“Food Addiction” Treatment Isn’t Science-Backed: Here’s What’s Really Going On
Table set with food

As an eating disorder dietitian, I often hear clients talk about being addicted to food. They feel like certain foods have power over their lives and they can’t trust themselves around them. I also hear statements like “I better not have X in the house, because I’m addicted.” It’s not typical for people to feel this way about broccoli or bananas, or other nutrient-dense food (although some people can develop an obsession with “clean” foods, known as orthorexia). The foods typically named are the ones diet culture call “junk” or “bad” food – what I, along with my anti-diet colleagues, call “fun” or “play” food. Think high-sugar, high-fat, and high-salt: cookies, cakes, pizza, and fries.

In the media, you might’ve even heard the theory that such fun foods are as addictive as drugs like cocaine and heroin. “The idea of food addiction is widely accepted, and studies show that up to 86% of the public believes certain foods can be addictive,” says dietitian Kristin Draayer, MS, RDN.

If you feel like you have certain food addictions, read on to learn what the science says, consider an alternative perspective, and discover solutions outside of food addiction treatment that can help you find food peace.

Why food addiction isn’t founded in science

Like several far-reaching claims made in the nutrition world (i.e. the perceived benefits of intermittent fasting), the theory of food addiction lacks substantial evidence. A 2022 systematic review concluded that food addiction isn’t a legitimate diagnosis and there is simply not enough research or clinical trials to draw conclusions. There is also no conclusive research pinpointing specific foods, nutrients, or food substances as addictive. According to Draayer, research on food addiction also often overlooks the impact of dietary restrictions. “A history of dieting can intensify cravings and a drive to eat, mimicking signs of what’s labeled as food addiction,” she says.

While there’s research linking sugar to binge-eating behaviors (in rodents, not humans), there’s a catch: the behaviors occurred when rodents were given only intermittent access to sugar. “When given free access to sugar alongside adequate access to food and water, the rodents did not binge, suggesting that it's the deprivation, not the sugar itself, that triggers this response,” Draayer explains.

A couple, including a man with a beard and a woman with green hair, eat pizza at a table
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Like I mentioned, a common belief is that certain foods are as addictive as hard drugs. It’s true that eating certain foods can light up the brain’s reward center, causing a release of dopamine. “However, what’s often left out of the conversation is that so does caring for your child or cuddling with a pet, but we don’t pathologize those behaviors,” Draayer explains.

“Eating is supposed to be pleasurable,” adds JD Ouellette, Director of Lived Experience at Equip. “We’ve been encouraged to think of food as solely fuel and we’ve lost sight of the fact that food is also love, community, and culture—and these things give us pleasure.” Also, different from substance addiction, we don’t experience withdrawal symptoms when going without certain foods and repetitively eating a food doesn’t increase our tolerance to it.”

Plus, food addiction is not a diagnosis recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), unlike substance use disorders or eating disorders. “Whether food addiction is a ‘real’ diagnosis or not, it can feel very real,” Draayer says. “However, labeling it as an addiction can lead people down the path of restriction, which can ultimately further exacerbate the feelings of ‘addiction.’”

What’s really driving behaviors labeled as food addiction

What’s likely causing addiction-like feelings is actually restriction. I observe clients feeling obsessed with food when they are not consuming enough calories on a regular basis — a primal response to starvation. I also see clients feel preoccupied with certain foods, namely "fun" foods, because they are off-limits.

“What I have learned from both my own healing and my work in the eating disorder field is that a ‘scarcity mindset’ compels us to seek and consume whatever feels forbidden,” Ouellette says. “So, the more we commit to not eating specific foods, the more our biology and psychology drive us to consume those foods.”

In substance abuse treatment, abstinence is often a necessary goal for healing and health. However, if we treat food or certain foods like a drug and try to avoid them at all costs, healing food relationships becomes impossible. “Avoiding certain foods reinforces your belief that you can't handle them, and this thought gets wired into your brain's neural pathways,” Draayer says. “This creates a self-perpetuating cycle: you might think you're preventing out-of-control eating by staying away, but you're actually reinforcing the idea that you can't trust yourself around that food.”

Also, I notice when clients have not yet developed adequate emotional coping or regulating tools, and only go to food to self-soothe and manage hard feelings, they seem more prone to feeling like they are addicted to food.

Feeling addicted to food and having an eating disorder are not always simultaneous, but there’s often an overlap in symptoms (e.g. food preoccupation and loss of control around food). Even if someone doesn’t meet the criteria for an eating disorder, usually at least disordered eating is present. “With feelings of food addiction often stemming from a place of deprivation,” Equip dietitian Shira Feldman, MPH, RD, explains, “there’s always the chance there could be a true underlying eating disorder.”

What you may need instead of “food addiction” treatment

There’s good news: Regardless of what’s causing you to feel addicted to food, there are ways to help you find guidance, healing, and peace in your relationship to all foods. Here are a few ideas to consider:

1. Get evaluated for an eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is often the eating disorder diagnosis most associated with feelings of food addiction, but it’s possible that these feelings may stem from another eating disorder. You may also be experiencing disordered eating and not a full-blown eating disorder. The best way to find out is to start with a self-assessment, and then talk to your doctor about the possibility of an eating disorder. You can also get evaluated by a treatment program, or by a dietitian, therapist, or doctor specializing in eating disorders. Be wary of programs that offer food addiction treatment, as they are likely not evidence-based.

2. Diversify your coping tools

Despite what diet culture says, using food as a coping tool is not inherently negative. However, it becomes an issue when eating is your only way to manage hard feelings and it doesn’t feel like a choice. As eating disorder therapist Anita Johnston says, when you eat without physical hunger, you cross over into emotional symbolism: food becomes a metaphor or symbol for what we’re needing emotionally. For instance, some people will overdo it with sweets when they are in fact needing love and comfort. To heal, they experiment with various other ways to seek and find love and comfort, such as spending time with their partner or pet, or wrapping themselves in a blanket with a warm drink.

With the help of a therapist or trusted friend, identify what food symbolizes for you (when you’re eating without physical hunger and feeling out of control) and brainstorm ways to meet your underlying emotional needs.

3. Work towards eating adequate meals and snacks

Since restriction is often driving feelings of food addiction and feeling out of control around food, making sure you’re eating enough is key. Take stock of your daily eating habits and consider if you’re skipping meals, eating meals that are too small or unsatisfying, regularly missing a main macronutrient (carbs, fat, or protein), or foregoing snacks even when you’re hungry between meals. If you find there are gaps in your eating, work towards increasing and balancing your intake to meet your body’s needs throughout each day.

4. Learn about food habituation

“Habituation is a natural process that occurs when we are repeatedly exposed to the same stimulus,” Draayer explains. “Over time, our previously strong response to that stimulus decreases.” When it comes to foods that feel addicting, the more you casually expose yourself to them (instead of swearing them off), the more neutral your experience becomes—cookies are just cookies, pizza is just pizza, and chips are just chips. “Of course, certain food will still be enjoyable, but there’s not that intense control and obsession over them,” Draayer adds. “Instead, it becomes a more neutral experience, empowering people to regain control and giving them the ability to make food choices that are nourishing and satisfying.” This science-backed process is often disregarded in traditional "food addiction" treatment.

Keep in mind that if a food has been off-limits for a long time, a “honeymoon phase,” where you allow yourself to have however much you want of it, may be necessary before it becomes neutral. Ouellette says, “with time, my consumption of sugary foods became more about enjoyment versus compulsion and although my goal was not to eat less sugar, that is what happened simply because I’m able to eat it when I want and it gives me only pleasure, no shame.”

5. Address your relationship to food

“Much of the time, people need to work on their mindset around the foods they feel addicted to,” Feldman says. “Exploring their relationship with these foods often uncovers beliefs rooted in diet culture and working on unpacking these beliefs is most beneficial.” If working on food adequacy, food habituation, and your food relationship seems overwhelming, an eating disorder dietitian can walk alongside you in the process. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way in which we eat, and dietitians can help people sort through all the information that is out there and find what works and feels good for them,” says Feldman.

If you’ve been feeling like you need food addiction treatment, it’s likely there’s something else at the root. Schedule a free consultation with Equip to talk to our team to see if virtual eating disorder care is the right step for you.

Caroline Young
Contributing Writer, RD
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