Food addicton: definition, symptoms and treatment

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Page clinically reviewed by Claire Rimmer (BA (Hons), Dip.Psychology, FDAD (NCAC)), Lead Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Altrincham, in March 2024.

What is food addiction?

Food addiction is characterised by someone experiencing a loss of control over their eating habits, causing them to compulsively overeat certain foods even when they're not hungry or in need of nourishment.

Overeating is one of the biggest risks to health today and can often be an emotional response to negative thoughts.

The difference between food addiction and binge eating disorder

When examining the features of food addiction, this condition appears to be very similar to binge eating disorder (BED), which is a form of eating disorder. However, it's important to recognise that there's a clear distinction between the two.

BED is a diagnosable and formally classified mental health condition, which often results from a combination of complex factors, including emotional, environmental, biological and psychosocial influences. Comparatively, food addiction develops because of the physical reaction that someone experiences after consuming certain foods, and as such, is more biochemical in nature than BED.

Signs and symptoms of food addiction

Everyone has a different relationship with food, and while cravings and indulgence is normal, there are some signs that you could be addicted to food.

  • Finding that you'll go to extreme lengths to obtain ‘junk food’ when this isn't available
  • Eating so excessively that it causes you to neglect work, friends, family, and hobbies
  • Experiencing problems at work because of food and eating
  • Finding that you need to eat to reduce negative emotions, for example, to relieve anxiety and stress
  • Being secretive or dishonest about your eating behaviours
  • Experiencing guilt after overeating
  • Feeling as though food controls your life
  • Feeling as though you're unable to stop overeating despite the negative consequences this causes

Research into eating disorders has found that emotions, particularly negative ones, can increase food consumption. Those negative emotions, particularly related to attachment, such as emptiness and loneliness, need to be further explored for us to better understand overeating.

Given the nurturing properties of food in the caregiver relationship, one interpretation is that obese people turn to food as a representation of maternal soothing, with the sufferer having a sense of anxiety, loneliness and depression and an inability to self-soothe when experiencing these states.

  • Unable to stop eating certain foods even when you're not hungry
  • Eating more quickly than other people
  • Eating to the point of feeling physically unwell/nauseous
  • Finding that you need to eat increasing amounts of food, and more frequently, in order to feel satisfied

What is the main cause of food addiction?

If we delve deeper into overeating, we uncover a likeness with substance addiction. By using the existing information about causes of addiction, we can see some similarities.

Some of these similarities include:

  • Hypersensitivity to the behaviour of others
  • Dissociation to relational issues, where the person is emotionally detached from those around them

These factors are thought to impact the level of tolerance people have to negative emotional states, resulting in compulsive quick fixes, such as addictive behaviours or overeating.

What happens if food addiction is ignored?

Without support for food addiction, it can result in a range of serious long-term physical and psychological problems which may include:

  • Obesity, leading to further related problems including diabetes, heart attack, cancer, bone and joint problems
  • The development of other disorders relating to food and eating, such as bulimia nervosa
  • Long-term depression and anxiety
  • Breakdown of relationships with family, friends and romantic partners
  • Intense feelings of isolation and shame
  • Developing another form of addiction alongside your food addiction, such as alcohol addiction or drug addiction

Free addiction assessment

We recognise that reaching out for help can be daunting. That’s why we offer a free addiction assessment with a Priory expert at your nearest Priory hospital. Call our dedicated team today to arrange an assessment.

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Treatment for food addiction

Our addiction specialists understand that seeking help for your food addiction can be overwhelming. That’s why our addiction experts offer a free initial addiction assessment, enabling you to discuss your food addiction in a safe, supportive and highly compassionate environment. The therapy that you'll receive during food addiction treatment at Priory, will typically consist of a combination of therapy types in order to address your unique addiction and facilitate recovery. Food addiction therapy may include:

  • 1:1 therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Our approach to food addiction treatment

Charlotte Parkin, a therapist based at Priory Wellbeing Centre Harley Street, discusses our approach to food addiction treatment.

Our team look at overeating beyond just the medical symptoms, and address the psyche of those who overeat, in a bid to focus on the root cause. I have done in-depth research into this area and the key factors that we, as healthcare professionals, should focus on in the treatment of overeating include:

  • Exploring developmental factors and subsequent emotion regulation strategies during treatment, to help facilitate sustained weight loss
  • Formulating treatment around attachment functioning and interpersonal relationships
  • Multiple factors that contribute to emotional overeating, suggesting that associated interventions may need to be individually designed
  • Developing new coping strategies – if overeating is necessary for emotional functioning, it will not be given up until it's replaced with other strategies
  • Public awareness of the relationship between obesity and mental health, which tends to focus on the rhetoric of the simple formula of poor willpower. Wider re-education is needed to help shift public perception and knowledge
  • Acknowledging the connection between overeating and addiction, and addressing it through reparative relational therapy – if this isn't done, the overeater is kept in a cycle of poor inter-relations, where they soothe with food
  • Looking out for parallels between overeating and addiction, particularly a low tolerance to extreme emotions such as loneliness, anger, happiness, and alexithymia (the inability to process and articulate emotions).

12-step philosophy for food addiction

Food addiction treatment and therapy at Priory is underpinned by the renowned 12-step philosophy, which is a well-known addiction treatment model, founded by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The 12-step model combines a person's food addiction with their spirituality and motivation to change, as a means of facilitating recovery.

Tips on how to control overeating

An eating disorder specialist from Priory Hospital Roehampton gives tips on how to manage and control overeating.

  1. Have a plan
  2. Eat balanced meals
  3. Don’t restrict
  4. Avoid distractions when eating
  5. Change environment
  6. Hydrate
  7. Plan how to manage the feeling
  8. Seek support

Read more about the tips for dealing with food addiction here.

Private medical insurance

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers. All of the services we offer at Priory can be funded through private medical insurance. This includes:

  • Mental health treatment
  • Addiction treatment
  • Eating disorder treatment

All clients will have access to our highly skilled and accredited clinicians, many of whom are published experts in their fields of treatment. Whatever your requirements, we're committed to working with you to get your life back on track.

Registered and approved provider

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers.

Addiction treatment near me

We have addiction treatment centres located throughout the country, ensuring that you can access the support you need in a location that's convenient for you. To find your nearest addiction treatment centre, please use the search form below.

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