Understanding and Addressing Food Addiction: A Science-Based Approach to Policy, Practice and Research | Center on Addiction

Understanding and Addressing Food Addiction: A Science-Based Approach to Policy, Practice and Research

Understanding and Addressing Food Addiction: A Science-Based Approach to Policy, Practice and Research

Published: February 2016

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Public health concerns about the escalating obesity epidemic and its far-reaching health consequences, coupled with a growing understanding of the shared features of addiction across its myriad forms, have prompted some scientists to explore the possibility that certain eating behaviors might best be explained through the lens of addiction.

The interest in applying an addiction framework to understanding certain eating behaviors and food-related disorders has grown in recent years. This is a result of a large body of research highlighting the considerable overlap in the characterizing symptoms, risk factors and underlying neurobiological characteristics between substance addiction and what can be thought of as food addiction.  It also arises from an attempt to explore how certain types of addictive-like eating might account for pathology that cannot be explained within the context of the currently recognized eating disorders of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. The growing interest in food addiction is also partially a result of an increasing awareness that lessons learned with regard to policy, prevention and clinical practice in relation to addictive substances might fruitfully be applied to the realm of food addiction. 


In this paper, we review the available research on food addiction, obesity and related eating disorders (especially binge eating disorder) to determine the ways in which they overlap with substance addiction.  We highlight how the knowledge and experience gained from years of research, prevention, intervention and policy related work in tobacco, alcohol and other drug control might be applied to controlling unhealthy eating as well as the food environment, which in many ways contributes to disordered eating, obesity and their deadly and costly health outcomes.  

Recommendations and Conclusions

Individuals suffering from a leading public health problem – overweight and obesity – have faced problems similar to those who suffer from substance addiction, including stigma, shame and tremendous difficulty overcoming a significant threat to their health and well-being. For years, eating disorders and obesity were examined primarily through the lens of individual vulnerability, with prevention and interventions focused on changing how the individual interacts with his or her family and food environment. Lessons learned from substance addiction, specifically the power of certain addictive substances to directly affect an individual’s brain and behavior, have helped launch a new and potentially fruitful paradigm for understanding and addressing certain cases of obesity and eating disorders. The food addiction model, like that of substance addiction, describes the ways in which certain food properties or ingredients can produce addiction in individuals who are susceptible to their effects and who consume them in a manner that induces the addictive process (i.e., eating certain types of highly palatable, calorie-dense, and nutrient-poor food on an intermittent but repeated basis). It allows for an explanation and an intervention strategy for those cases of disordered eating that are not adequately accounted for by existing psychological or medical causes. 

Key highlights of the paper include:

  • Evidence regarding the prevalence of food addiction and its co-occurrence with obesity, binge eating disorder and other health conditions
  • The risk factors, characterizing symptoms and biological mechanisms of food addiction and related disorders and how these overlap with other eating disorders and with substance addiction
  • Recommendations for policy, prevention, health care practice and research, and resources for additional information

As is true of substance addiction, the best approach to addressing the compulsive eating of certain foods that are associated with an increased risk of food addiction and, in some cases, obesity, is a comprehensive one that targets all the domains of influence on an individual’s addictive behavior, including biological and personal influences, as well as social and environmental influences.  

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