Food Addiction

Food addiction is often misunderstood, but it is a very real and debilitating condition that affects millions of people around the world. Unlike simply enjoying food or having a big appetite, food addiction is a complete loss of control over eating habits, trapping you in a cycle of excessive, unhealthy consumption. It is important to understand that food addiction is not a sign of greed or lack of willpower; it is a complex issue with deep psychological and physiological roots.

What is food addiction?

Food addiction is a condition which causes the compulsive eating of certain foods – often those high in sugar, fat or salt – despite knowing the negative consequences and often experiencing feelings of guilt or shame afterwards.

Food addiction involves a pattern of behaviour where the brain’s reward system is hijacked by these foods, much like how drugs or alcohol can affect brain chemistry. It is a common form of behavioural addiction that can develop over time as people use food as a way to cope with stress, emotional pain or other underlying issues.
Consuming highly palatable foods triggers the release of dopamine, the “feel-good chemical.” This creates a cycle where the person feels a temporary high followed by a crash, leading to more of the same foods being eaten to regain that feeling.

Psychologically, food addiction often begins with using food as a comfort or reward. For example, some people may reach for a tub of ice cream after a stressful day. Over time, this can become a habit, with the brain associating certain foods with pleasure and relief. This leads to cravings and a compulsive need to eat these foods even when not hungry.

Food addiction in the UK

Food addiction is a growing concern in the United Kingdom, mirroring trends seen around the globe. While the exact number of people addicted in the UK is hard to measure, multi-country studies have found that 14% of adults and 12% of children are likely to be addicted to ultra-processed foods. Unfortunately, food addiction often goes unreported and undiagnosed as it is still a relatively new medical concept. It is likely, however, that some people who struggle chronically with obesity and other weight issues may be addicted to food.

The signs and symptoms of food addiction

Identifying the signs and symptoms of addiction early is crucial for getting food addiction help. This isn’t always easy because everyone has different eating habits, and overeating is generally not seen as a big issue. If you are worried about yourself or someone you know, here are ten key signs that may point to food addiction:

  • Craving certain foods, even when you’re not hungry
  • Finding it hard to stop eating once you start, even if you promised yourself you’d only have a little
  • Hiding food or sneaking snacks when no one is looking because you feel embarrassed
  • Continuing to eat even when you’re already full
  • Feeling bad about yourself after eating, especially if you have overeaten
  • Using food to cope with stress, sadness, boredom or other emotions.
  • Skipping out on activities with friends or family because you’d rather stay home and eat
  • Letting things like work, school or household chores suffer because you’re preoccupied with food
  • Dealing with headaches, tiredness or stomach issues because of overeating certain foods
  • Trying to cut down or stop eating certain foods but not being able to stick with it

The underlying causes of food addiction

Several factors can increase the risk of developing food addiction, and they often intertwine to make the issue more complex:

Emotional factors
As explained above, many people turn to food for comfort when feeling stressed, sad or bored. This emotional eating can become a habit and lead to food addiction over time.
Biological factors
If you have a family history of addiction, you may be more prone to developing food-related issues. This is thought to be partly because of genetically inherited genetic reward systems, which means you respond more strongly to the dopamine that eating produces.
Environmental factors
Being surrounded by unhealthy food options can make it hard to avoid temptation. This means that if you are constantly exposed to advertisements for junk food or live in an area where fast food is readily available, it can be challenging to eat healthily.
Dieting and restriction
Ironically, trying to diet or restrict food intake can sometimes backfire. Strict diets can lead to feelings of deprivation, which may cause you to become obsessed with eating “forbidden” foods.
Stress and lifestyle
High levels of stress and a busy lifestyle can contribute to food addiction, as when you’re overwhelmed, you may not have time to prepare healthy meals and turn to convenient foods instead.
Psychological issues
Conditions like depression, anxiety or trauma can increase the risk of food addiction, as food can be used as a way to cope with these feelings.

The dangers of food addiction

Food addiction can have serious consequences that affect your physical health and mental well-being and show why seeking professional eating food addiction help is so important:

Physical health dangers

  • Weight gain and obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Digestive problems like acid reflux, bloating and constipation
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Increased risk of heart disease, strokes and heart attacks

Mental health dangers

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Isolation
  • Self-harming and suicidal thoughts

Life impacts

  • Strained relationships with family and friends
  • Problems at work and school
  • Financial strain due to buying large amounts of expensive, unhealthy food

If you recognise these effects in your life, it is a sign that you may need food addiction treatment to help you regain control.

What food addiction treatment is available?

The UK has various options for food addiction treatment available to anyone who needs help. The most effective treatment combines detox to help you break the consumption-reward cycle, rehab treatment to work through the underlying causes such as stress and trauma and ongoing support to help you stay on track.

There may also be a nutritional element to help you develop healthier eating habits and address any deficiencies. Food addiction treatment can be provided both on an inpatient and outpatient basis, with more serious food addictions usually benefitting from inpatient treatment.

Get food addiction help today

If you are struggling with food addiction, reaching out for help is the first and most courageous step. We can assist you in getting food addiction help by connecting you with a specialist treatment centre for self-referral. We have close ties to many centres up and down the UK that can provide you with the support, tools and education you need to overcome food addiction and plan a whole new life. Don’t wait another second – reach out to us today, and we will set you on the course to renewed health and well-being.

Get Confidential Help Now

Call our admissions line 24 hours a day to get help.


Are there different kinds of food addiction?
Food addiction can manifest in different ways depending on which foods you become addicted to. Some people might be addicted to sugary foods, while others crave fatty or salty snacks. However, the common thread is that these foods trigger a powerful reward response in the brain, leading to compulsive eating behaviours and an uncontrollable addiction.
Is food addiction an eating disorder?
Food addiction shares many similarities with eating disorders, but they are not exactly the same. Eating disorders like binge eating disorder, bulimia, or anorexia involve specific patterns of behaviour and attitudes toward food and body image. Food addiction, on the other hand, is primarily about the compulsive consumption of certain foods despite negative consequences. Both conditions require professional treatment and support to help you regain control over your eating habits and improve your overall well-being.

(Click here to see works cited)

  • Goodman, Brenda. “Food Addiction Signs and Treatments.” WebMD, 15 March 2023, Accessed 19 May 2024.
  • Gunnars, Kris, and Timothy J. Legg. “8 Common Symptoms of Food Addiction.” Healthline, 11 November 2019, Accessed 19 May 2024.
  • UK Addiction Treatment Centres. “Food Addiction Rehab: Overcoming Food Dependency | UKAT.” UK Addiction Treatment Centres, 8 January 2024, Accessed 19 May 2024.
  • Gearhardt, Ashley N et al. “Social, clinical, and policy implications of ultra-processed food addiction.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 383 e075354. 9 Oct. 2023, doi:10.1136/bmj-2023-075354
  • Parylak, Sarah L., et al. “The Dark Side of Food Addiction.” Physiology & Behavior, vol. 104, no. 1, 2011, p. 149, Accessed 19 May 2024.