Are We A Country Of Obsessive Eaters?

Obsessive eating, also known as food addiction is a serious problem and is one of the main reasons why some people are unable to control their cravings.

School Of Nutrition Posted Feb 01, 2018 Future Fit Training

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, effects of certain foods can actually lead to an addiction. 

What is Obsessive Eating?

As obsessive eating is a new term, currently there are not many reliable statistics available which 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 effects on the ‘rewards’ centre in the brain, involving the neurotransmitter dopamine (2). Typically the most problematic foods are the typical junk foods which contain sugar, wheat or both.

What are the causes of Obsessive Eating?

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 behavioural 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.

What are the common signs of obsessive eating? (7);

  • Obsessing over what to eat, when and how much they can eat and how they can get more food
  • Overeating at mealtimes, or eating even when feeling full
  • Consistent snacking, including eating at odd times such as in the middle of the night
  • Associating food with punishments and rewards
  • Using food to accompany pleasurable activities such as when watching TV or using the phone
  • Consistently failing to control eating and binging episodes

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 behaviour 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 


  1. Blumenthal, D.M. and Gold, M.S., 2010. Neurobiology of food addiction. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care13(4), pp.359-365.
  2. Rada, P., Avena, N.M. and Hoebel, B.G., 2005. Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience134(3), pp.737-744.
  3. Avena, N.M., Rada, P. and Hoebel, B.G., 2008. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews32(1), pp.20-39.
  4. Wise, R.A., 2006. Role of brain dopamine in food reward and reinforcement. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences361(1471), pp.1149-1158.
  5. Corsica, J.A. and Pelchat, M.L., 2010. Food addiction: true or false?. Current opinion in gastroenterology26(2), pp.165-169.
  6. Epstein, D.H. and Shaham, Y., 2010. Cheesecake-eating rats and the question of food addiction. Nature neuroscience13(5), pp.529-531.
  7. Gearhardt, A.N., Corbin, W.R. and Brownell, K.D., 2009. Yale Food Addiction Scale. New Haven: Yale Rudd Center for Policy and Obesity.
  8. Dimitrijević, I., Popović, N., Sabljak, V., Škodrić-Trifunović, V. and Dimitrijević, N., 2015. Food addiction-diagnosis and treatment. Psychiatria Danubina27(1), pp.0-106.