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Common Symptoms of Food Addiction

By Julia Simkus, published March 17, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


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. 

Some of the most common signs of food addictions include:

  • eating much more than intended when consuming food,
  • continuing to eat certain foods even past the point of fullness,
  • eating to the point of feeling ill,
  • emotional eating,
  • eating in secret,
  • avoiding certain social situations where certain foods are present due to fear of overeating,
  • going out of your way to obtain certain foods,
  • having trouble focusing at work or school because of thoughts of food

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

People who show signs of food addiction can also develop tolerances to food. This means that even if they continue to eat more, food satisfies them less, so they require even more food to obtain feelings of fulfillment. 

Researchers from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy developed a questionnaire called the The Yale Food Addiction Scale to assess signs of addictive-like eating behavior and identify people most likely to have a food addiction.

The questions fall under eight specific substance dependence criteria as defined by the DSM-IV. The criteria are:

  1. Substance taken in larger amounts and for a longer period than intended.
  2. Persistent desire or repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit.
  3. Much time/activity to obtain, use, recover.
  4. Important social, occupational, or recreation activities given up or reduced.
  5. Use continues despite knowledge of adverse consequences (e.g., failure to fulfill role obligation, use when physically hazardous).
  6. Tolerance (marked increase in amount; marked decrease in effect).
  7. Characteristic withdrawal symptoms: substance taken to relieve withdrawal.
  8. Use causes clinically significant impairment or distress

If an individual meets at least three of these eight symptom criteria, a food addiction is likely recognized.

Getting cravings despite feeling full:

Food addicts often will have cravings for certain foods even if they feel full or have recently finished a fulfilling, nutritious meal. Ignoring or satisfying these cravings can be very challenging for a food addict.

While it is normal to have cravings, someone with a food addiction will become consumed by these cravings, obsessively thinking about a specific food and having trouble focusing because of these thoughts.

When the food is obtained, they will continue to eat until they have finished all of it or have eaten to the point of feeling physically ill.

They will make excuses for why they should respond to a craving, worry about not being able to eat a specific type of food, and fail to maintain any rules to quit eating certain foods.

Consuming more food than one can physically tolerate:

When giving into cravings, someone with a food addiction might eat much more than intended and not stop eating until the urge is satisfied. This can lead to excessive fullness and feelings of guilt.

Despite the physical, emotional, and social side effects of excessive food consumption, such as digestive issues, obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, low self-esteem, depression, and isolation, a food addict is still unlikely to change their habits and will often re-engage in these destructive behaviors to induce feelings of pleasure.

Eating in Secret

People with food addictions also tend to struggle with self control around food. This is why they might avoid certain social situations where certain foods are present or hide their consumption of certain foods from others.

Many people with food addictions prefer to eat alone or late at night when everyone else has gone to sleep. They would likely feel embarrassed or guilty if someone were to catch them eating.

Emotional Eating

Food addicts will use food to soothe emotions and feel comforted. When feeling bored, emotionally empty, or anxious, food can provide this emotional relief. A food addict will use food as a reward and eat to cope with stressful situations.

Other symptoms of a food addiction can include: sleep disorders, such as insomnia or oversleeping; restlessness; digestive disorders; spending significant amounts of money on buying certain foods; decreased energy; kidney disease; or intensive food restriction after a binge.

Learn More: Causes of Food Addiction

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Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

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 17). Common Symptoms of Food Addiction. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/symptoms-of-food-addiction.html

Sources

Ekern, J. (2017, May 12). Food addiction: Causes, symptoms, signs & treatment help. Eating Disorder Hope. Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/food-addiction

Gearhardt, A. N., Corbin, W. R., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Preliminary validation of the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Appetite, 52(2), 430–436. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2008.12.003

Goodman, B. (2020, July 17). Food addiction signs and treatments. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder/mental-health-food-addiction

Gunnars, K. (2019, November 11). 8 common symptoms of food addiction. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/8-symptoms-of-food-addiction

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