Am I Addicted to Junk Food or is it an Eating Disorder?

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A recent study, the National Poll on Healthy Aging, conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation found that 1 in 8 older adults are addicted to junk food. When we take a closer look at the research methods, there is a distinct overlap between diagnosing an addict and diagnosing an eating disorder. Let’s dive in…


Study Summary

This study followed over 2000 participants and used a standardized questionnaire, coined the Yale Food Addiction Scale, to screen for addictive behaviors associated with food. 

Researchers used a set of 13 questions to measure whether or not and how often, participants experienced signs of addiction to sweets, salty snacks, sugary drinks and fast food. Some of these indicators included  intense cravings, an inability to reduce intake, and signs of withdrawal.

In order to meet the criteria for being ‘addicted to junk food’ participants had to report experiencing at least 2 of 11 symptoms of addiction to meet the criteria, as well significant eating-related distress or life problems multiple times a week. 

This criteria is the same as the diagnostic requirements for alcohol and substance use addiction. 

One researcher prefaced the severity of the term ‘addiction’ explaining “[It] may seem strong when it comes to food, but research has shown that our brains respond as strongly to highly processed foods, especially those highest in sugar, simple starches and fat, as they do to tobacco, alcohol and other addictive substances.” 

On a positive note, the researchers suggested that doctors should screen for these addictive eating habits, so that patients can obtain treatment such as nutrition counseling to help address addictive eating.


Binge Eating Diagnostic Criteria

While this study did not directly investigate binge eating, binge eating shares similar diagnostic criteria used in the Yale Food Addiction Scale. 

Binge eating diagnostic criteria is complex and requires professional judgment, but according to the DSM-5, diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder include:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following:
    • Eating, in a discrete period of time (for example, within any two-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
    • A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (for example, a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)
  • The binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
    • Eating much more rapidly than normal
    • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
    • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
    • Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating
    • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterwards
  • Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
  • The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months.
  • The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behavior (for example, purging) and does not occur exclusively during the course of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.


How The Two Compare

The study involving food addiction and the diagnostic criteria for binge eating are quite similar. 

Below are questions from the Yale Food Addiction Scale that have significant overlap to binge eating diagnostic criteria: 

  • I ate to the point I felt physically ill or uncomfortably full.
  • My eating behavior caused me a lot of distress.
  • I avoided social situations because people wouldn’t approve of how much I ate.
  • I really wanted to cut down on or stop eating certain kinds of foods, but I just couldn’t.
  • I had such strong urges to eat certain foods that I couldn’t think of anything else.


What Implications Does This Have?

It is important to recognize abnormal behavior associated with food and respond to it appropriately. This study looking at food addiction was focused on foods typically classified as ‘unhealthy’. However, many of these behaviors are signals of binge eating as well. 

On the other hand, binge eating diagnostic criteria does not specify the type of foods involved in the behavior. Abnormal behaviors like the ones discussed in this article are signals that a disordered relationship with food is developing. Regardless, being ‘addicted’ to food or having ‘binge-like’ tendencies are both situations in which professional treatment may be in the person’s best interest. If you are concerned you or someone you care about is experiencing these situations, reach out today. 




*This is not medical advice or grounds to provide a diagnosis. This information is solely for educational purposes. Consult your doctor if you are concerned the criteria discussed in this article applies to you.

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