What causes food addiction?

There can be multiple causes - difficulties with emotional regulation, loss or trauma, history of an eating disorder, certain societal or familial attitudes around food. Our society all but sets people up for challenges like "food addiction" - or the inability to control food, thinking about it often, and experiencing health problems as a result. Because there is no singular "cause" psychological and medical treatment has to hit this issue from differing angles depending on the individual.

Howard J. Shaffer, PhD
Addiction Medicine
A growing body of research supports the idea that food or eating addiction leads to the same neural phenomena that occur with addiction to substances. Obese people tend to have fewer dopamine D2 receptors (a type of dopamine receptor that seems to be particularly important in addiction) in the part of the brain called the striatum than people of normal weight, and the reduced number of receptors is similar to that seen among people struggling with drug addiction. Also, research shows that people who are mildly obese have more D2 receptors compared with people who are more severely obese, which suggests that in people addicted to food, the severity of addiction might be influenced by the number of D2 receptors.

Experts have differing opinions regarding the idea of food addiction. Food addiction is likely caused by a number of factors, including stress level, depression, and emotional eating. When food addicts feel stressed or depressed, they turn to food to give them comfort. Research suggests that food addicts may become addicted because eating releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into their brains. The release of dopamine causes feelings of pleasure, which is the same release that occurs when people use cocaine.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.