Food Addiction or Eating Disorder: The Diagnosis

By As a neuropsychologist, Dr. Rudolph C. Hatfield, Ph.D. specializes in assessing and treating neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Sober Recovery Expert Author


Food addiction has become a focus of interest for medical researchers and clinicians attempting to explain the sharp rise in obesity in industrialized countries. However, the addictive ability of foods has been hotly debated in research circles[1]. On the one hand, everyone is addicted to food because, quite frankly, if we don’t eat we will die. On the other hand, many studies state that an estimated 5% to 10% of the general population may have some degree of what would be diagnosed as an addictive relationship with food. These percentages are even higher in people who suffer from obesity and binge eating[2]. However, many researchers believe that the term “food addiction” is problematic because it’s either not a valid term or is not descriptive of eating-disordered behavior[3].

Battle of the Terms

While drug addictions are considered by many in the medical profession to be a brain disease, a recent review in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews made the case that there is not enough evidence to conclude that food is addictive in the same way[3]. Thus, the term “food addiction” is a misnomer. Moreover, the researchers present quite a bit of evidence to indicate that there are no associations between increased body weight and the diagnosis of a food addiction. People that are not obese display a high rate of diagnosable “food addictions,” while a large number of obese people appear to have normal relationships with food.

Researchers hone in on the appropriate diagnosis for those who exhibit an addictive relationship with food.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to identify types of foods that are high in potential for addiction (such as foods high in fat, sugar, salt, etc.). However, researchers in the same study believed that identifying potentially addictive foods is too complicated and filled with methodological issues. Instead, they proposed to focus on the problematic behavior and not on the food itself. In the end, these researchers argued that the correct label for this potential disorder should then be “eating disorder.” This term is more descriptive of the development of compulsive eating that serves as a substitute for some other psychological need.

Moving Forward

No matter what the choice of the label is in the end, future research should attempt to describe the actual diagnostic criteria for this disorder and determine if individuals who display this disorder are exhibiting the same type of addiction as those struggling with substance abuse. So far, research seems to support the behavioral disorder hypothesis.

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[1] Corsica, J. A., & Pelchat, M. L. (2010). Food Addiction: True or False? Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, 26(2), 165-169.

[2] Gearhardt, A. N., Grilo, C. M., DiLeone, R. J., Brownell, K. D., & Potenza, M. N. (2011). Can food be addictive? Public health and policy implications. Addiction, 106(7), 1208-1212.

[3] Hebebrand, J., Albayrak, Ö., Adan, R., Antel, J., Dieguez, C., de Jong, J., ... & Dickson, S. L. (2014). “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 295-306.

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