Looking at Food Addiction Through the Lens of Substance Addiction | Center on Addiction

Looking at Food Addiction Through the Lens of Substance Addiction

Looking at Food Addiction Through the Lens of Substance Addiction


This week, Center on Addiction released a report, Understanding and Addressing Food Addiction: A Science-Based Approach to Policy, Practice and Research, which explores the ways in which our knowledge of the causes, mechanisms and consequences of substance addiction might help to improve our understanding and approach to a critical challenge facing our nation: unhealthy and excessive eating.

The rising obesity epidemic across the nation has encouraged scientists to explore the many ways in which individual vulnerabilities interact with our current food environment to promote excessive and unhealthy eating. As a result, food addiction has emerged as an exciting new field of scientific study, with researchers examining such eating behaviors within the framework of addiction.  

What is food addiction?

As mentioned in a previous blog on The Buzz, food addiction has been defined as a clinically significant physical and psychological dependence on high fat, high sugar and highly palatable foods. Although it is not a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it can be measured and assessed using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a validated instrument based on the diagnostic criteria for substance dependence in the DSM.

While the scientific study of food addiction is relatively new and not without controversy, much has been learned in recent years about this form of unhealthy eating and its relationship to other forms of addictive behavior, binge eating disorder and obesity. There are probably as many reasons why people overeat as there are causes of obesity. Not all overweight people eat in ways that resemble an addictive or eating disorder, and not all people who meet criteria for food addiction are obese. These are complex human conditions that only partly overlap and require tailored interventions. 

The knowledge and experience gained from years of research, prevention, intervention and policy related work in substance use and addiction might be helpful in controlling food addiction and other forms of unhealthy eating, as well as the food environment, which in many ways contributes to such eating and to a host of deadly and costly health outcomes. The addiction framework also might be helpful in addressing the stigma, shame and tremendous difficulty that people with food addiction, obesity and certain eating disorders have managing a significant threat to their health and well-being.

Some key highlights of the report 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

The report is available for download at no cost and can be found on our website at: https://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports



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