Is food addiction a disease?

Food addiction is a chronic disease characterized by a person’s seeking foods the individual is addicted to and for whom use of that food is compulsive, and difficult to control, despite harmful consequences.

Brain changes can occur over time with compulsive eating. This can challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with one’s ability to resist intense urges to eat these foods (sometimes described as cravings.) This is why people who suffer with food addiction can often relapse, even after long periods of successful abstinence.

        • Relapse is the return to eating these foods after an attempt to stop.
        • Relapse indicates the need for more or different treatment.
        • It may also mean that another food is triggering the relapse.

Certain foods such as sugar can affect the brain’s reward circuit by flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. This overstimulation of the reward circuit causes the intensely pleasurable “high” that leads people to consume a particular food or particular foods again and again.

Over time, the brain can adjust to excess dopamine, which reduces the high that the person feels compared to the high felt when first eating these foods—an effect known as “tolerance.” This often results in seeking to eat more of these foods, in an attempt to achieve the previous levels of satisfaction. For a great many people, abstinence is the solution.