Addiction and Food: The Reality of Eating Disorders

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 25 to March 3, 2019

Merriam Webster defines addiction as “a persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.” Upon hearing the word “addiction,” most people associate it with dependencies such as drug and alcohol addiction. But did you know that common addictions actually extend beyond these substances?

A substance doesn’t need to be overtly harmful to result in addictive behavior, and even an essential component of life can turn into an unhealthy obsession or dependence. What we commonly refer to as “eating disorders” are, in fact, a food addiction.

History of Food Addiction

While drug and alcohol addictions affect 23.5 million Americans, recent studies show that approximately eight million people struggle with food addiction.

While the categorization of “food addiction” may seem relatively modern, research on food addiction actually dates back to 1890 when chocolate was mentioned as an addictive substance alongside information on drug dependence.

In the 1950s, the term “food addiction” was coined and Overeaters Anonymous was founded in 1960. Despite these early developments, knowledge about food addiction grew very little throughout the 60s and 70s, and the concept of overeating was primarily discussed in self-help groups, rather than in psychology journals and research studies.

In the 1980s, food restriction disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa garnered attention, and it was during this time that the striking similarities between eating disorders and drug addiction became apparent.

Research findings revealed that those struggling with anorexia were physically dependent on the effects of starvation. Over time, their bodies developed a tolerance and less food consumption was required to achieve the same results. And much like drug detox, when those suffering from anorexia began eating again, many experienced specific “withdrawal” symptoms.

In addition to these findings, studies on bulimia performed during the 80s showed elevated scores in addictive personality.

In the years that followed, the concept of addiction in regards to food was heavily researched and often raised debates between experts. Patterns continued to arise between drug addiction and food addiction, such as loss of control, preoccupation with the used substance, substance use to cope with negative feelings, and secrecy about addictive behavior despite its harmful effects.

With the knowledge that has been acquired since the term “food addiction” first came to be, psychologists and researchers have broken down this general condition into subcategorized disorders that we commonly refer to as specific eating disorders.

Subcategories of Food Addiction

Food addiction and eating disorders take on a variety of forms and look different from individual to individual. While the below categorizations have been universally recognized by mental health professionals, there are many atypical cases that will not fall under these categories, as well as some smaller subcategories.

  • Anorexia: starvation and severe weight loss
  • Bulimia: eating and purging for weight loss
  • Binge Eating Disorder: compulsive overeating with uncontrolled purging
  • Compulsive Eating: uncontrolled overeating without purging

Why This Matters to Us

Food addiction often leads to substance addiction. In fact, people struggling with food addiction are five times more likely to develop drug and alcohol dependence than the normal population.

This is partially due to drugs providing relief to the anxiety and depression that often accompany food addiction, but also because alcohol and many prescription & over-the-counter drugs are commonly used as appetite suppressants and purging aids.

On the flip side, substance addiction may lead to food addiction as a coping mechanism for feeling out of control.

Studies show that both of these conditions are often linked to a history of trauma, and that there are shared neurotransmitters involved in food and substance addictions.

Many professionals suppose that a genetic component is responsible for the addictions being transferred across generations as a significant number of people with eating disorders have come from families with at least one alcoholic parent.

At Alo House, we use our knowledge of comorbidity (the presence of two chronic conditions) when assessing each of our clients. As new research emerges, it is critical that mental health professionals tailor their treatment accordingly, and because of this, we offer a dual diagnosis program.

If you are suffering from more than substance addiction, know that there is treatment available for you and that recovery is possible!


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We believe trust, meaningful connections, and kindness are the essentials to beginning a journey in recovery. We are dedicated to providing an honest, authentic, and genuine treatment environment that gives our clients a unique opportunity for healing.

Alo House is LegitScript Certified and a Joint Commission Accredited Addiction Treatment Center.