The psychological addiction of food consumption

There is a huge difference between eating to satisfy the bodies need for fuel and a food addiction. The most obvious difference is that the bodies need for fuel is a physiological need for nutrients. While a food addiction is a psychological disease where a person forms a chemical dependency on high-fat foods, sugary foods, salty foods, or loses the control or ability to stop eating food in general. Addictive chemicals, such as illegal substances, trigger reward or pleasure nerve centers in the brain. These reward centers can also be triggered when you consume a large amount food you consider highly palatable. The releasing of chemicals such as dopamine, makes you feel good and becomes associated with pleasure as increased dopamine is sent into to the brain.

When a person connects emotion to food and begins to eat based on the psychological demand for food, a food addiction develops. A psychological addiction to food can be strong enough to override the physiological signals of satiation or the body actually being full. When there is an addiction your brain is consistently looking for that stimulation and a cycle is created of cravings that you are not able to fulfill; due to the dependency on “feeling good” vs. feeling full.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, around 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disease such as anorexia (not eating due to the perception that you are overweight and food is what causes this state), binge eating (eating out of control), bulimia (eating and then vomiting the food back up) or purging (eating out of control, followed by throwing up).

It is important when assessing an individual to look at the various signs or symptoms of eating disorders. Because of the override of the body feeling full individuals may not be able to stop eating and often eating to the point of feeling or making themselves ill. These individuals may suffer from constant worry about food and may even wake up in the middle of the night to have a snack and many refuse to eat healthy foods because their choice of food is not based on nutrition but simply on taste and the feeling of it.

Another sign may be the use of food as comfort when feeling upset, disappointed, sad, angry or alone or using food as a way of coping with depression or low levels of self-esteem. Many times these individuals avoiding social events due to their tendency to overeat and not wanting anyone to notice their overeating.

It is important to recognize the difference with an occasional over indulgence and a true food addiction in order to tackle this predominant disease.


American Council on Exercise (2012). ACE’s Essentials of Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals. San Diego, Calif.: American Council on Exercise.