Overcoming food addiction is a lot easier said than done, and just the term “food addiction” is a controversial one. Whether or not you view food addiction as a distinctive disease phenotype, or simply an expression of strong habits or cravings, anyone who struggles with compulsive overeating patterns will tell you that giving up the habit (or “addiction”) is not easy. So, how does one deal with it when applying a standard addiction-recovery model which typically requires abstinence from an addictive substance? Because, well, we all need to eat.

How “Food Addiction” Works

Let’s start with a brief description of how “food addiction” works by leaving you with a few scenarios. Food addiction typically involves being addicted to foods that are high in fat, sugar, or other additives like potato chips, pizza, candy and soda, among other things. You’re likely not going to come across a bunch of fiends deep diving into a bowl of asparagus or apple slices. Ok, maybe your hippie and yogi pals, but that probably has nothing to do with addiction – these people just love their greens! Additive free, whole foods don’t tend to contain addictive properties.

Moreover, have you ever noticed how some people can chill with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in their freezer for, like, a month or longer while others can’t even keep it in the house lest it be gone in five minutes? Then again, we happen to know plenty of drug addicts and alcoholics who can’t keep a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in their freezer (*collective hand raises here at Kembali*), and this is where it gets tricky. Are we all food addicts? This is always going to be based on your own self-work, and what you decide your bottom line behaviors are (depending on what type of recovery program you’re applying). It’s like this with any process addiction, like sex, gambling, workaholism, and the list goes on. Nevertheless, these habits can reach the point of compulsive behavioral patterns that mimic other addictions in the sense that one [donut / sexual partner / Blackjack game / work project]  is never enough.

The Effects of Junk Food on the Brain

Cravings are emotional, and you want to be careful not to confuse them with basic hunger because the two, cravings and hunger, are very different. Certain foods actually can hijack the brain’s reward system, namely high-sugar and high fat foods, in addition to foods with a lot of additives. Manufacturers know this and will create foods that contain additives that have an addictive effect on the brain because it’s good for business. Think about this for a minute – some businesses in the food industry are, in essence, actually capitalizing on people’s addictions. This isn’t a post on morality, but it’s a compelling piece of information that can suggest that food addiction is, indeed, very real.

Junk food stimulates many of the same reward centers in the brain as cocaine and other drugs, acting directly on your dopamine levels – the brain chemical that, in short, makes you happy. For addiction-prone individuals, this is a pretty frightening piece of information because it means that eating junk food can lead to a full blown addiction. It’s also part of the reason why people in drug and alcohol recovery often switch to food addiction once they get clean. When you eat lots of junk food and sweets – the foods that raise your dopamine – your brain begins to notice that your dopamine is too high. It then starts removing dopamine receptors to balance everything out. This is a very simplified explanation of what happens, but it should give you an idea of how easy it is for unhealthy eating habits can turn into a serious issue. Fewer dopamine receptors in your brain means that your brain needs more, and the easiest way to “get” more is to reach for that bag of potato chips. If you don’t get your fix, you’ll experience physical withdrawal, which makes food addiction so much more than just an emotional dependency on tasty foods. And this is how “food addiction” works, in a nutshell.

Can Lead to other Emotional Eating Disorders

Finally, food addiction can lead to other emotional disorders, like anorexia and bulimia. The psychological impacts of the weight gain that accompany overeating often causes individuals to start binging and purging, or abstaining from food for long periods of time. This can become yet another vicious cycle.


We’ve really only just scratched the surface in terms of how food addiction works, but hopefully you’re starting to get an idea of how certain foods affect the brain and ultimately lead to addiction. Avoiding food, of course is impossible. We need food to survive. Avoiding foods that are exceptionally high in fat, sugar and other additives is possible. For a true, blue addict, however it’s a lot easier said than done, but there is help out there and you never have to do this alone.

Kembali is Here to Help

Kembali Recovery Center focuses primarily on drug and alcohol addiction, but we also work with our clients to treat a variety of other process addictions, and many folks come to us for food addiction through our Recovery and Beyond program. If you or someone you love is struggling with food addiction or any other process addictions, please know that Kembali is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about our program – our counselors are free of judgement and will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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