8 Symptoms of Food Addiction (With Survey Results)

Woman Eating Piece of ChocolateThere are 8 symptoms that are typical for food addicts (or having an “unhealthy relationship with food” if you prefer that).

Last week I ran a survey and asked about each of them.

An e-mail went out to a total of 17.094 individuals and 875 of them answered.

Here is a description of each symptom, along with the results from the survey.

1. Cravings Despite Being Full

It is not uncommon to get cravings, even after eating a fulfilling, nutritious meal.

For example… you’ve just downed a nice meal with steak, potatoes and veggies… then find yourself craving some ice cream for dessert.

You see, cravings and hunger aren’t the same thing. You don’t feel “hungry” … because you just finished a healthy and nutritious meal, but yet there is an urge somewhere in your brain to eat something else.

This is pretty common and doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a problem. Most people get cravings.

But if this happens often and you have real problems controlling yourself, then it may be an indicator of something unnatural going on.

This craving is not about your need for energy or nutrients, it is your brain calling for something that releases dopamine in the reward system of the brain.

Symptom 1

This is obviously very common, below 13% rarely or never experience this.

2. Eat Much More Than You Intended to

What harm is there in having a small slice of chocolate cake?

A little bit ain’t gonna kill you… everything is good in moderation, right?

These are two remarks that we get to hear quite often when we refuse an offering of unhealthy food for one reason or another.

Both of them are valid. One slice isn’t going to do us much harm and if we can eat cake in moderation then it’s probably okay.

But… for some people, there is NO such thing as a bite of chocolate or a single piece of cake. One bite turns into 20 and one slice of cake turns into half a cake.

This is an “all or nothing” phenomenon that is common with addicts of all sorts. There is no such thing as “moderation” – it simply does not work.

Telling a food addict to eat junk food in moderation is kind of like telling an alcoholic to drink beer in moderation… it’s just not possible.

Symptom 2

When giving in to a craving, over 54% eat more than they intended to either frequently or all the time.

3. Eat Until Feeling Excessively “Stuffed”

Let’s say you’ve given into a craving…

Now you start eating, bite after bite, until you feel full (that is, if you weren’t already full when you started… see symptom #1).

But… it doesn’t stop there.

You keep on eating, then you eat some more. When you finally stop, when your “urge” is satisfied, you realize that you have eaten so much that you feel completely stuffed.

Symptom 3

Over 36% eat until feeling excessively stuffed, either frequently or all the time. In some cases, this may be classified as binge eating.

4. Feel Guilty Afterwards, But do it Again Soon

When we do something that we know isn’t “right” – against our values, our principles or decisions we had made in good faith, we often feel bad about it.

This is called “having a guilty conscience” and is common among us human folks. It’s a feeling that is both good and bad.

Good, because it means that we do give a crap. Bad, because it just feels so damn nasty when it happens. It’s a horrible feeling.

For us who are overweight and have been trying to exert “willpower” and control our consumption of unhealthy foods, giving in to a craving can lead to a guilty conscience.

We may feel that we are doing something wrong, cheating on ourselves. We may feel weak and undisciplined.

Yet… we repeat the whole thing over and over again.

Symptom 4

This is apparently very common, only 19% never or rarely repeatedly eat foods that they feel guilty about.

5. Making up Excuses in Your Head

When you have decided to abstain from junk food on a particular day but a craving shows up anyway, you can imagine two forces being at play in your mind.

One of them is the logical, rational decision you had made to abstain from junk food. Perhaps you decided to only cheat on Saturdays.

But the other force is the craving… today is a Wednesday and you feel like having something sweet in the afternoon.

Right now you have an urge to have a piece of food that you had previously decided you weren’t going to eat on this particular day.

The logical decision you made to abstain becomes “challenged” by the new idea… that you should indulge today and eat whatever it is that you are craving.

At these moments, you start “thinking” about whether you should or should not indulge. You may come up with some excuse about why it would be a good idea to give in to the craving and have that piece of food.

Symptom 5

This appears to be very common. 30% do it frequently or all the time, almost 40% can relate to doing it sometimes.

6. Repeated Failures at Setting Rules For Yourself

When people are struggling with self-control in one way or another, they often try to set rules for themselves.

For example… only sleep in on the weekends, always do homework right after school, never drink coffee after 2 pm. Sound familiar?

For most people, myself included, these rules almost always fail.

There are few thing that are as hopeless as setting rules about eating, especially for those who have problems with cravings.

One cheat meal per week… two cheat meals per week… one cheat day, Saturday, where all bets are off… only eat junk food at parties, birthdays and holidays?

I’ve personally tried all of these rules, along with a dozen others.

They failed, every time.

Symptom 6

80% of people have at least some history of failures to set rules about their food consumption. 49% answered frequently or all the time.

7. Hiding Your Consumption From Others

People with a history of rule setting and repeated failures often start hiding their consumption of junk food from others.

They may prefer to eat alone, when no one else is at home, alone in the car or late at night after everyone else has gone to bed.

I used to drive to the store, buy junk food and eat it alone in the car. If I was home alone, I would eat it there… but I made sure to throw away and hide the packaging so that no one would be able to see what I had done.

I felt ashamed of it and I didn’t like the idea of my loved ones realizing how weak I was and what I was doing to myself.

Symptom 7

Apparently this is fairly common. 26% of people do it frequently or all the time and almost 25% of people do it sometimes.

8. Unable to Quit Despite Physical Problems

There is no doubt that the foods we eat do have a significant effect on our health.

In the short term, junk food can lead to weight gain, acne, bad breath, fatigue, poor dental health among other common problems.

But in the long term, after years and years of continued abuse to our bodies, things can start to go really wrong.

A lifetime of junk food consumption can lead to obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia and even some types of cancer.

Someone who experiences any of these physical problems and knows that they are directly related to their consumption of unhealthy foods, but is still unable to change their habits, is in serious trouble.

Symptom 8

Of the 870 individuals who answered this question, 54% (476 people) answered with Agree or Strongly Agree.

If anything, this question here is the most important.

Many people out there KNOW that the junk foods are harming them, but are still unable to control their consumption.

Some More Details on The Survey

Most of the participants were female:

Gender of Participants

However, I checked and the pattern was very similar for males and females.

The age of participants:

Participant Age

I’d like to point out that most of those who participated were looking for weight loss information when they signed up to the mailing list.

This means that the sample may not be quite representative of the general population.

I did not use the word addiction in the survey, but mentioned that the survey was about people’s relationship with food.

If you’re interested, you can download the data here (pdf).

Are You Addicted to Junk Food?

Junk Food

The DSM-IV is a guide used by health professionals to diagnose mental disorders.

If you look at the criteria for substance dependence, you can easily see that many of the 8 symptoms above fit in with medical definitions of addiction.

If you are wondering whether you have a problem with food addiction or not, then you only need to ask yourself this one question:

Have you repeatedly tried to quit eating or cutting back on your consumption of junk food, but you can’t?

If you can relate to that, then sure thing – you do have a problem and you better do something about it.

Whether you are a full-blown “addict” that fits in with medical definitions of addiction doesn’t matter in my opinion.

The key point here is that deep in your heart you want to quit, but you can’t.

38 Comments

  1. I wonder how truly “nutritious” those meals really were because since I gave up grains and sugar, I never have those addictive, eat until overly stuffed feelings when I most assuredly did when I was eating grains and sugar.

  2. Danny Wong says:

    Wow… you laid it out so nice and simple.

    When you break it down into pieces of the puzzle like the 8 symptoms above… you start to realize that each step compounds each other and at the end… you’re an addict when initially you have never even thought about it before!

    I’m definitely an addict.. But I’m glad to say I’m recovering =)

  3. Question: I am addicted to food, I have tried dieting, exercise but still cannot stop eating… it is like a drug… where do you get help? Your doctor will tell you eat right and exercise, but this is an addiction… please help.

    • I’m writing a book about food addiction, it will be out very soon.

      The only thing that worked for me was complete abstinence from added sugars and gluten grains like wheat.

      • Kris, do you use Agave? Or do you ever eat breads like Sprouted Grain Bread? I have noticed since I have “allowed” a slice of even “good” bread…I get headaches more & I crave sweets. This means I need to get rid of it right?

        • Aimee, thank you for your post. I cleaned my cupboard of all wheat, and even if I eat one piece of good bread I go right back to my sweet cravings. I don’t even know what to eat anymore.

      • I am addicted to food too! And I thought I was crazy. If I cheat with one bite of sugar, I eat and eat and eat. I can not stop. It’s crazy. Do you have a website or know where we can go for support?

      • Ladykfair says:

        I totally agree with totally giving up all grains, sugar in any form (except some fruits) and processed food of any kind. After listening to Dr. Robert Lustig’s lecture: Sugar: The Bitter Truth, on U-Tube, recommended by a Pain Management psychologist who flat out said you cannot lose weight eating sugar.

        Unbelievable how our food supply has been utterly compromised in this country? It is poisoning us, literally. I found it necessary to “go cold turkey” in order to try to heal myself from morbid obesity, T2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and extreme, total body pain. The lecture is long and sometimes very technical; however, it opened my eyes about how and why we are addicted to sugar by eating the SAD (standard American diet) all our lives.

        Not our fault we are addicts. It literally did frighten me to action like nothing else ever has in my life.

    • Hi Dora, you can get help from an Overeaters Anonymous group from your community.

    • There is a group called Food Addicts Anonymous.

      http://www.foodaddictsanonymous.org/

      they have face to face meetings, over the phone and online meetings if you think that’s what you need.

    • A few years ago I discovered I was a food addict after undertaking my first intermittent fast. Once the insane cravings went away after a couple hours I felt true hunger for the first time that I could remember in my life.

      That’s when I realized what I called hunger all these years wasn’t true hunger, they were cravings for dopamine and a sign of addiction just like you said. A true revelation.

      I would recommend doing a water fast for a day while trying to listen to and be aware of your body as much as possible. This gives you more insight into yourself that you can use to fight your addiction.

      And for Kris: Thank you so much for all of the effort you put into this website. It’s become an amazing resource and I’ve been sharing it with all of my friends.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Dora,
      I highly recommend the book ‘The Language of Emotions’ by Karla McLaren. I know this might sound like it’s unrelated to food addiction but believe me, it’s related big time.

      Addiction in any form comes from an unwillingness to feel our feelings and look at our emotional pain or trauma (which often stems from childhood). Addictive behaviour is our psyche’s way of attempting to block emotions because we feel they will consume us. The cure is in allowing the emotions to be there, and to move through us as they naturally should.

      Another great author on food addiction is Geneen Roth, I highly recommend all of her books.

      I speak from a decade of food addiction (from which I am in recovery), I tried to heal just on the physiological side of things, but you won’t get too far without tending to the psychological/emotional causes of addiction.

      Hope this helps, all the best.

  4. Dora – I agree completely. I’m well educated but I can’t kick this addiction. I try so hard but I feel so completely helpless. And every day I fail again and again. Are there any good books already out there about addiction to food?

    • Pam brown says:

      Try “Addiction, The Body knows” by Kay Shepherd. Also by her “From The First Bite”. They opened my eyes to my food addiction after years of struggling.

      • Thank you so much for these book references. I just took a look at them on Amazon and they look excellent. Purchasing right away!

        I’ve struggled with food addiction for YEARS and have felt like it was “crazy” to suggest I could be “hooked” on food. I felt like there was “no proof” and so I just suffered with my thought that I knew (I mean I KNEW) I would fall off the wagon with food!

        Doing research led me to Authority Nutrition and finding lower carb eating has saved me. I now consider myself “food sober” but I live in fear of blowing it. Maybe the 12 step approach and these books can help.

  5. Great article Kris. I read all of them and answered this survey, so I was very interested to find out the results. Your analysis of them puts the data into perspective well. Although I consider myself to be mostly healthy and able to control my eating well, I think at times we all go through that period, be it a day or weekend, even the Christmas holiday period when you ‘get on a roll’ of unhealthy eating (processed, sugar, alcohol and junk foods) and once you start eating like this, it is very hard to stop. No wonder people who eat a lot of these kinds of foods feel as thought they are in a cycle and cannot stop, and can feel helpless. Keep up the good work!

  6. Often there is a brain chemistry imbalance underlying the chronic compulsion to eat. Even after 20 years in recovery and a 150 lb weight loss it wasn’t until I addressed the brain chemistry problem that I got freedom from the obsession with food.

    Great article, best compilation of symptoms I’ve seen.

    • Nancy, can you share a bit more about addressing the brain chemistry problem? What did that look like and how was it treated?

      Thanks,
      Christine

    • Yes Nancy, could you please address more about this issue?

      • Brain chemistry imbalances have a number of consequences that lead to compulsive addictive eating. Specific irresistible cravings for sugar highly refined food, increases in depression and anxiety including sensory regulation problems that make emotions feel so physiologically uncomfortable that we use food to tone it down, poor distress tolerance and an increase in fearfulness and social anxiety as well as agitation.

        Distorted perceptions create body image problems, negative reactions to everyday circumstances, difficulty making decisions and sticking to them and unstable energy levels – all these things underlie every addiction.

        It is necessary to treat the symptom, get rid of food that makes the problem worse but also deal with the cause or the symptom will return or shift to another addiction.

        • Nancy, I’ve always figured I had a brain chemistry imbalance but how do I treat it and find out cause?…… I figured it out because I’ve been prescribed medications in the past to help me lose weight and while I was on them I truly felt “normal”….I didn’t have cravings or felt that addiction but I want to try to lose the weight on my own this time but just not sure how to start.

  7. I can’t believe nobody has mentioned Overeaters Anonymous http://www.oa.org/ to those struggling with this problem. OA is like the AA for food addicts. Even if you don’t believe in or wish to follow the 12-step model, meetings still serve as a great free support group for people struggling with the same issue.

  8. I crave potato chips. It’s really hard for me to stop eating them. Other thing which I think I was addicted to was Nutella (chocolate hazelnut spread). But I totally stopped eating it now, and the craving has gone away. I was eating a lot of Nutella but it’s totally off my list now

  9. Nancy Anderson Dolan says:

    There are a variety of ways to test brain chemistry from questionnaires about peripheral signs and symptoms like we use, to blood and urine tests which some medical doctors use that can be helpful but only to reveal a certain level at a certain moment.

    Dr. Amen’s site which is based on PET scans has some simple online free assessments for what type of an eater you are that can be a start to look at symptoms and what supplements can be helpful in relieving them.

    Dr. Joel Robertson has numerous older books out that address the problem in detail.

    WiseHeartWellnessWorldWide.com has treatment using a clinical assessment developed by Dr. Joel Robertson of Robertson Wellness, a global medical software company providing brain chemistry optimization cause of the problems

    • Pinkbella says:

      I stumbled over this page by mistake whilst trying to find low carb menu examples. I can’t tell you how relieved I feel to know that others feel like me. I thought I was going crazy. My obsession with food is out of control. It’s all I think of. I’m moody and teary and hate going out. Im only about 2 stone over weight so not majorly obese (yet) but certainly bigger than I have ever been.

      I am currently on anti depressants too for about 7 years now. Fluoxitine – 20mg. I thought this might have not helped my food cravings. I constantly have to snack and eat to the point of being completely stuffed. Until then I am simply not satisfied. Im too embarrassed to go to the dr’s. I will look at the website you have listed and books too. Any other advise greatly received. Thank you xxxx

      • Fran Free says:

        Pinkbella, it may be worth while checking out the fluoxetine. It may have side effects of weight gain? I was on this drug a few years back and it took away my rational thinking abilities. I spent too much money and never cared about what I ate. It was the beginning of my troubles with food leading to obesity. Now I am on the road to reversing those effects. No doubt it will be a long one.

  10. I used to do all these things. I was totally locked into food addiction. But now I am free… And I am losing weight without trying as I have now totally stopped bingeing. My faith was what turned things around for me.

  11. I came across this article because I had finished eating a salad for lunch- a very fulfilling one and went to store and bought cookies and swedish fish. Ate both… at that point in time I knew I had a problem because this is something I always do after a meal. Plus, I have Oreo cookies (cake batter) hidden in my cabinet – hidden from who?

    I guess my husband but I keep eating the cookies so really they should be hidden from me. I always feel so bad about my indulging and the thought crossed my mind that I might have a problem. I am not sure how I go about correcting this problem so any advice would be greatly appreciated it.

    Also, a lot of the survey questions pertained to me… like pretty much all of them.

  12. I feel totally empathic to all of the comments and 100% related to the symptoms. I’ve been fighting this since I’m 16, with periods of being better but right now I’m the heaviest I have ever been and I feel terrible, I’m afraid of food! I know all there is to know about nutrition but it doesn’t make any difference. Then I also tend to over exercise because I feel so guilty… never ending story :(

  13. I can’t believe this is actually a thing, I figured I was just going crazy. Thank you so much for your simple sentences and the structure of your information, I was sick of all these long paragraphs preaching “keeping a diary, plan meals, just getting up off the couch”, it appears they don’t really understand how serious food addiction is.

    I’m 19 years old and I’ve tried probably more than 30 times (not even exaggerating) to stop eating junk but nothing works, however I’m reading your dot points at the moment and I finally feel that things might actually work out for me finally… so thank you so much.

  14. I agree with Daniella and BC’s comments.

    I, myself, believe that I have very much been going through a food addiction this past 6 months. I’ve been on anti-depressant medications for nearly 18 years now (I’m 48), I admit that I’ve been forgetting to take it everyday, but the constant thoughts of food, eating, needing to feel full – is REALLY bugging me BAD.

    I’m eating yogurt, apples, protein shakes, vegetables; drinking water, milk (low fat, almond, soy), tea – and still want more food/other stuff (particularly sweets, fast food, snacks, etc)… WTH! I am trying so hard to not gain weight / lose some weight / feel good, be happy, and all I can think of is food! Help :(

  15. Naomi Fron says:

    I took the survey and answered yes to all 8 questions! Alcoholism runs in my family and I don’t believe it is inherited, but do think the “tendency” for addiction is there. I did drink at one time but not for 40 years. I am overweight and have lost and gained the equivalent of several people over my lifetime. I do not eat junk food all the time, mostly good stuff, but way too much of it. And always high calorie foods, creamy alfredo, potatoes with butter and sour cream, beef stroganoff, etc.

    When I eat something which I like (which is everything almost) I get a feeling of intense pleasure (the dopamine rush I guess). How do you control this? I have now had a heart attack and know I should eat right, but don’t or can’t.

    Thank you Kris for the articles and thanks to everyone who posted comments. There are several sites I am going to look at and Kris, let us know if you have finished your book on Food Addiction please.
    Thanks.

  16. Hi. I just got into a huge argument with my boyfriend about this. He insists that I need to go to the gym and stop being lazy. I said, how does one eat and overeat and have any form or desire to exercise. I feel irritable, I overeat, I purge, I eat again, my body becomes completely drained and I crash in bed.

    It’s something I’m not proud of and I’m so grateful for this site. He’s given up on me after several attempts to get me physically active and I’ve tried and prayed and obsessed about “skinny mini me” but it hasn’t happened. Please continue to send suggestions, words of encouragement and advice.

  17. I am reading your comments and the article and crying. I just realized that I have a food addiction. I knew something wasn’t right and now I have a name for it.

    Every evening after my laxative tea I promise myself that I will go on a diet in the morning. I pray for strength to be strong. I won’t eat for a bit when I get up and than I’ll eat and eat and eat with a promise that tomorrow I will diet.

    I just had my third baby so I’m carrying some extra weight. I feel like I’m worthless if I’m not skinny. I don’t buy new clothes or if I do I wont wear them because I wait until I lose weight – as if I didn’t deserve them.

    It’s like I’m on a diet everyday but I’m not because I keep over eating. I was chubby as a child and got teased and weight has been a huge issue for me. But I had moments of being skinny or average.

    But now I don’t have the strength to have a normal diet. It’s good to see that I am not the only one with this issue but it’s scaring me.

  18. Gave up smoking 8 years ago, only to discover that I’m now addicted to junk food. Lack of nicotine caused me to crave and eat more cheeseburgers and pizza. I put on 50 lbs as a direct result.

    I have now come to terms with the fact that my addiction to junk food is as real and as serious as my addiction to cigarettes was. In fact my craving for a cheeseburger is as strong as any craving that I had for my smokes.

    I just completed 16 days of the Master Cleanse Lemon Juice detox. I lost 20 lbs in the process and feel great. I no longer have a constant aching back and feet.

    This is day one for me. I will be juicing and eating only whole foods for the next 8 weeks. Of course I’ll be doing more exercise as well. Wish me luck!

    Thank you for this well thought out and designed web site. And you people who left all the wonderful comments above, don’t give up. Because even if you try 1000 times, one day it will stick. That’s how I quit smoking and how I’m gonna beat this too.

    RCbyAIR aka Steve.

  19. I have been athletic and normal most of my life until an accident that put me in a wheelchair for several months. The weight started piling on. Since then it has accumulated until I don’t recognize myself anymore. It has become “emotional eating” for me. I am an addict to food. I first realized this when I started hiding what I was eating. I have nipped that in the bud by confessing to someone, or anyone, which has helped. I no longer hide my eating. However, I do have certain foods that I cannot stop eating… such as Atkins caramel bars. As hard as I try I have to eat the whole box… so I do not have them around me.

    I lost 50 lbs doing Atkins and something happened that caused me to start eating a grain here and there, a bit of sugar, and pretty soon I was back to some of my old habits. I gained most of that weight back over 2 years time, but overall, because of what I had learned I still ate healthier most of the time. I am back on Atkins (it was extremely difficult to give up beans and rice and some of the high carb items considered healthy for “normal” people) though not as regimented. I am not weighing food or counting all carbs on Fitday like I was. I kinda know, but I will start being strict again because I know I have to.

    I am the kind of person that cannot indulge at all… if I do, the cravings come back and I get out of control. I have learned much about myself. Very grateful to the Atkins way of life. I feel great and in control again! BUT, falling off the wagon is only a carb away… and I know that too!

    For me… just one time won’t hurt… cannot be in my vocabulary.

    Good luck to all!

  20. One week without bread, chocolate, chips/crisps and coffee and I was feeling great! Flatter stomach, more energy and satisfied with my meals. The following week I had two concerts and a dinner reservation and I ate whatever was available, 3 weeks later I’m trying to stop binge eating but it’s been impossible so far.

    I do ok through the day and eat pizza chips chocolate of an evening. I feel genuinely upset and know that this is a problem and not just greed. I also hate going anywhere like bars club’s anywhere where I have to dress up or show my arms or legs, so I stay home.

    The few clothes I have I’ve worn for years and cover myself up in frumpy cardigans and scarves. I am hoping tomorrow I can fast and get the sugar / crazy dopamine cravings out my system and get back on track. I wish I didn’t have to avoid certain foods all together but it seems I physically and mentally am controlled by these foods forever more when I allow them in my diet. So frustrating for us all.

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