Food Addiction

The Support You Need: How to Treat Food Addiction

September 13, 2021

Food is a vital part of human life. We need it for our bodies to function properly and to maintain human life. However, food is also appealing for various other reasons. It tempts the senses and sometimes serves as a way to dull feelings of emotional pain, sadness or anxiety. Certain foods have effects on the brain that make them difficult to avoid.

Although not discussed with the same frequency as addictions to drugs, alcohol, or nicotine, behavioral addictions related to eating are common reasons teens seek help at treatment facilities like Hillcrest each year. Food addiction is a real illness. It operates similar to other behavioral addictions like gambling or drinking. No matter how hard one may try, they find it impossible to control their eating behaviors around certain foods. This can lead to binging or eating large amounts of often unhealthy foods regardless of the known actual or potential consequences.

What is Food Addiction?

In recent years, the interest in understanding and treating food addictions has grown. As more research into the idea that certain foods have a higher addictive potential has increased, more precise descriptions and assessment techniques have been developed. For example, the Yale Food Addiction Scale was developed to measure addiction-like eating behaviors based on the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders outlined in the fourth and subsequent fifth editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Food addiction does not have specific diagnostic criteria; however, food addictions develop similarly to any other addiction. The brain indicates a desire for certain foods or flavors, and cravings for those foods begin. Cravings could start because you smell a particular food while walking or driving or because you saw a commercial on television. Eventually, cravings become overwhelming, causing your teen to seek out that specific food or a substitute item to satisfy their cravings. Generally, these foods are unhealthy and not nutritious; however, the demand from the brain is so powerful that it overrides any knowledge that foods could be harmful. While some people can manage their cravings, others are not. IN these cases, food addictions develop.

Although discussed in the medical and mental health communities for decades, food addictions are a relatively new diagnostic concept. Currently, there are few high-quality research studies or statistics to help providers understand the prevalence of food addiction among teens or adults.

How do Food Addictions Develop?

The human brain and emotions operate on a reward system. When we do something that brings us pleasure or joy or even something that allows for survival, such as eating, we receive a reward in the form of dopamine release. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for feelings of joy and pleasure. This reward system operates for various reasons, including primal behaviors such as eating. In some cases, such as addictive behaviors, the actions of the behavior (such as taking a drug or drinking alcohol) trick the brain into activating the reward system. This is how many behavioral addictions develop. In the case of food-related addictions, the brain knows we are eating, which is essential to human survival. Therefore, we are doing a “good thing,” even if the food we are eating is not necessarily healthy or nutritious.

As we continue to eat food that we enjoy, the brain interprets the presence of more dopamine as pleasure. Humans are hardwired to seek out joy. Unfortunately, happiness can come in different forms, and in some cases, those forms are not necessarily things that are good for us. When your teen struggles with a food addiction, they will continue to pursue those foods that bring them pleasure to trigger their rewards system.

Unfortunately, like alcohol or drugs, many foods can lead to reward levels higher than what the brain can achieve through whole or nutritious foods.  Put more simply, Oreos or Ben & Jerry’s is far more stimulating than broccoli or carrots. Although these healthy items may trigger a small dopamine release because they are essential for survival, unhealthy food options are far more successful.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Food Addiction

In the absence of diagnostic criteria, diagnosing a food addiction in your teen can be challenging. Therefore, understanding some of the more common (potential) symptoms can help parents or caretakers know what to look for and when they should seek help for their teen.

Like many addictions, the common symptoms of food addiction focus on cravings or an inability to stop eating. Your teen may begin to experience frequent cravings for certain foods even though they just finished a healthy, balanced meal or start to eat craved foods and continue eating far more than intended. They may also make excuses about why satisfying a craving is necessary or a “good idea.”

Your teen may also struggle with controlling eating habits. For example, they may feel guilty about eating craved foods but begin eating the same foods shortly after. Alternatively, they may try to quit (often repeatedly and unsuccessfully) eating certain foods only to cheat and eat them anyway. They may also hide the consumption of craved foods from others.

Food Addiction Can be Dangerous

It is important to note that the term “addiction” is often used to describe a lot of different circumstances. Far too often, it is used in jest or taken lightly. However, a true addiction, regardless of what the addiction is, is a severe medical condition that requires comprehensive treatment at a teen-focused treatment center like Hillcrest to overcome safely and successfully.

Food addictions can lead to significant physical harm in the form of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and stomach and digestive problems. Long-term consumption of unhealthy foods can also lead to heart problems. Also, food addiction may lead to psychological impacts as well. These challenges may stem from weight gain, which can adversely affect your teen’s self-esteem and self-image. In some cases, difficulties with self-image or self-esteem may lead to other forms of disordered eating.

How to Treat Food Addiction

Food is an essential part of life. Therefore, it can be challenging to look at eating as a potentially harmful activity. However, food addictions are real. Food addiction can be harmful if not adequately treated at a treatment center like Hillcrest, where treatment specialists are skilled in helping your teen understand the physical and emotional consequences of food addiction. One of the most effective ways to help your teen avoid developing a food addiction is to encourage a healthy, balanced diet rich in natural, whole, and unprocessed foods.

The treatment process for overcoming food addiction is like that used for other behavioral addictions. During and after treatment, it is important to develop a plan your teen can use to address triggers after treatment. It is also vital that family and loved ones in your home environment support your teen’s healthy eating goals. It can be challenging to maintain recovery and avoid relapse upon completing treatment without a strong support structure that promotes and encourages healthy lifestyle changes.

As strange as it may sound, the first step in overcoming food addiction is to detox unhealthy foods. This is achieved by avoiding triggering foods, especially processed foods or those that include excessive sugars. These are often the most desirable foods for someone struggling with food addiction. Also, these are the foods that the body often craves most making detoxing challenging. In the early days of detox, your team will likely experience withdrawal symptoms that can range from mild to severe. Depending on the individual, symptoms may include mood changes, changes in energy levels, and potentially feeling physically ill.

After detox, your teen can begin the process of changing their eating habits. This may involve a range of therapy and activities, including lifestyle changes and participating in a comprehensive therapy program at Hillcrest. Examples of common lifestyle changes include avoiding triggering foods or locations that provide access to triggering foods. Early on, your teen may also want to avoid certain groups of people or specific situations that intensify their cravings to eat unhealthy foods. Recovering from food addiction requires breaking the emotional and psychological connections between food and activities you enjoy. For example, if sporting events make you want hotdogs or movies make you want popcorn, it will be important to find ways to enjoy sporting events and films without consuming unhealthy foods.

Therapy to address addictive behaviors may also be beneficial. Addiction of any kind is a struggle unique to the individual. Your teen’s treatment team at Hillcrest will work with your family to determine the best treatment approach to help your teen meet their unique treatment needs and goals. A therapy program at Hillcrest may include a combination of various behavioral therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy), nutritional education, group therapy, and family therapy sessions.

If your teen struggles with a food addiction, they are not alone. Food addictions are likely far more common than many realize. Unfortunately, in the absence of specific diagnostic criteria and limited research data, accurate statistics that address how pervasive food addiction could be are unavailable. Food addiction, if left untreated, can be harmful to your teen’s physical and emotional health. It can also lead to lasting health consequences and other forms of disordered eating. It is essential to seek treatment for your teen in a teen-focused treatment environment where they can learn more about how they use food to cope. A comprehensive, individually designed treatment plan at Hillcrest improves their chances for treatment success.

Contact our admissions team today if you would like to learn more about food addiction and how our team at Hillcrest can help your teen overcome a dependency on food. Let us help your teen start their journey to a healthy future and a healthier relationship with food.


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