Many people find that eating healthy and losing weight is next to impossible for them. Despite best intentions, they repeatedly find themselves in situations where they have eaten a large amount of unhealthy food despite knowing the harm it causes their bodies.
However, the effects of certain foods can actually lead to an addiction.
As obsessive eating is a new term, currently there are not many reliable statistics available that can estimate how common the condition is. However, it is understood that obsessive eating is similar to other eating disorders such as binge eating disorder, compulsive overeating and bulimia which suggests the individual has an unhealthy relationship with consuming food.
The condition involves simply being addicted to unhealthy/junk food, in a similar way to how drug addicts are addicted to drugs. The same areas of the brain are involved, with identical neurotransmitters and presenting symptoms (1).
Many processed, unhealthy junk foods have a strong effect on the ‘rewards’ center in the brain, involving the neurotransmitter dopamine (2). Typically the most problematic foods are the typical junk foods that contain sugar, wheat, or both.
Obsessive eating isn’t actually related to a lack of willpower, in fact, it can be caused by the intense dopamine signal which acts by ‘hijacking’ the biochemistry of the brain (3). Food, just like drugs and alcohol can release the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain (4). This chemical has been related to pleasure and creates a positive link in the mind between food and emotional well-being (4). Now the brain of a food addict, or obsessive eater, will correlate food to feelings of pleasure – even when the body does not require any more calories. A 2010 study gave evidence that obsessive eating is the result of changes in an individual’s neurochemistry and neuroanatomy (5).
An animal study supported these findings by giving lab rats free access to high-fat and high-sugar foods, leading to brain changes in the rats. The behavioral and physiological changes were similar to the changes seen in drug addicts. Although the study authors did caution that drug and food addictions should not be considered the same, there are numerous similarities. The study highlights that there is a possibility that by eating a large amount of unhealthy food you can increase your chances of becoming an obsessive eater (6).
Obsessive eating can present with symptoms of other conditions such as depression, binge eating or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Individuals with the condition may try to hide their problem by eating privately or even attempting to hide food.
Although obsessive eating may be less harmful than addictions to drugs, smoking, or alcohol, the condition can progress gradually and cause health complications. Obsessive eaters may end up suffering from lifelong obesity and related health problems or worsening any existing mental health conditions.
Treatment options for obsessive eating are typically similar to how other addictions are treated. A change of behavior and effectively managing physical cravings are considered key elements and critical towards treating food addiction (8).
For more information on obsessive eating, see our How To Become A Nutrition Adviser page