How many times have you heard someone claim they’re so addicted to chocolate? We’ve all probably joked about being hooked on a food we can’t get enough of. But in reality, food addiction is a real issue with serious consequences.
“While many people believe they are ‘addicted’ to certain foods, individuals who experience food addiction tend to consume these foods despite negative health consequences, such as diabetes and heart disease, and need to consume greater quantities of these foods in order to get the desired effect,” says Erica Schulte, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan, who researches food addiction.
But don't confuse food addiction with binge eating disorder, which is more about an individual's relationship to food, Schulte says. While binge eaters may eat compulsively to deal with emotions or pain, addicts are chemically hooked on certain foods, Schulte says. “The food addiction theory suggests a direct role of the food, akin to a substance, in driving forward addictive-like eating behavior,” she says.
Schulte and other researchers believe that about 10 percent of the U.S. population struggles with a food addiction. Despite this, the disorder is not recognized in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—the handbook used by the American Psychiatric Association to make diagnoses and suggest treatments.
Want to find out if you’re being dramatic, or if your chocolate habit is truly putting your health at risk? If you answer yes to any of these five questions, you may want to speak with a professional.
1. Is your social life suffering?
Food addiction can get in the way of daily life, and people who have one sometimes break ties with people who don’t agree with their eating behavior, says Schulte. They may also skip out on social or professional events where they may be tempted to overeat, and can find themselves unable to fulfill certain responsibilities because they’re feeling sick from overeating.
2. Is guilt taking over?
We’ve all felt guilty after eating a few too many chips, but you’re entering addiction territory if that guilt frequently turns into serious distress, says Schulte. “Examples of distress are typically emotional in nature, such as something bothering you so much that you feel guilty about your behavior or think about it often,” she says.
"While many people believe they are 'addicted' to certain foods, individuals who experience food addiction tend to consume these foods despite negative health consequences."
3. Do you overeat processed foods?
You don't often hear someone say they're addicted to lettuce, right? That's because it's easier to get hooked on highly processed junk foods, which often contain large quantities of both fat and sugar, addictive agents that your body craves. Plus, refined carbohydrates are quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. (Interestingly, no foods found in nature are high in both fat and sugar.)
“Based on potential shared features with drugs of abuse, it seems likely that these foods are created to be artificially highly rewarding, which may lead some individuals to develop addictive-like eating behaviors,” says Schulte.
4. Do you regularly make late-night trips to the convenience store?
Have you ever had a fridge or pantry full of snacks, but still left the house in pajamas for that late night Cherry Ripe you couldn’t stop thinking about? According to the Yale Food Addiction Scale (a 25-question measure of addictive-like eating behavior), going out of your way to obtain certain foods is one sign of an addiction. (If you've done this once or twice, don't sweat it. You've got to match three criteria on the survey, and suffer from clinically significant impairment or distress to be diagnosed as a true food addict.)
5. Have you been getting sick?
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or other health issues that your doctor has said is a result of your eating habits or weight, but you’re still having trouble cutting back on certain foods, you’re probably addicted. Your doctor, a dietitian, or a therapist can help you work on kicking the habit and creating a more healthful diet.