Food Addiction: How it works & 5 ways to overcome it

Commonly known as an addiction where food consumption enters an addictive-like behaviour response. Up to 20% of the adult population suffer from food addiction (1).

Processed foods comprised of fat and/ or refined carbohydrates such as white flour or sugar, activate the reward centre within the brain in the same manner as drugs of abuse (2). Studies found on mice have shown binge eating on high fat & high sugar foods (eg. Cheesecake) resulted in down regulation of dopamine receptors (3,4). Binge-prone rats were highly motivated towards these foods despite negative consequences, such as foot shock (5). Additionally, withdrawal symptoms were observed (anxiety, teeth chattering) when sugar was removed from their dietary intake, after periods of bingeing and fasting (6).

Consider this in a human. This behaviour mimics yoyo dieting. Food intake is restricted for a period of time, then the diet is stopped, and person eats as normal (or more to compensate for the lack of energy and nutrient intake).

The dopamine system plays a crucial role in motivation and behaviour reinforcement. Repeated experience (drugs or high fat & sugar foods) create a conditioned response between stimulus (drug use, processed food) and the outcome (positive reinforcement that can lead to drug abuse, overeating, binge eating). As mentioned, dopamine receptors become downregulated (your threshold in feeling rewarded decreases), where you need more of the same substance to feel an effect (7).

Food industry invest in nutrition research, researchers, and professional societies; that blurs un-biased, evidenced-based nutrition science. Most importantly, food industry fund food science technologists and food artists to make their product hyperpalatable (sugar, fat, salt), as well as visually appealing (8). From basic human physiology, the sight, smell, sound, taste, thought of food is enough to stimulate saliva production and digestive juices, preparing us to eat (9).


Hyperpalatable = Hyper means excessive + Palatable means pleasurable to the taste buds ————————————————————————————————————————–

Alongside environmental prompts of aggressive marketing, convenience foods availability, and even stress, boredom and emotional eating; people find themselves in a vicious food addiction cycle.

When someone overeats, they do not typically overeat broccoli or whole eggs. They tend to reach for the chocolate coated biscuits, pizza, salt and vinegar chips, pastries, hot chips, cookies.. you name it.

5 ways to tackle Food Addiction:

1. Become aware of your eating habits Ask yourself: How many meals and snacks to I eat in a typical day? Do I graze throughout the day? What exactly am I eating? Is it processed or wholefoods? Am I truely ready for nourishment, or is there something influencing my desire to eat? (see no. 2)

Becoming aware of eating patterns gives you information on your physical and mental health. Are you dependent on a dopamine rush to feel good; is there an underlying mental health issue pushing towards comfort eating; perhaps a hormonal imbalance or sugar dysregulation; or importantly not eating the right nutrients for your body needs.

2. Identify your triggers Our everyday environment plays a huge impact on our food choices. Whether we grab a coffee and muffin on the way to work, have a coffee and biscuit break at work, swing past take away drive ins, or feel emotionally overwhelmed and comfort eat as a stress coping mechanism.

Write down situations that have led to hyperpalatable food intake. Keep note of these events, take a step back, and consider other possible options.

3. Do not have hyperpalatable food around you -have a backup. Remove temptation within your environment to the bets of your ability especially at home. Remove any processed foods you know you have difficulty resisting. If its not in the house when you have a craving, you physically need to head to the shops to purchase them; and that is a decision you choose to make.

If its not sitting on the kitchen bench, or hidden in the cupboards, you limit your sensory exposure.


Initially, people can experience withdrawals. Your body is used to having these products. Take it away and it can cause cravings to resume back to its comfortable yet toxic cycle.

Withdrawals and food cravings get easier as your tastebuds adapt. Of course, if you need a substitute, choose fresh seasonal fruit (mixed berries are great), nut butter, nuts and seeds, homemade granola, dark chocolate, or a healthy homemade dessert.

4. Be kind to yourself Remember your body has created a conditioned automatic response to make your life easier. Change can be difficult. With mental strength and self-compassion, you will overcome negative thoughts, feelings, behaviours, especially old habits.

If you slip up, don’t be hard on yourself. Guilt and/or regret does not alleviate food addiction cycles but fuels it. Instead, remind yourself why you want to make change. Use the energy you would have for guilt/ regret to motivate you to do better. Let go of negative thoughts and keep going.

5. Find other strategies to treat yourself other than food. A hot bath, massage, yoga, walking on the beach, playing with your furry (or furless) friend, talking to someone you trust, getting a HUG, reading a good book- are all non-food related ways to reduce stress hormones, and increase natural feel good chemicals.

Still need help with breaking food addiction and cravings? Book in for a consult and we can create a tailored plan for you.

Until next time, take care of yourself!

~ Bonny. C

—————————————————————————————————————– Reference

1. Pursey, K., Stanwell, P., Gearhardt, A., Collins, C., & Burrows, T. (2014). The prevalence of food addiction as assessed by the Yale Food Addiction Scale: a systematic review. Nutrients, 6(10), 4552-4590.

2. Schulte, E. M., Potenza, M. N., & Gearhardt, A. N. (2017). A commentary on the “eating addiction” versus “food addiction” perspectives on addictive-like food consumption. Appetite, 115, 9-15.

3. Johnson, P. M., & Kenny, P. J. (2010). Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature Neuroscience, 13(5), 635e641.

4. Robinson, M. J., Burghardt, P. R., Patterson, C. M., Nobile, C. W., Akil, H., Watson, S. J., et al. (2015). Individual differences in cue-induced motivation and striatal systems in rats susceptible to diet-induced obesity. Neuropsychopharmacology, 40(9), 2113e2123.

5. Oswald, K. D., Murdaugh, D. L., King, V. L., & Boggiano, M. M. (2011). Motivation for palatable food despite consequences in an animal model of binge eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44(3), 203e211.

6. Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., Rada, P., Kim, A., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008a). After daily bingeing on a sucrose solution, food deprivation induces anxiety and accumbens dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance. Physiology & Behavior, 94(3), 309e315.

7. Volkow, N. D., Wise, R. A., & Baler, R. (2017). The dopamine motive system: implications for drug and food addiction. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18(12), 741.

8. Nestle, M. (2016). Corporate funding of food and nutrition research: science or marketing?. JAMA Internal Medicine, 176(1), 13-14.

9. Nederkoorn, C., Smulders, F. T. Y., & Jansen, A. (2000). Cephalic phase responses, craving and food intake in normal subjects. Appetite, 35(1), 45-55.

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