The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction

The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction (termed substance dependence) as a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by three or more specific criteria occurring any time in the same 12-month period. The American Society of Addiction Medicine says addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.
Food addiction is not recognized by the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM is a handbook that contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders, used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world.) nor most treatment professionals as a legitimate disorder. That being said, many of the criteria for substance dependence can be seen in food addiction. Tolerance to sugars can increase over time. The food addicted person will usually experience unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control food use. They will go out of their way or spend extra time travelling to obtain the foods they crave. Eating will continue despite knowing it will become detrimental to their lives. Abstaining from certain foods may cause you to crave them more. Those are just a few similarities between food and substance addiction.
While most addictions are to alcohol and drugs, people can become addicted to many substances and behaviors. Gambling, exercise, video games and shopping all rate on lists of addictions, as well as behaviors such as kleptomania and pyromania. One of the easiest addictions to feed seems to be food, as it is our very life source and a daily necessity. We need the fatty acids and vitamins for proper cell growth and in order to build, repair and maintain muscle, blood, skin and bones. But there also comes a point when a simple meal or snack becomes too much. Food addiction is often defined as an unusual or uncontrollable, excessive consumption of food, even when not hungry, despite efforts to stop or control overeating. A nutritious breakfast is a good way to start the day. Eating half a box of Pop Tarts because you can’t control yourself is quite another situation. If someone eats foods without much nutritional value on a regular basis, for an extended period of time, they could experience changes to their brain that will steer them towards more non-nutritious food instead of foods that are good for them. Some researchers suggest that food addiction is more of a biochemical dependency on food. A body may not make enough serotonin on its own, so a person will crave foods that provide a feeling of comfort and happiness. Addiction does not, however, eliminate the capacity for choice.
People can become addicted to food for a number of reasons. Genetics and family history may play a part. If a person has a family history of substance or other addiction, or if there is a family history of psychological disorders, they will likely be more susceptible to experience their own addictions. If a family habitually makes poor eating decisions, the effects on the family members could be longstanding, leading the children to making their own poor choices as adults. Many households use food as a reward system, like Pavlov’s dogs. Good behavior or positive outcomes and a child is rewarded with food, or withheld for the opposite. To quote Pink Floyd, “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?” That type of thinking can become so ingrained that it carries on into adulthood. Stress and trauma have long been associated with addictions. People who have experienced physical or sexual abuse, or other traumas, are more likely to have eating disorders and addictions to foods and substances. .
In many American homes, food is also used as a comfort. Think about it – when there is bad news, or someone is terribly ill, or someone has died, it is normal and customary to bring that person or family food. Usually a casserole or pan of lasagna, or a plate of the bearer’s favorite dessert passes hands along with sorrowful looks meant to comfort. Food makes people feel better, if for no other reason than it’s one less meal the caretaker has to make.
The characteristics of someone’s personality could also increase the likelihood of a food addiction. If a person has low self-esteem or poor self-control, or is often in the presence of someone with a poor relationship with food, the chances of that person developing an addiction to food could be triggered.
Culture can also play a part in food addiction. Fast food restaurants with their drive-thru’s and prepared foods at the grocery store enable food addicts to get their binge favorites quickly and nearly effortlessly.
Another contributing factor to food addiction, and the obesity epidemic in general, is the fact that food is legal, widely available and highly marketed. Almost every time a consumer turns their television on, they will more than likely see an ad for a restaurant, kid’s cereal, potato chips or soda pop. And a majority of those ads are directed towards children. It is no longer adults making decisions in the grocery stores—it is the tiny tots of today who saw the commercial for Paw Patrol fruit snacks. Loaded with sugar and chemicals, the war against obesity carries on.
It is not just chemical-laden, processed foods that are causing us to become overweight. According to the USDA, there is 12 grams of sugar in one cup of 2% milk. In one cup of Tropicana orange juice, there is a shocking 22 grams of sugar. Even in foods that are not processed, there is a certain amount of sugar. One cup of one-half inch cut fresh raw green beans contain 3.26 grams of sugar. One granny smith apple has 16 grams of sugar, and one medium sized banana has 14.4 grams. While the raw fruits and vegetables have a lower overall quantity of sugar, it is still there.
Studies show that some foods affect our brains in the same way as alcohol, nicotine, heroin and cocaine. Chocolate, in particular, releases endorphins into the brain. Those endorphins are known to decrease pain and stress, leading to a happier feeling. There is scientific evidence that shows sugar acting on our bodies as a drug, not a food. Sugar increases endorphins, and flour can affect blood sugar the same way sweeteners do, and be just as addicting. Research shows that a slice of white bread has the same affect on the body as five teaspoons of sugar. Two slices of bread are equivalent to the sugar in a can of soda.