Looking for cures for food addiction is doubly challenging when noted scientists can’t even agree on the proper nomenclature for this condition. Eating addiction, eating disorder - a rose by any other name... (1)

What’s clear though is, the disorder does exist and experts in the field are just beginning to study the phenomenon to learn more about it. (2) It is of special concern given that in developed countries like the UK and US, obesity is prevalent among adults and food addiction may be a contributing factor to it. (3) (4)

5 Proven Ways to Cure Food Addiction

Getting to know more about food addiction

Food addiction is marked by an uncontrollable impulsive and compulsive desire to eat regardless of its adverse effects. Like other addictions, there is intense and incessant craving for certain foods, a withdrawal phase together with a negative affect, and the development of tolerance.

It is believed that the disorder has both behavioural and neurobiological basis. In an individual prone to addiction, eating certain foods trigger the release of dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical. A change in the brain’s reward circuit occurs in these people and they get the compulsive need to seek and eat the foods they have in mind.

The eating goes over and beyond the body’s energy requirement, which is why most people addicted to food are obese. The individual may be aware of the harmful consequences, such as considerable weight gain and increased risk for certain diseases as well as reduced aesthetics.

How does food addiction begin?

Just like other substance use disorders, an addiction to food starts with a bite. The food is palatable and the brain’s reward system recognises this by releasing dopamine. A feeling of pleasure follows.

When the pleasurable effects subside, or when the individual is obligated to abstain from eating these foods, withdrawal symptoms appear. As with drug or alcohol detox, withdrawal is a basic component of any addiction.

In susceptible people, an altered dopamine pathway in the brain reward induces cravings for these foods . (5)

Studies have shown that foods high in refined sugar, carbohydrates, fats and possibly salt are considered as potentially addictive . These are the ones that usually belong to the “junk food” category.

Factors that contribute to food addiction

As with other substance abuse, genetics plays a significant role in developing addiction. It has been established that substance dependency disorders have an estimated 50% - 70% heritability.

The environment contributes to the development of food addiction in a vulnerable person through repeated exposure to addictive food and its ready availability.

Gender matters. A study of gender and racial differences for food addiction found that females were more likely to get addicted than males. More women than men also reported that depression, stress and anxiety influenced them to resort to compulsive overeating. (6)

A history of past addiction or a mental disorder increases the predisposition to food addiction.

A person who has been diagnosed with PTSD, ADHD, or had a childhood trauma is more prone to have this eating disorder. If the trauma happened at a young age, the likelihood of having food addiction in later life increases.

People with impulsive behavior have greater chances of getting the disorder. (7)

Signs and symptoms of food addiction

In 2009, Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) to evaluate food addiction in individuals.

The YFAS is a 25-item questionnaire developed to assess addictive-like eating behavior, based on the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for substance dependence. A review of the YFAS ten years later (2019) found it to be an internally reliable measure for food addiction. (8)

These are the common signs and symptoms that may serve as alerts that food addiction is present or forthcoming: (9) (10)

  • Persistent food cravings not driven by hunger
  • Obsessive thoughts on having and eating food
  • Constant binge eating or compulsive eating
  • Frequent and unsuccessful attempts to stop
  • Failure to control the amount of food eaten and how often the craving sets in
  • Adverse effects on daily life and relationships, social interactions, and budget
  • Craving for food is emotion-driven, whether it’s positive or negative 
  • Hiding from others when eating to avoid attention
  • Eating even at the risk of physical pain and other negative effects
  • Feeling remorse and guilt over eating but not being able to stop

5 Proven ways to cure food addiction

Food addiction in treatment centres may not be as common as drug or alcohol addictions. Yet it is a serious condition that is extremely unhealthy and can bring about obesity and chronic lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack and diabetes.

In addition, it can destroy a person’s self image and take away self worth and confidence, resulting in diminished social interaction, depression, anxiety, guilt and shame.

Unlike drug and alcohol addiction, abstinence The goals for treatment for this eating disorder is to break the habit of  compulsive eating and find healthy substitutes. Cures for food addiction will include the management of emotional, psychological and physical deficiencies of the individual.

Here are methods to treat food addiction that have a higher rate of success:

Cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has long been recognised as a successful psychological approach to treating a number of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and drug and alcohol misuse.

CBT is talk therapy that makes the individual aware of their negative thought patterns and behaviour so that challenging events can be handled in a more positive way that brings effective results.

In food addiction, regular overeating is most often an emotional response to negative triggers that leaves the person feeling unworthy, anxious or depressed. (11)

Cognitive behavioural therapy shows different approaches to stressful situations aside from eating.

CBT differs from other forms of psychotherapy in these ways:

  • It is realistic. The focus is on identifying the specific problem and finding the appropriate solution.
  • It is structured. The discussion is about the problem and goal-setting and there is no freewheeling talk. 
  • It is a collaboration between the individual seeking treatment and the therapist. The solution-seeking is mutually agreed upon instead of the therapist giving instructions. 
  • CBT is carried out by a therapist on a one-on-one basis or in groups. It is also one of the components in a professional rehab facility.

How it works

Food addiction is in large part a psychological response to eating. Binge eating or overeating on pastries, chocolates and chips results in excessive weight gain. Attempts to stop and lose weight are done repeatedly but always end up in relapses.

In CBT, under the guidance of the therapist, the individual will write down all thoughts and feelings that were experienced before, during and after the binge eating. A pattern soon emerges.

The craving for food comes after a perceived negative experience. An example would be a close friend not responding to a chat or text message immediately and the delay is viewed by the person as avoidance or insignificance. (12)

A diminished feeling of self worth is assuaged by “comfort food”. The therapist helps the individual to challenge the negative thought patterns and find substitute options for coping with undesirable experiences. (13)

Join a 12-step programme

12-step programmes are usually associated with drug or alcohol rehab. But there are programs for food addiction using the 12-step philosophy. And most of them have representations worldwide.

Harnessing the ideology of Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-step programmes for food addiction follow the basic steps that include abstinence from certain food groups, sponsorship, attending meetings, anonymity, availability of support, spirituality, and service.

These programmes promote recovery through the social support and mutual help between members. Here are the more popular 12-step programmes for food addiction:

Overeaters Anonymous  Founded in 1960, OA is the earliest of the 12-step food addiction groups and has the largest membership. It is patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, replacing alcohol with food. 

OA’s eating plan is individualised and customised. The organisation is present in 75 countries, so people can still go to them when travelling.

GreySheeters Anonymous The group is an offshoot of Overeaters Anonymous. GSA’s policy is to adhere to a specific food plan. This is printed on a grey sheet of paper, hence the name. This food plan is not available to non members. One can only get it through membership with a sponsor.

GSA is based in the US and has intergroups in Israel, Iceland and Europe.

Food Addicts Anonymous Similar to GSA, FAA follows an eating plan. The FAA food plan is available on its website and it promotes abstinence from sugar, flour and wheat. Founded in the US, it has meetings in Canada, Australia and four countries in Europe.

Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous FA, its acronym, was founded in 1998 by ex-OA members. As its name suggests, its members have maintained a healthy weight and adhered to the specified food plan.

FA is a recovery program based on the Alcoholics Anonymous ideology. It has 4000 members in 6 countries.

Seek professional treatment programmes

Professional treatment facilities for alcohol or drug rehab also manage individuals with food addiction. Options for treatment are inpatient and outpatient programs.

As with other forms of substance abuse, the inpatient treatment has better recovery rates for the person. The outpatient program is suited for milder addictions and people who have to continue with their routines in daily life, like going to work.

The advantages of doing substance rehab in a professional rehabilitation and recovery centre are manifold. They include:

  • Focused and round the clock (for inpatient treatment) supervision and monitoring
  • Scheduled and measured healthy meals to reduce the need for binge eating
  • Medical specialists and trained counsellors for one on one and group sessions
  • Medically assisted management of withdrawal symptoms
  • Peer support

Seek psychiatric therapy.

Psychiatrists, especially those with experience in treating food addiction, provide individual guidance and support, and help the individual understand and cope with trauma, depression or anxiety that have contributed to the overeating.

They can also prescribe medications for mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, or medications that act on the brain pathways to reduce appetite.

IN the US, a drug for ADHD, lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse), has been approved by the FDA as treatment for binge eating disorder.

Naltrexone-bupropion (Contrave) is a medicine used in food addiction. Naltrexone acts to reduce appetite while bupropion is an antidepressant and is also used in tobacco addiction. (14)

Medications such as antidepressants control the moods that lead to overeating. (15) Prescribed antidepressants to help in food addiction are:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) - Prozac, Cipramil, Seroxat, Lustral
  • Tricyclic antidepressants - Tofranil, Tryptizol, Anafranil, Gamanil

Consult an expert on dietary planning and nutritional counselling.

Nutrition is an essential component in a comprehensive food addiction treatment program. Since binge eating involves frequent ingestion of sugary, fatty and salty foods that have little nutritive value, people with this disorder are usually obese with unhealthy diets.

The food plan for eating disorders begins at the start of the treatment, from the acute phase to withdrawal to a long term goal of eating healthily. Diets are individualised to meet the unique needs of each person. Meals are scheduled and measured. (16)

Education on proper nutrition and dietary planning are part of the program. Nutrition therapy aims to:

  • Resolve nutritional deficiencies brought about by unhealthy eating patterns
  • Help diminish the cravings for junk food
  • Prepare a balanced meal plan at the recommended caloric intake
  • Establish a regular pattern and schedule of meals and snacks
  • Manage diet to consider co-morbid conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular problems
  • Develop healthy habits in cooking, preparing and buying foods

Diet and nutrition counselling as an adjunct to primary food addiction programs helps in the long lasting maintenance of healthy eating habits.

Conclusion

A multidisciplinary approach to the treatment of food addiction addresses the neurobiological, genetic, environmental and psychological factors that lead to the disorder. Research has shown that a combination of proven ways and methods can lead to lifetime recovery for the food addict.

A professional rehab and recovery center has a team of medical practitioners, psychologists, nurses, nutritionists, and trained paramedical staff to manage and handle people with food addiction.

The collaboration of team members contributes to a far better chance of recovery and maintenance than seeking treatment on a piecemeal basis or doing it at home.


About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Pete has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for The Hygrove and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire.   To read more about Pete visit his LinkedIn profile.