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Are You Afraid You're a Food Addict? It Could Be In Your Gut

The bugs in your gut can make you crave more yumminess.

Are you a food addict? Food addiction is usually defined in terms of a loss of control over eating, especially with highly palatable foods. Some of the most common foods that trigger a loss of control include pizza, chocolate, salty chips, cookies, ice cream, and French fries. When confronted with these or similar foods do you feel like you want to stop eating them but you just can’t? Do you consume large quantities so that you feel uncomfortable or sick afterward? Do you feel ashamed or guilty following your loss of control of your eating? If you have this problem, is it just a bad habit or is something else going on?

There’s been some debate over whether food addiction is a true physiological addiction or just a bad behavioral habit. Previous research has shown that for some people, highly palatable foods activate reward centers in the brain in a similar fashion to addictive drugs. The resulting pleasure causes the addicted person to keep eating even though they’re not physically hungry. As with other addictions, tolerance develops so that more food is needed to get the desired good feelings.

A new study adds further evidence that food addiction is a result of underlying physiological processes rather than just a behavioral habit. Researchers at UCLA and USC gave the Yale Food Addiction Scale to 105 women. This is a validated measure using the DSM criteria for substance abuse applied to eating behaviors. The 25 items measure aspects of food addiction including withdrawal, tolerance, time spent eating, loss of control, and significant clinical impairment.

A brain MRI was administered to the participants and fecal samples were used to examine the link between the billions of microbes in the gut and brain activity (the gut-brain axis) in obesity. Nineteen of the participants met the criteria for food addiction.

The gut microbiome of participants with food addiction was significantly different from participants who had obesity but without food addiction. Food addiction was associated with a distinct microbial profile that had increased connectivity with the brain’s reward network (intraparietal sulcus, brain stem, and putamen). The results suggest that the microbiome may increase the experienced pleasure of foods contributing to an addiction.

Although the gut-brain link makes highly palatable foods more rewarding there are treatments for food addiction. The two main approaches are 12-step programs and cognitive-behavioral therapy. 12-step programs like AA require total abstinence from the addictive substance, but everybody needs to eat. Therefore the 12-step approach is modified for food addiction. While some food addicts benefit from Overeaters Anonymous others prefer more specialized programs such as Food Addicts Anonymous or Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) relies on techniques that have proven effective in the treatment of bulimia-nervosa and binge eating disorder since there is considerable overlap between binge eating and the uncontrolled eating that characterizes food addiction. Typical CBT techniques include identifying the triggers for eating, developing competing and distractive alternative behaviors, developing relapse prevention strategies, and altering thought patterns.

Regardless of the treatment approach, the new study suggests that food addiction is not just a character flaw but rather that there’s a gut-brain link to addiction. This finding should help reduce the shame and guilt that frequently comes with out-of-control eating.


Dong, T. S., Mayer, E. A., Osadchiy, V. et al. (2020). A distinct brain-gut-microbiome profile exists for females with obesity and food addiction. Obesity, 28, 1477-1486.

Source: Edward Abramson, PhD
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