drugs or alcohol to manage depression and anxiety, we can become reliant on highly palatable foods for satisfaction and stress reduction.

Food addictions involve abnormal eating behaviors, such as excessive food intake or restriction and binging and purging, to cope with one’s negative emotions.

Food addictions are complex conditions that qualify as a type of substance use disorder and have significant overlaps to other types of addictions such as drugs, alcohol, shopping, or gambling.

Causes of a Food Addiction

Food addiction is likely the culmination of several factors, whether biological, psychological, or social. Anyone can develop a food addiction; however, understanding the warning signs and the causes of food addiction can help lower your risk and change any potentially alarming behaviors.

Brain Chemistry

Consuming “highly palatable” foods, or foods that are high in carbohydrates, fat, salt, sugar, or artificial sweeteners, can trigger an addictive-like process in some individuals, activating reward-processing regions in the brain and releasing “feel-good” chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.

These foods affect the brain in the same way as drugs and alcohol. Overstimulation of the dopamine reward circuit can cause a “high” similar to a high experienced from drugs or alcohol, leading people to constantly crave and abuse these substances again and again.

Eventually, our brains adjust to the excess dopamine and make less of it and we become tolerant to the overstimulation.

We then need to consume increasing quantities of highly palatable foods, or consume more of a particular substance, to get the same feel-good reaction that we crave.


Another prominent factor that can play a role in the development of a food addiction is genetics. Studies have shown that there are genes that put people at a higher-than-average risk of developing any type of addiction, including food addictions.

Other studies have provided support for a relationship between alcohol addiction and food addiction, supporting that addictions can be genetic.

The more “addictive” genes a person has, the more likely they are to struggle with any type of addiction, whether to a substance or a behavior.

Stress Reduction

Similar to how individuals become dependent on drugs or alcohol to manage depression and anxiety, the reliance on highly palatable foods for comfort or stress reduction is another component that can drive a food addiction.

Food addicts might consume excessive amounts of food or emotionally eat to cope with their negative emotions and enhance positive emotions.

Emotional eating tends to occur because when people experience stress, the stress hormone cortisol increases appetite and motivations to eat.

Studies suggest that there is a significant association between food addiction and negative emotional states, like depression and anxiety.


While many mental health professionals believe that food addicts develop a problem in response to certain mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety, food addiction can also develop in individuals dealing with other psychological and social issues.

For example, being a victim or survivor of a traumatic event, experiencing grief or loss, social isolation, or lack of social support are all psychological factors that might lead an individual to seek comfort in food in order to ease the pain.

Learn More: Symptoms of Food Addiction

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About the Author

Julia Simkus is an undergraduate student at Princeton University, majoring in Psychology. She plans to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology upon graduation from Princeton in 2023. Julia has co-authored two journal articles, one titled “Substance Use Disorders and Behavioral Addictions During the COVID-19 Pandemic and COVID-19-Related Restrictions," which was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in April 2021 and the other titled “Food Addiction: Latest Insights on the Clinical Implications," to be published in Handbook of Substance Misuse and Addictions: From Biology to Public Health in early 2022.

How to reference this article:

Simkus, J. (2022, March 21). Causes of Food Addiction. Simply Psychology.


Adams, R. C., Sedgmond, J., Maizey, L., Chambers, C. D., & Lawrence, N. S. (2019). Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating. Nutrients, 11(9), 2086.

Food addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Goodman, B. (2020, July 17). Food addiction signs and treatments. WebMD. Retrieved from

Hunt, M. S. (2020, December 15). What causes food addiction and what are the signs? Virtua Health. Retrieved from

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