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Eating Addiction

Can Food Be Addictive?

Eating Addiction - Can Food Be Addictive

There was a time when the thought of being addicted to eating seemed impossible. Is anyone addicted to breathing? Can you become addicted to drinking water?

There was a consensus among the packaged food industry that food could not be addictive, because consuming it is essential for life. This consensus was backed by scientists and lobbyists who labored to keep foods from being labeled as potentially addictive.

So what’s causing so many people around the world to overeat? What is behind an epidemic of obesity built up by an inability to resist fattening foods? The first crack in the food addiction defense came with the recognition that highly palatable foods do, in fact, act on the body the same way drugs do. Pathways of pleasure can quickly grow into tentacles of addiction.

Certain foods, like certain drugs, will trigger a dopamine rush in the brain and this rush can quickly turn into a compulsion to repeat the experience. What causes the need for a stimulus in the first place? The food by itself, like the drug by itself, is completely harmless. The user knows that consuming it will lead to negative consequences. However, there is something in the life of the compulsive user they are trying to soothe with the dangerous substance. What is it?

It is stress. Stressful situations are what cause teenagers to over-consume unhealthy foods. School, family, friends, classmates – teenagers run a gauntlet of stressful situations every day. They turn to food because when they are enjoying tasty, creamy, flavor-packed foods they feel momentary relief from stress. When they see how much they have eaten, it stresses them out and they eat more to relieve the stress. This process is called “displacement.”

Displacement is the shifting of the stress caused by an uncomfortable situation into some soothing motor movement. Grooming the hair can displace stress; pulling out one’s hair can be a dangerous compulsion. Jogging can displace stress; compulsive jogging can have serious health consequences. A significant therapy for eating addiction is to learn to displace stress through non-harmful activities, such as deep breathing and exercise.

For more scientific insight into the displacement mechanism and its role in eating addiction, please see the paper by Robert Pretlow and Suzette Glasner entitled, “Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,” in the journal, Eating and Weight Disorders.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. Published November 15, 2023.


“Can Food be Addictive? Public Health and Policy Implications,” in Addiction, 2011 Jul; 106(7): 1208–1212.

“Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,” in Eating and Weight Disorders, 2022 Oct;27(7):2897-2903.

Image Copyright: teen00000. Used with permission.



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