What Causes Food Addiction and What Are the Signs?

Food addiction is the uncontrollable consumption of highly palatable foods in quantities beyond necessary energy requirements.

Like addictive drugs, highly palatable foods trigger chemical reactions in the brain’s “reward circuit” that induce feelings of pleasure and comfort.

Eating at night as unhealthy food hunger habit after midnight tiny person concept. Mental problem and overeating addiction lifestyle vector illustration. Open fridge and female with appetite behavior

Similar to how individuals become dependent on drugs or alcohol to manage depression and anxiety, we can become reliant on highly palatable foods for satisfaction and stress reduction.

Food addictions involve abnormal eating behaviors, such as excessive food intake or restriction and binging and purging, to cope with one’s negative emotions.

Food addictions are complex conditions that qualify as a type of substance use disorder and have significant overlaps with other types of addictions, such as drugs, alcohol, shopping, or gambling.


Food addiction is likely the culmination of several factors, whether biological, psychological, or social. Anyone can develop a food addiction; however, understanding the warning signs and the causes of food addiction can help lower your risk and change any potentially alarming behaviors.

Brain Chemistry

Consuming “highly palatable” foods, or foods that are high in carbohydrates, fat, salt, sugar, or artificial sweeteners, can trigger an addictive-like process in some individuals, activating reward-processing regions in the brain and releasing “feel-good” chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.

These foods affect the brain in the same way as drugs and alcohol. Overstimulation of the dopamine reward circuit can cause a “high” similar to a high experienced from drugs or alcohol, leading people to constantly crave and abuse these substances again and again.

Eventually, our brains adjust to the excess dopamine and make less of it, and we become tolerant to overstimulation.

We then need to consume increasing quantities of highly palatable foods, or consume more of a particular substance, to get the same feel-good reaction that we crave.


Another prominent factor that can play a role in the development of food addiction is genetics. Studies have shown that there are genes that put people at higher-than-average risk of developing any type of addiction, including food addictions.

Other studies have supported a relationship between alcohol addiction and food addiction, supporting that addictions can be genetic.

The more “addictive” genes a person has, the more likely they are to struggle with any type of addiction, whether to a substance or a behavior.

Stress Reduction

Similar to how individuals become dependent on drugs or alcohol to manage depression, and anxiety, the reliance on highly palatable foods for comfort or stress reduction is another component that can drive a food addiction.

Food addicts might consume excessive amounts of food or emotionally eat to cope with their negative emotions and enhance positive emotions.

Emotional eating tends to occur because when people experience stress, the stress hormone cortisol increases their appetite and motivation to eat.

Studies suggest that there is a significant association between food addiction and negative emotional states like depression and anxiety.


While many mental health professionals believe that food addicts develop a problem in response to certain mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety, food addiction can also develop in individuals dealing with other psychological and social issues.

For example, being a victim or survivor of a traumatic event, experiencing grief or loss, social isolation, or lack of social support are all psychological factors that might lead an individual to seek comfort in food in order to ease the pain.

Learn More: Symptoms of Food Addiction

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Adams, R. C., Sedgmond, J., Maizey, L., Chambers, C. D., & Lawrence, N. S. (2019). Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating. Nutrients, 11(9), 2086. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11092086

Food addiction. PsychGuides.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychguides.com/eating-disorder/#causes

Goodman, B. (2020, July 17). Food addiction signs and treatments. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder/mental-health-food-addiction

Hunt, M. S. (2020, December 15). What causes food addiction and what are the signs? Virtua Health. Retrieved from https://www.virtua.org/articles/what-causes-food-addiction-and-what-are-the-signs

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Julia Simkus

Research Assistant at Princeton University

Undergraduate at Princeton University

Julia Simkus is a Psychology student at Princeton University. She will graduate in May of 2023 and go on to pursue her doctorate in Clinical Psychology.