A white plate holds two donuts and chocolate syrup. The chocolate syrup forms a frowning face below the two donuts.
Think a moment about whether this is a treat or an addiction. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Do you regularly eat to the point of feeling sick?

Do you eat—especially junk food—to escape your troubles?

Do you hide food or sneak snacks in secret?

If so, you could suffer from food addiction. If you do, don’t hide behind your shame or guilt, because there’s plenty of help available.

Even if you’re not sure, it’s still a good idea to seek help, according to Sarah Flessner, a registered dietitian with Spectrum Health.

“If someone feels like their relationship with food is a problem, then it is, and you don’t need to meet a clinical definition in order to get help,” Flessner said.

Flessner defines food addiction as excessive eating behaviors that have reached the point of having a negative impact on your life—emotional, social or psychological.

“Food addiction can fall into the same category as other addictions such as drugs and alcohol,” Flessner said.

People can, in fact, develop a dependency on some foods—usually those with high sugar and high fat—in the same way they do with drugs, cigarettes or alcohol. It’s possible, Flessner explained, because foods trigger the same reward center in our brains, giving us a high.

“When we eat excessive amounts of food high in sugar, fat or salt, it releases higher amounts of serotonin in our brain, which gives us a good feeling and leaves us wanting to repeat that feeling over and over with food,” she said.

The result: an addiction.

And with any addiction, Flessner said, may come negative social impacts such as feeling isolated, avoiding interactions with family and friends, depression, anxiety, poor performance at work or school, marriage and family problems, or poor self-esteem.

Food addiction often results in obesity, but not always. And not everyone who’s obese is a food addict, Flessner is careful to note.

“There’s a lot that plays into being obese—genetics, level of physical activity,” she said. “There are people who can be addicted to food who are not overweight because they are compensating in other ways.”

So, what are some solutions to overcoming food addiction?

1. Deal with the emotions that trigger the addiction.

Shawn Hondorp, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Spectrum Health who specializes in food addiction, said if people have tried initial strategies to overcome food addiction on their own, but continue to fall back into their old habits, that’s a good time to get professional help from a psychologist.

“It’s important to know what’s driving the addiction,” Dr. Hondorp said. “Usually there are emotions the addiction is covering up, and understanding those is typically needed for long-term success.”

2. Get a dietitian’s help to develop a healthy eating plan and make better food choices.

Flessner said she helps patients learn—or remember—the basics of healthy eating.

“If they are feeling nourished and eating enough healthy foods, then they are going to be less likely to overeat high-sugar and high-fat foods,” Flessner said.

She typically starts with asking people to keep a food log, noting what they eat and when. This might show patterns of when they’re likely to overindulge.

Flessner and Dr. Hondorp agree that while some patients benefit from eliminating trigger foods from their diet, others do not. Some find the approach of legalizing all foods helpful, because when they’re given permission to eat them, their desire decreases.

“I give people a choice,” Dr. Hondorp said.

3. Connect with others.

“We all need accountability,” Flessner said. “Definitely identify a support person—a friend or family member—or find a support group online.”

Dr. Hondorp said groups like Overeaters Anonymous or Food Addicts Anonymous can be helpful for some, but others find that these programs are too restrictive and fuel feelings of shame and further addiction.

“It’s important to find the accountability that works for you,” Dr. Hondorp said.

4. Believe in yourself.

People often have beliefs they need to challenge in order to conquer food addiction.

“We all have beliefs about ourselves, about relationships, about work, and beliefs specific to our relationships with food,” Dr. Hondorp said. “We need to identify the beliefs that are not helpful and replace them with beliefs such as, ‘I am a good person and I am worthy of love,’ or ‘I can do this.’”

She also encourages people to picture the goal they’re working toward.

“Visualize yourself behaving and feeling the way you want to,” she said. “Ask yourself, ‘How would you act in certain situations around food?’ Figure out what you do want, not what you don’t want. Focus on the way you want to be in life.”