Do you love food more than anything else in your life? Do you think about food all the time, even when you’re not hungry? Do you believe food is your friend, that it comforts you and lifts you in times of sadness and stress? Do you feel guilty or ashamed after eating, even though you can’t help it? If you answered yes to any of these questions, there’s a good chance you might be a processed food addict.

Food addiction is a real thing, and it’s more common than you might think. Processed food companies will tell you that you can eat their foods in moderation and if you can’t control your intake, you lack willpower or motivation, or they will tell you to move more and eat less.

People who overeat display the same behaviours as people who suffer from a drug addiction. Whilst some may disbelieve that food is addictive, processed foods are full of chemicals that stimulate reactions in the brain. Sugars and artificial sweeteners activate the dopamine pathway, flour activates serotonin, gluten activates the opiate pathways, processed fats activates the same pathways as cannabis – the endo cannabinoid pathways, excessive salt and dairy activates the opiate pathways and caffeine activate dopamine.

DSM 5 Criteria – Substance Use Disorders

DSM is the standard classification of mental disorders used for clinical, research, policy, and reimbursement purposes in the United States and elsewhere. It therefore has widespread importance and influence on how disorders are diagnosed, treated, and investigated.

According to DSM-5 SUD, there are 11 criteria to determine a food addiction. If you have 6 plus of the criteria you are deemed to have a severe addiction, 4-5 is considered a moderate addiction and 2-3 is mild, however note that meeting 2 of the criteria in a 12 month period is considered as in indicator of the presence of an addiction.

  • Hazardous Use
  • Social/Interpersonal problems related to use 
  • Neglected major roles to use
  • Withdrawal
  • Tolerance
  • Used larger amounts/longer
  • Repeated attempts to quit/control use
  • Much time spent using
  • Physical/psychological problems related to use
  • Activities given up to use
  • Craving

We can easily apply these to processed foods:

Unintended Use

Unintended use of a substance can be defined as losing control over the use of that substance and you may have a strong need or compulsion to eat certain foods even when you’re not hungry. This could look like eating an entire packet of cookies/biscuits when you only intended to have one or two, despite your best efforts to stop yourself. It could also be pulling into a fast food drive through when you had promised yourself you would no longer eat takeaway. Unintended use can also be found in less obvious forms, such as deciding you’ll start a diet tomorrow, but then finding yourself at the lolly/sweets/candy jar, or buying morning tea by 10am. If you can relate to any of these examples, it’s possible that you have lost control over your use of a substance, being processed food.

Failure to cut back

How many of us have commenced a new eating plan and stuck to it the first time and stayed that way, I’d wager not many. Most weight loss attempts fail and result in regain with many of us continuing this cycle over and over again, or yo-yo dieting as it is often called. You’re dieting and before you know it something happens, or you go out to eat with friends and you eat much more food than you intended to. Or, you’re at a party and there’s a buffet with all of your favourite foods. You tell yourself that you’ll just have a little bit, but before you know it, you’ve devoured everything in sight.

Thinking, planning, eating and recovering from food

It seems like you spend a lot of time thinking about food. You’re always planning your next meal, and you’re always thinking about what you’re going to eat. It’s become a major part of your life, and it’s gradually getting worse. You may have started a diet, but all you can think about is your next cheat meal or cheat day. Your thoughts are constantly about food, and you’re always wondering what you’re going to eat next. Over time the obsession with food becomes a major part of your thought process and life.


Cravings are a major symptom of addiction, and they show up across all addictions. When you’re not hungry but you still crave food, it’s a sign of addiction. Addictive substances are mixed in with food, so people confuse the craving signals as being hunger. The reality is that hunger and craving are two different things. Hunger is a physical response to an empty stomach, while craving is a mental response to an addictive substance. When you’re addicted to something, your body craves the substance even when it’s not physically hungry.

Unable to fulfil roles

Processed foods can make it difficult to focus at work or school or in the home. The brain fog and exhaustion, makes it difficult for people to be as effective in their roles as they could be. Weight gain from processed foods causes mobility issues, making it hard to play with our kids, stand or walk for long periods of times or even just fit into a seat on public transport. In other words, processed foods can make it difficult to fulfil even the most basic roles in our lives. Also, dissatisfaction with one’s size and appearance might prevent people from having the confidence to step up and go for the next role at work, to socialise and join in events. Due to fear and shame of past trauma, people often shy away from unwanted attention and comments.

Relationship Issues

When it comes to relationships and food, there can often be a lot of tension. One person may feel pressure from their partner or family to lose weight or eat healthier, or they may feel like they are being judged or controlled.

This pressure can often lead to the person feeling insecure and anxious about their body, and when self-loathing and low self-esteem are present this can lead to more problems and cause further damage in the relationship.


People who are addicted to food can find themselves in situations where they feel shame or are ridiculed if they have excess weight. This can lead to them avoiding activities, such as going out in public or participating in social events, where they might be subject to unwanted attention or comments. This can be a very isolating and lonely experience. People may also feel like they have to eat in secret, which can add to the feeling of shame and isolation. This experiences traumatise people as they would rather avoid attention and confrontation.

Hazardous Use

People have always been willing to take risks while driving, and eating is no exception. Even though it’s dangerous to eat while operating a vehicle, people continue to do it even though it’s distracting and very hard to pay attention to the road when you’re trying to eat. Prior to texting whilst driving, eating and driving was the number one cause of distraction. People will risk their health and safety to eat processed foods, regardless of the consequences. Obese people are more at risk for accidents and falls, and people who consume high levels of sugar are at greater risk for type 2 diabetes. Processed foods release dopamine and opiates, which make people feel good and they also cause people to feel groggy and sleepy, who hasn’t experienced brain fog or had a “food coma”.

Use despite consequences

We are told time and time again about the negative consequences of eating too much processed foods. We know that it can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, type II diabetes and there are also mental health consequences. For example, research has shown that people who eat a lot of processed foods are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. There are a myriad of problems created by eating processed foods but when we eat these foods, our brain experiences a release of dopamine, which feels good and encourages us to keep eating. Our frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, switches off and all we can think about is the food.

Tolerance and Progression

You are eating more than you used to. You’re not sure when it started, but you’ve been gradually increasing your intake over time. Your body is not getting the same response and you need more and more of the food to get the same high or buzz or numbness. The addictive neurons are functioning less and less well over time and you eat more to get the same feeling. A few pieces of chocolate turns into the whole block, a bowl of ice cream turns into a tub. You are on a never-ending quest for the next fix, but it is not giving you the same satisfaction as it used to.


If you find yourself eating for reasons other than hunger, it may be a symptom of withdrawal, avoidance, or craving. If you are eating because you have a headache, are angry, sad, or are tired, these are not reasons to eat – they are reasons to use a drug to feel better. When you eat in order to avoid or escape feelings of withdrawing from drugs, this is called avoidance withdrawal.

Dr Joan Ifland (PhD) is an expert in food addiction and lead author and editor of the textbook Processed Food Addiction: Foundations, Assessment and Management. Dr Ifland has reviewed more than 6000 scientific studies and has discovered at least 20 ways in which processed food addiction resembles addiction to recreational drugs.

One obvious side effect of eating too much processed food is obesity, which is a progressive illness that can have a major impact on a person’s life, and it is a result of an addictive response in the brain and body. People who are obese are often told to eat in moderation, to listen to their body, to use a smaller plate or stop eating when they’re full. However, limiting food is hard to accomplish, especially in children or younger adults, particularly when they have reached driving age with uncontrolled access to processed food. Sadly, many of the emotional, mental and physical problems in food addicted children follow them into adulthood.

It’s no secret that the food industry is big business. With billions of dollars at stake, companies are willing to go to great lengths to get people to buy their products. And as our understanding of neuroscience has grown, they have become increasingly effective at manipulating our brain function to achieve this goal. Whether it’s through cheap availability, advertising, packaging, the use of addictive ingredients, the food industry has learned how to exploit our neural circuitry to get us to crave their products. As a result, it’s no wonder that so many people struggle with weight issues and other health problems. 

The good news is that there is help available. If you think you might be a food addict, and struggle to gain control over your eating, please head over to the Addiction Reset Community, ( or join me at their Facebook group (Food Addiction Education), where I am currently training as an ARC Manager and working towards Food Addiction Recovery Advocate (FARA) certification. 

It’s important to immerse yourself in a compassionate community of likeminded individuals as, the brain has a powerful conformance drive. If you do this by yourself, you’re still mostly around people who are eating processed foods. So your instinctual conformance drive leads you to copy eating processed foods. If you’re in a recovery group, your brain will naturally copy the behaviours of fellow members, especially eating clean and staying calm in all circumstances.

It’s vitally important to know that processed food addiction is not your fault. It took decades for the food industry to perfect their techniques, and with this knowledge, we can begin to take steps to protect ourselves from their influence. 

Pauline Atchison – Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner






Hasin DS, O’Brien CP, Auriacombe M, Borges G, Bucholz K, Budney A, Compton WM, Crowley T, Ling W, Petry NM, Schuckit M, Grant BF. DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorders: recommendations and rationale. Am J Psychiatry. 2013 Aug;170(8):834-51. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.12060782. PMID: 23903334; PMCID: PMC3767415.

(2020). Processed Food Addiction, Foundations, Assessment, and Recovery (J. Ifland, M. T. Marcus, & H. G. Preuss, Eds.; pp. 157-287) [Review of Processed Food Addiction, Foundations, Assessment, and Recovery]. CRC Press.

DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria For Addictions Handout – Food Addiction Education, LLC. www.foodaddictionreset.com

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