How To Overcome Food Addiction: Eating For Strength

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Some people use the term "eating your feelings" to describe using food to cope with challenging emotions. Although eating for comfort rather than nourishment may be familiar, it might not be looked at with as much scrutiny, consideration, or pause as other forms of coping, like substance use or pursuing adrenaline through sports. Despite stigmas or misunderstandings, eating for comfort and eating to cope are potentially dangerous behaviors and could be signs of an eating disorder or addiction to food. 

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Come back stronger than ever from your eating disorder

What defines addiction?

The term "food addiction" is somewhat controversial. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not include food addiction as a mental health condition. The term "addiction" is often exclusively used to describe severe substance use or addictive behavior patterns, like gambling. Several definitions have been put forward, some suggesting that addiction is a repetitive, compulsive urge that the ill effects the person engaging in the behavior.

Under this definition, many behaviors and tendencies qualify as addictions. Not acknowledging the intense and overwhelming reality of working through addiction can make healing and growth difficult. Recognizing that dependency on food can exist may be the first step to finding healing from this challenge.  

What is food addiction?

If addiction is a compulsive, unhealthy behavioral pattern, food addiction is the compulsive and unhealthy use of food. In some cases, food addiction may involve overeating or binge eating; in others, it involves the amount of attention someone puts on their eating habits and behaviors. 

Someone with food addiction may be attracted to unhealthy foods high in fats and sugars or food in general. However, people are more likely to become addicted to hyper-palatable foods

Food addiction is not to be mistaken for pica, a condition characterized by the compulsion to consume non-food items, such as chalk or dirt. Although these could seem to be indications of addiction involving compulsive patterns, pica is often driven by a nutritional deficiency. It is a diagnosable eating disorder, functioning on a level separate from addiction.

Symptoms of food addiction

The symptoms of food addiction are the same as symptoms of addiction, including cravings, shame, irritability, and compulsion. Although feeling hunger is a physiological indication rather than a symptom, feeling hunger only for one type of food in specific situations might be a sign of addiction. Foods high in sugars and fats can incite a high pleasure response in the body and brain. Food addiction is implicated if an individual fits the following symptoms. 


If food cravings do not signal a nutritional need or indicate the presence of hunger and lean toward unhealthy foods, food addiction might be more likely than hunger or frequent urges to eat. 

Consumption without need 

Eating food without feeling hungry can indicate a compulsive pattern because the body is unequipped to routinely take in excess calories and foods low in nutrient density. 

Emotional eating 

If consuming food only occurs when one is sad, overwhelmed, or stressed, it indicates that food is used to numb or cope, rather than consumed for health or survival. In addition, if you eat when you're not hungry to soothe yourself from emotional distress, you might be partaking in a compulsion. 

Shame after eating 

Eating is not a shameful, embarrassing, or inappropriate event; it is normal, natural, and necessary. If eating is accompanied by shame or embarrassment, and it feels impossible to stop eating, you might be living with food addiction or an eating disorder. 

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What causes food addiction? 

Overeating high-sugar and high-fat foods often stimulates the brain's pleasure centers, which can cause an "addictive" response. In these cases, food addiction may be attributed to a cycle of seeking neurotransmitter release. Although food might not carry intense highs, high-sugar and high-fat foods can significantly impact the body and brain. They can cause an increased desire for or reliance on unhealthy foods. Turning to these foods as a coping mechanism can cause psychological and physiological food addiction symptoms.

Like other forms of addiction, food addiction may have underlying roots in feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and trauma, all of which can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including food consumption. These behaviors might be grounded in adverse childhood experiences, poor coping habits, or witnessing the behaviors of others. Food addiction may be treatable regardless of the precise source of this concern. 

How to overcome food addiction: Learning to eat for strength

Food addiction is a unique condition often treated through therapy. Eating disorder therapy, nutritional therapy, and medical evaluation may all play a part role in helping individuals overcome food addiction, as physical and mental symptoms can arise. There are distinct physiological responses that occur when an individual overeats, restricts food, or eats food in response to stress or overwhelm, and working through these patterns may improve the likelihood of recovery. Below are a few ways to challenge your food addiction.

Shift your attitudes about food 

In shifting attitudes about food, food addiction, and behaviors toward food, individuals may understand that food is not a reward or punishment. Withholding food or eating too often can both have harmful impacts. Food is the body's fuel to function daily and is considered a basic human need. Unlike some other substances, food is not illicit or inherently damaging on its own. 

Understand your body 

Learning how food functions in your body, what it takes to eat in a healthy, nourishing way, and what it means to overeat and "punish" yourself with food may help you develop a healthier relationship with it overall. 

Consider your eating habits 

For some people, food is used primarily to alleviate stress. For others, food might be a source of punishment, by eating to the point of feeling ill or shameful. In this case, food addiction may have been born of chronic low self-esteem. Considering why your eating habits have developed may help you identify inciting events that cause you to want to eat more. 

Understand your complex situation  

Learning about your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and pain and pleasure can help you move away from addiction by easing some uncertainty surrounding addiction. Addiction is often developed after trauma, pain, stress, or the diagnosis of a mental illness like anxiety or depression. If you know you're living with a mental health concern, you may be able to treat your eating habits by treating your mental health. 

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Come back stronger than ever from your eating disorder

Speak to a professional 

When working to find a therapist to treat food addiction, try to find someone who understands how this condition can impact individuals and has experience treating eating disorders. Even if you're not living with a diagnosable eating disorder, eating compulsions can have similar patterns. 

There may be therapists in your area who are familiar with or specialize in food addiction treatment. Still, some individuals may struggle to find a provider due to a rural location or a lack of coverage. In these cases, you might benefit from contacting a provider through an online platform like BetterHelp. With an online platform, a therapist can meet with you at a time that meets your schedule, and you can connect from anywhere you have an internet connection. 

Studies have found that online therapy can also be as effective as in-person counseling, if not more. One study found that 71% of participants felt that online therapy was more effective and that 100% felt it was more convenient. Another found that online therapy was more cost-effective


The signs of food addiction can be seen on their own or in conjunction with other conditions, like eating disorders. Overcoming food addiction may not be a straightforward path but a path marked by numerous support options, including but not limited to dietary interventions, lifestyle changes, medical intervention, and therapy. 

If you believe or suspect you or someone you love has a food addiction, recognize how these eating behaviors impact you and make a pact to ask for help. You're not alone, and multiple support options are available.

Healing from eating disorders is possible
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