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September 2nd, 2011
08:43 AM ET

What can I do for food addiction?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Question asked by RK of California:

Hi, Dr. Melina. I read your response to a question a few weeks ago, and I don't think I have an eating disorder, but I feel like I'm addicted to food. Is there anything that I can do? I'm desperate to lose weight.

Expert answer

Hi, RK. I actually hear this quite a bit from my patients. Food addiction is being increasingly recognized as a real condition that has similarities to binge eating but also has unique features.

Research in both humans and animals shows that excess food consumption and dependence on other types of substances, including drugs, alcohol and nicotine, share common changes in brain chemistry as well as similar behavioral features including loss of control and continued use despite awareness of the negative consequences.

Unfortunately, unlike other abused substances, food is necessary to survive.

Modern foods, which are often highly processed, high-fat, high-sugar and contain a variety of flavors and textures to improve taste and the eating experience, are even more potent in activating reinforcing and addictive-like behavior, which may be one of the factors contributing to the obesity epidemic we are experiencing.

According to Ashley Gearhardt, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at Yale University who was involved in the creation of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, many foods in the modern era are "engineered to hijack the brain." The earlier use of these foods leads to a worse outcome, she says, so kids are particularly at risk to the addictive properties of food at an early age, which may result in obesity in many.

As far as treatment, modern approaches to addiction like cognitive behavioral therapy and 12-step programs may be necessary, particularly if you exhibit any of the following behaviors several times per week or more:

1. I find myself consuming foods even though I am no longer hungry.

2. I worry about cutting down on certain foods.

3. I feel sluggish or fatigued from overeating.

4. I have spent time dealing with negative feelings from overeating certain foods, instead of spending time in important activities such as time with family, friends, work or recreation.

5. I have had physical withdrawal symptoms such as agitation and anxiety when I cut down on certain foods (not including caffeinated drinks).

6. My behavior with respect to food and eating causes me significant distress.

7. Issues related to food and eating decrease my ability to function effectively (daily routine, job, school, social or family activities, health difficulties).

... and in the past 12 months:

8. I kept consuming the same types of food despite significant emotional and/or physical problems related to my eating.

9. Eating the same amount of food does not reduce negative emotions or increase pleasurable feelings the way it used to.

(Abbreviated Yale Food Addiction Scale, courtesy of A. Gearhardt)

If therapy is not an option, here are three tips that may help you overcome eating addiction.

1. Never let yourself get too hungry. I emphasize this constantly with my patients. It is important to control the physical aspect of hunger throughout the day to give you more control over the mental/emotional aspect. (Eating regularly and consuming protein, fiber and high-water foods are important for controlling hunger.)

2. Limit food cues that lead to overeating. This includes emotional and environmental: If I'm hungry, I skip Starbucks as I hate to stare at those delicious-looking pastries for five minutes while waiting in line. If you are feeling lonely, and this usually leads to the gallon of ice cream in your refrigerator, work on developing different responses to loneliness (go to the mall, take a bubble bath, call your best friend).

3. Try to eat a nutrient-dense diet that is low in sugar, saturated fat and processed foods. If you go out to eat often, stay away from items that have multisensory fat, salt and sugar flavor combinations, and try to keep your order as simple as possible.

It is very challenging to overcome food addiction in our environment, which has almost unlimited amounts of tasty food, no matter where you turn. But with commitment and support, I think it is possible for many.

Got a question for our experts? Submit it here and make sure to follow Dr. Melina Jampolis on Twitter.


soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. BB

    Firsty...

    September 2, 2011 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anna

      Scientist in Europe showed that almost ALL food addiction is
      1. Rooted in prior abuses,emotional, childhood,mental abuses,depression..etc

      2. Dieting does not stop a food addiction

      3. You can reverse a food addiction on your own when you address the underlying causes. IT WORKS

      Just google FOOD ADDICTIONS WORDPRESS

      September 28, 2012 at 10:23 | Report abuse |
  2. Barton K. Hawkins

    The recovery community is all-pervasive, indeed!

    The very ideas presented in this article – 12 step programs might be needed for food "addiction," – are bogus nonsense, spurred along by would-be practicioners who find PROFIT in every single entry added to the DSM....

    Witness behavioral problems being labeled as "disease states," such as "maladjustment disorder,:" or "inattention disorder," which merit myriad therapies and no particular solutions.

    Sorry, I'll pin both my docorates on this: food "addiction," is a non-problem, and to the extent that it becomes one, this is the fault of overzealous purveyors of the psychological "art."

    September 2, 2011 at 12:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Non-Food-Addict

      Double Dr Hawkins, you say food addiction is a non-problem. What should we call it when I find myself overeating to the point of distress everyday? Is my distress a non-problem? Is this simply a lack of will? Am I stupid? Please enlighten us. Sorry if I sound snarky. I'm sincerely hoping for helpful info.

      September 2, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse |
    • Barton K. Hawkins

      You aren't stupid; you are engaging in a pica – in this case, a pica for ordinary foodstuffs (perfectly analogous to those who engage in other maladaptive behaviors).

      Your behavior – in this case, as you say, overeating to the point of distress – is maladaptive, not addictive.

      Addiction is characterized by specific responses – namely dopamine release – in brain, resulting in ever-increasing cycles of "abuse," top achieve the same physiological response (a dopamine release resulting in equivalent euphoria or other feelings of well-being).

      As you are eating to the point of distress, that addiction "loop," is not satisfied, and you do NOT suffer from "food addiction." You may (or may not) suffer from other ills, but many of these are downstream effects of overconsumption – not caused by any "addictive," process.

      12-step programs may aide you in garnering feeings of self-worth; other self-esteem; or just plain keep you busy enough that the fridge is not the "go-to" option when you feel discordant.....but "addiction," is not the proper descriptor – or even a useful one – for the syndrome you exhibit.

      There simply is no weaning off food – you must have it to survive – thus a key for you might well be keeping "non-pleasurable" foods in stock...such that you eat enough to live, but not enough to feel the distress you mention.

      Buying in to cargo cult science – as espoused by this supposed expert – may help you....but it will certainly expose you to the danger of believing you are "sick," or "broken," when in fact you are not. This cycle of dependency is what you should desperately seek to avoid.

      September 2, 2011 at 14:05 | Report abuse |
    • Non-Food-Addict

      Thanx for the response, it was helpful. This may not be true addiction, but engaging in this maladaption certainly provides a high stronger than I ever got smoking pot.

      September 2, 2011 at 14:21 | Report abuse |
  3. Russel Jeffords

    Just what, precisely, is "Dr." Jampolis a doctor OF?

    She is trying to fit into the wonderful "Dr." Phil mode (as seems to be common nowdays)....but if her degree is in nutrition, she has NO credibility discussing psychological "issues," (or in this case, NON-issues)....

    If she holds a doc in psych, she has no business discussing food & nutrition.....

    Leave all of this to the individuals who have performed dedicated research in the field, rather than discussing pseudo-psychological blather dedicated ONLY to enhancing the revenue "Dr." Jampolis may bring in.

    September 2, 2011 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Marc Janus

    Are you a physician? A nutritionist? A psychologist? What?

    Most MD's have little training in either of the two referenced here, and the very idea of "food addiction," would make most reputatble MD's cringe.

    And what's with the doc phil – like moniker?

    Aiming for the public eye via a man in a rumpled brown suit – rather than the white coat you might have earned – seems.....umseemly.....indeed!

    September 2, 2011 at 12:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. T G

    Why don't you folks actually look at her credentials before spouting off. She is a PHYSICIAN – a MEDICAL DOCTOR, specialized in Internal Medicine, graduated from Tufts Medical School and her specialty is nutrition.

    Geeesh.

    September 2, 2011 at 12:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Barton K. Hawkins

      Which is exactly why she shouldn't be discussing addiction – to food or anything else – as if she were an expert. She is not.

      September 2, 2011 at 14:07 | Report abuse |
  6. Bobby

    Donate money to fight Hunger.. You help others by helping yourself!!

    September 2, 2011 at 14:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Skegeeace

    Here come the hateful, judemental comments about fat people...

    September 2, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rachid

      Buprenorphine Addiction Dot Net welcomes you to place cmmneots on the topic of Buprenorphine and Buprenorphine Addiction or any other kind of drug, addiction, or drug addiction issue. We look forward to your cmmneots

      April 14, 2012 at 12:06 | Report abuse |
  8. BethTX

    My degree is in business and not medicine, nutrition, etc, but I can say that the business of diets and self-help is booming and recession-proof. While I have little information to comment on the science involved with food addiction, I can say that I'm glad to see the psychological aspects of obesity addressed so that maybe some money will be taken out of the diet industry's pocket. It's the biggest marketing scam in the history of the world and it just keeps growing.

    September 2, 2011 at 17:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Adriana

      You have composed an iilerdnbcy thought-provoking article. Your content speaks to me and I share in your views. numerous writers don't write original material, but you have truly achieved a excellent duty with this information.

      April 9, 2012 at 01:26 | Report abuse |
    • Budeqarax

      ma'm can you please ask anruod in Bangladesh whats the english name for Beliti dhone pata? i grew up having beleti dhone pata in diffrent macher torkari cooked by my mom. & just after reading this i have a craving for it!! I think You r an awesome cook. the way u introduce the food first makes the recipe more attractive.I would really appreciate if u could provide the english name for it. Thank u in advance & may u live long & provide us "probashi's" sch wonderful recipes for a looong time!!

      April 14, 2012 at 15:55 | Report abuse |
  9. Jen

    Millions of people with food addiction have recovered and are recovering through Overeaters Anonymous. If interested, check out our Web site at O A (dot) org . OA is a self-funded organization that refuses outside donations.

    September 2, 2011 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Big Boy

      And one that is supposed to rely on anonymity at the level of press radio and film, per the Traditions.

      Shame on you Jen!

      BTW. even OA does NOT state food addiction "exists," merely that individuals can become "powerless over food."

      Addiction is a CHEMICAL process, and food CANNOT cause it.

      Period.

      September 2, 2011 at 18:06 | Report abuse |
    • Jen

      Remaining anonymous at the level of press, radio, and public media doesn't mean never mentioning OA's existence in a public forum. It does mean we don't use our last names or identifying information. Which I didn't, so I'm wondering why you felt the need to jump down my throat. Please explain.

      As for whether or not food addiction exists - we can agree to disagree. I've heard people refer to themselves as food addicts in meetings many, many times. I've also heard that brain scans and MRIs of people with a predisposition to become obese show that their brains react to sugar the same way they react to cocaine. That sounds like a symptom of addiction to me.

      September 24, 2011 at 22:43 | Report abuse |
  10. Jelly

    Actually, there is increasing evidence that food addiction or whatever you want to call it when one cannot stop eating food despite feeling full, DOES have a biological basis. There are plenty of studies citing the hormone ghrelin, produced in one part of the stomach, as having a key role in obesity and food addiction. In research studies involving humans and rats, ghrelin has been found to play an important part in those brain systems which make certain behaviors rewarding and predispose people to developing addictions. Addictions to sweet foods and alcohol were both found to be associated with increased levels of ghrelin. Consumption of alcohol and sugary food is associated with the activation of ghrelin receptors in parts of the brain such as the hippocampus. This is thought to trigger chemical processes which are experienced as rewarding by the individual. When researchers used antagonists to block ghrelin receptors, they found that levels of consumption of alcohol and sweet foods decreased.

    September 2, 2011 at 21:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Lisa

    Jelly, I appreciate that information.

    September 2, 2011 at 22:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Smarter Human

    Every time I eat a Big Mac, I have an orgasm. Is I normal?

    September 2, 2011 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Morfy

      Perhaps more study is warranted, on a more... perrrrrsonal level. :D

      September 4, 2011 at 13:27 | Report abuse |
    • UseYourBrain

      Thank you for that post, Smarter Human; I needed the laugh! ;-)

      December 27, 2011 at 19:35 | Report abuse |
    • Radhika

      Clonazepam Abuse Dot Com welcomes you to place mctmenos on the topic of Clonazepam Abuse and other related drug abuse and drug addiction topics, but we do not accept comment spam. We look forward to your mctmenos.

      April 7, 2012 at 22:46 | Report abuse |
  13. ann lopez

    Being someone that has the same problem of wanting to eat when full or not I wanted to share something I found to help.I read about l-glutamine helping with carb and sugar cravings and many other issues.Desided to try it taking 1 1,000 pill 3 times a day.Can not tell you how this has helped me.It's short of a miracle that it has helped break a eating cycle I've had for years.Suggest anyone to read about l-glutamine before you try it but its certainly helped me.

    September 3, 2011 at 06:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Julie

    Four years ago I sought a doctor's help when I finally realized I had binge-eating disorder (look it up on the Mayo Clinic website). Eating was controlling and ruining my life. I ballooned to 233 lbs. and was barely able to squeeze into a size 18. I avoided weddings and reunions and would eat before going out to eat with friends or family so they wouldn't know how much it took to satisfy me. The doctor put me on Wellbutrin, which is normally used for smoking cessation. It took several weeks before I realized it, but I had stopped thinking about food. Where I used to wake up planning my day's food intake, I instead found myself making dinner for my family without even tasting it. Wellbutrin did the trick for me and over the course of two years, I peeled off 85 lbs. I look and feel so much better. I'm not afraid to run into old acquaintances anymore. In fact, I enjoy it now; most people don't even recognize me. Food addiction is real and it is debilitating. Don't try to dismiss people with this issue as fatties looking for an excuse.

    September 3, 2011 at 10:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. NV

    Food ingestion is not only to meet nutritional needs (energy homeostasis), it can be modulated by pleasure and responses to stress. Eating is a highly reinforcing behavior. In fact, some ingredients in palatable food (i.e. sugar) are compulsively consumed, and this loss of control over food intake is similar to what is observed with compulsive consumption of substances of abuse. Ingestion of sugar induces brain release of opioids and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters traditionally associated with the rewarding effects of drugs of abuse. In certain conditions, animal can display behavioral and neurochemical changes that resemble those observed in animal models of drug dependence.

    http://www.bnl.gov/medical/RCIBI/Research/obesity.asp

    September 3, 2011 at 21:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Evan

    My observation is that #1 on the article list of red flags more likely goes something like, " I find myself consuming foods because I'm always hungry."

    Case in point: A fat man that had to be lifted by a cargo helicopter from a makeshift hole in the roof of his apartment building (fortunately he lived on the top floor) consumed several dozen fried eggs EACH MORNING because he was "really hungry." He stopped at about 3-4 dozen eggs when "he felt full."

    Grossout? Ya, but it flies in the face of the food addiction theory in the #1 item on your list of red flags.

    September 4, 2011 at 01:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Xenia

    CNN, why do you reject my comments? I'm trying to help obese people.

    September 4, 2011 at 03:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Morfy

      Yeah, I've seen the way people try to "help" obese people in the comments of articles. The innocent act is cute.

      September 4, 2011 at 13:29 | Report abuse |
  18. drsolo

    If you can get off sugars and processed carbs for 2 weeks, the craving begins to go away. I got off sugars and carbs in the morning since that seemed to fuel a craving to put food in my mouth all day long, no matter how full I actually was. But I didnt actually lose weight until I got off of all of them and cleaned them out of the house.

    September 4, 2011 at 09:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Teri

    "I don't think I have an eating disorder but I am addicted to food?" What is an eating disorder...

    September 4, 2011 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Auth

      Ma'm, I'm new in cooking elbgani food for my husband & as im living in australia, mostly i call my mom back in Bangladesh for any kind of recipes,instructions. but as im a born hindu married to a christian (Foriegner who seems to love the bangladeshi cooking style!!), my mom cant help me out with beef recipes (Not that she knows i cook beef at home haha) anyway i was looking online for a beef liver bhuna recipe for the last 3 hours & only now I found ur blog & I have a feeling this will b very helpful! thank u so mch for blogging these wonderful recipes here & a special thanks to ur children who help u put these recipes on ur blog.Best wishes,R

      April 9, 2012 at 04:20 | Report abuse |
    • Andressa

      apa ami ei pithati aj kerhcoi.apnar deoya recipe motoi kintu pithar vitore olpo matro sira dhukeche,pitha sokto hoye ache.keno emon holo?apni banale ki pura ros dhuke?sirate ktokhon rakhte hobe apa?doya kore ektu bolle onek upkreto hotam.

      April 14, 2012 at 13:03 | Report abuse |
  20. keef

    I have the cure for 'food addiction'. it is a well kept secret and you won't need $200 an hour for therapy. I am giving it to you for free:

    SELF CONTROL.

    you're welcome.

    September 4, 2011 at 17:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Friend of Bill

    Food cannot induce the release of dopamine – on what planet is that true? Certainly not this one. Addiction to overeating is real and the only thing that helped me was a 12-step program. I'm down 150 lbs. but the real miracle is how my life has changed since giving up my addiction. If you think you might have a problem, listen to those of us who have had a problem and finally found help – give OA a try and see if it is for you.

    September 5, 2011 at 00:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. AVAmom

    Overeaters Anonymous helps with those who feel out of control with their eating, who have tried everything else and failed, and who want to find a community of accepting people to help.

    September 5, 2011 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Light

    Several years ago, after decades of compulsively eating sweets and salty and fatty foods when feeling stress, a friend mentioned that committing to a raw food way of eating had released her from such behavior. Although I was disciplined and successful in the rest of my life, I could not bring the same skills to compulsive food habits (even when I attended Overeaters Anonymous).

    Given that I was feeling somewhat desperate and hopeless as I witnessed the worsening condition, I enrolled in a month-long online raw food seminar that mentioned the possibility of transforming one's life. (Never a fan of cooked vegetables, I had previously taken a local raw foods class, so I knew how tasty raw food could be, especially with the use of a dehydrator and high-speed blender.) Long story short, after four months of eating mostly raw foods, my food sensitivities were gone and I was free from the horrible and controlling addiction. I had my freedom back. Perhaps elements from the unhealthy food I had eaten all those years were no longer present and causing unwanted cravings and compulsive food consumption. Whatever the reason, I was thankful.

    Today, I don't consistently eat significant amounts of raw food, but continue to live with freedom from addiction. Since starting the raw foods experiment, I have not returned to consuming the foods that seemingly controlled me. Organic granny smith apple slices—something to which I had previously been allergic–topped with finely ground unroasted almonds, for example, very nicely took the place of unhealthy alternatives.

    For all who are currently struggling with this issue; I wish you self-understanding, self-acceptance, freedom, joy, and peace. For all who don't experience this particular struggle, I wish you the same things in addition to compassion for and non-judging of those who do.

    September 5, 2011 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. FA MediaWatch

    Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) is a Twelve Step recovery program offering a solution for anyone suffering from any form of food addiction including overeating, bulimia, under-eating, or food obsession.

    FA has over 350 meetings throughout the United States in large and small cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Charlotte, Grand Rapids, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Austin, and Washington, D.C. Internationally, FA currently has groups in England, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Australia.

    If you would like more information about FA, please visit our website.

    September 9, 2011 at 00:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Greg

    You're not addicted to all food, most likely you're addicted to wheat. Grab a copy of the book 'Wheat Belly' and get off the grains.

    September 12, 2011 at 01:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Tracey

    I completely believe that it is addiction. i was on Chantix for quiting smoking and what Chantix does is it blocks the 'pleasure' sensors in your brain. While I was taking it, I actually lost weight because I wasn't feeding the pleasure parts of my brain with food. I ddn't think about it until I got off the Chantix. I have remained smoke-free, but I have noticed that food now takes on a large part of gratification that I used to get with smoking. I also didn't want to drink alcohol either while on it. A very interesting concept. Now that I'm aware of it, I stop myself from eating just to get a quick fix. Some people are the eat to live or live to eat type of people and I don't think that this would affect someone that eats to live. I, on the other hand, am unfortunately a live to eat type of individual. I wish more research would be done in this.

    September 13, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Shauna*

    Hi, I'm a fat pig, who's gotten fatter and fatter since my ex husband left my fat ass...I can't stop eating and getting my gut fatter and fatter. I will do anything to lose this weight on my fat ass so that there's a possibility my ex husband will take my hippo ass back. Please help.

    May 7, 2014 at 17:22 | Report abuse | Reply

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