Is There Such a Thing as Food Addiction?

As one of the featured Mental Health and Addictions experts on, I’m frequently asked about such issues as depression, panic disorders, alcoholism and drug addiction. Today, I was asked about addiction to sugar. Right down my alley.

(The author is a psychotherapist who lost 140 lbs. when he discovered Therapeutic Psychogenics,  and he’s kept it off for over 25 years. Read about his method of fast permanent weight loss and the clients who have used them by clicking on the menu above.)

Here is the question that was posed: “Can people really get addicted to sugar? I swear if I try to go a day without sugar I am craving like crazy for it, but I never thought that it was like a real addiction, like cocaine or heroin etc. If it is a real addiction, do you have to give it up to get sugar-sober, like an alcoholic?”

Here’s my answer: Trust your gut on this, food addiction is real and sugar is the worst.

While I have expertise with other mental health issues and all addictions, food addiction and weight control are my specialties, so I’m going to give you a thorough answer.

Food addicts have been telling people about food addiction for years and have been largely rejected by everyone, even addiction “experts”. However, the evidence is in and it is overwhelming. People get addicted to food. Brain imaging scans show that the brain activity that occurs with sugar is the same activity that occurs with cocaine and heroin. The activity that occurs with sugar thoughts and cravings is the same that occurs with cocaine thoughts and cravings. It isn’t your imagination. It is real.

However, even though some people needed pictures of brain activity to be convinced, anyone paying attention to clinical diagnostics and the experience of compulsive overeaters and binge eaters should have seen the obvious ages ago: some people have the same addiction experience with food as you see with addictive drugs.

Here’s the list of criteria that’s used to diagnose substance dependence in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the official publication of the American Psychological Association. Substance Dependence is the clinical term for addiction:

  1. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: (a) A need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or the desired effect or (b) Markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.
  2. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: (a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance or (b) The same (or closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
  3. The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended.
  4. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.
  5. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance, use the substance, or recover from its effects.
  6. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use.
  7. The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance (for example, current cocaine use despite recognition of cocaine-induced depression or continued drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by alcohol consumption).

One must have three of these things occur in a one-year period to make the diagnosis. Many “foodies” have had more than three of these things for years, continuously. Food addiction is real and it is common. The foods that are most often cited are sugar, salt, and fatty foods. We are prone to get addicted to anything highly pleasurable or palatable.

Now, to the more complex part of your question: Must one abstain totally from the addictive food to solve the problem, as one does with alcohol or cocaine in order to recover?

It’s impossible. Refined sugar would be possible to avoid, but sugar is a naturally occurring nutrient that exists in many foods. You can’t eliminate it completely unless you stop eating all together! Adding to the complexity is that we are hard wired to experience pleasure when we eat, regardless of the food. The pleasure centers of our brain are activated when we eat or do anything that feels good, which is why people get addicted to lots of things like gambling, sex and video games, to name a few, not just drugs. In fact, some people are addicted to food, regardless of what’s in it. It’s not the sugar, salt, or fat. It’s the chewing and swallowing of any food that they are addicted to.

This is why overeating is the trickiest of the addictions to recover from. With drugs, we lock the beast out, but with food, we let it back in every day.

People who have a particularly difficult problem with a particular food (you know what they are) will need to eliminate them from the house and their routine, but that won’t solve the food addiction problem. There will still be problems with other foods. If you eliminate refined sugar, things will be better, but the addiction will remain.

Successful therapy for food addiction targets management, not total abstinence. My successful therapy for permanent weight loss is based on the addiction model, but our goal is not abstaining. It can’t be. Our goal is a managed behavior, and we are successful with a highly structured program of eclectic therapy, more than we can describe here. You can learn more about it at my website, .

In Behavioral Medicine, the traditional way to extinguish addictive substance use behavior is to totally shut down the experience of reward with the substance, to totally abstain.  Then, the flame that drives the addiction dies off. Need, cravings and obsessions die away. That’s why they call it extinguishing. But with food, this is not possible. So with food addiction, another solution is needed. That’s what The Anderson Method is, radically different, a way to change the addiction to overeating to an addiction to healthy eating. Rather than trying to abstain, we are learning a new way to partake.

So the answer is yes, you can be addicted to food. And no, successful recovery is not a matter of abstaining completely, as it is with alcohol and cocaine. It’s more complicated than that. However, you can live with your food addiction, master it, and free yourself from its grip and the weight problems it causes. I was out of control with food and an obese diet failure for 25 years until I found the answer. Then I lost 140 pounds and I’ve maintained my success for over 25 years. Now I teach others. You may be a food addict, but you don’t have to be a slave to the addiction.


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Marla Oxley
Marla Oxley
2 years ago

I once read that one can be addicted to nearly any substance, even to nearly any activity. Years and years ago, I read about a young intern who was addicted to baking soda in the book The Making of a Surgeon. I also remember a case of an individual addicted to drinking copious amounts of water, to such an extent that it was dangerous.

My father, a raging alcoholic, was an auto painter of sufficient talent to paint motorcycles for Steve McQueen and vintage automobiles featured in movies. In spite of his unfortunate alcoholism, he was a very observant person. He came to the conclusion that he was addicted to sniffing paint thinner.

This came about innocently enough: he routinely smelled rags to determine whether they were used or clean, the smell of paint thinner revealing the rags as used. However, he found that he was eventually sniffing rags routinely, even when he had just used them.

Dr. William Glasser, a psychiatrist of considerable renown postulates in Choice Theory that addictions abound, the quirky thing being determining the difference between good versus bad addictions. He goes so far as to suggest that only through the substitution of good addictions can one hope to extinguish bad addictions.

12 years ago

Thank you for the informed, thoughtful reply! I am very grateful.
I suppose the doctors are under so much stress that, when they see someone young and apparently healthy, their natural reaction is to discount any issue. I had no, like many, health insurance for years. Now that I do have health insurance, I am part of a larger, bureaucratic system that wishes to process and be rid of us as quickly as possible. Since my doctor effectively is my HMO, any and all tests are discouraged. As I am self-employed, health insurance is neither easy to find nor very affordable. But this leads us into other waters!
I am very grateful for your response, and agree with all that you have said. We are conditioned in so many ways, and, well-meaning, make ourselves very ill in the process. Thank you for your work, insight, and dissemination thereof! All the best to you.

12 years ago

Years ago, I gave up refined sugar, and the process was very interesting, Cravings for food I had not had in years (some of which I could only recall the flavour — and not precisely that which the food was) surged, but also dissipated completely after about six months. I feel, look, and perform much better without it! As for salt, I am a salt fanatic. And the reason for this is the following: I mostly make my meals from scratch at home, and cut salt out for about twenty years. I was also taking potassium which further diminishes sodium stores, and eating a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. And drinking loads of herbal teas just because I like them. I began to develop poor night vision, migraines, constant nausea, dizziness and so forth….. no one knew what it was, and the doctors basically rolled their eyes and sent me home. Luckily a friend of mine who grew up in a country in which common sense could be consulted over doctors told me that he thought I was making myself sick from not eating salt. Not eating salt? But salt is supposed to be so bad! I went to the market to test this hypothesis, bought a small container of sea salt, and made a little meal. My body nearly lunged for the salt! It was amazing. Within three days, all symptoms cleared never to return. I did not know then how vital sodium is to us. I only use sea salt (my iodine is from kelp), but I do have some every day, and feel much better. I understand that recommendations are made for most people who overdo processed food, but everything must be taken into consideration, no? Again I am so looking forward to reading your book which I have ordered from Amazon.