Food Addiction—What’s the Cause & How to Overcome It

By Alyssa O'Brien, RD, LD
January 16, 2017


Have you ever sat down with a bag of chips or popcorn with the intention of only eating a handful and before you knew it the bag was gone? Or how about a batch of cookies that you made for a friend? By the time you met your friend were there only a few left? I certainly can relate to this, and it may be a familiar story for many of you, too. It might be an occasional indulgence for you, but for some people underneath those unstoppable cravings is addiction.   

Food Addiction and Your Brain

Food addiction can have innocent beginnings, like being rewarded with candy for a job well done; however, as these sugar cravings evolve your brain changes. You may find yourself making a late night run for pastries or stopping at the gas station for candy, not to fill your car. Does this sound familiar? Is it a new thought that your cravings are connected to your brain? Dr. Amen, a mental health expert, discovered the brain’s powerful role in overeating. He states, “It’s your brain that pushes you away from the table or your brain that gives you permission to have a third bowl of ice cream.” It might be reassuring to know that reaching for a second cookie is not a lack of willpower. It’s your brain’s way of telling you there’s an imbalance of the chemicals that help you stop with just one.

Effects of Sugar

I recently spoke with Nell Kauls, one of our nutrition educators, about her experiences with food addiction. For her it started at a very young age, without her knowing it. In third grade, Nell remembers using food to deal with emotions like sadness or anger. She was not reaching for steak and broccoli to make her feel better; she wanted processed food like cheese puffs or snack cakes. Why did those processed foods make her feel better? You guessed it, SUGAR! Refined flour and sugar hit our system quickly to give us a temporary buzz—quite literally a sugar high. With a sugar rush, we get temporary surges of happy, calming brain chemicals that make us feel good. Eventually, too much sugar can damage the brain. Sugar confuses our brains, tricking us into thinking we need more and more. In reality, all that sugar creates anxiety and depression. When things are tough it’s easy to rely on sugar-laden processed foods to make us feel better. The truth is eating those foods makes us feel worse and can become a dangerous habit for our health. How do you prevent that cycle from starting again?

Calm Your Brain with Real Food

For a calm brain without the cravings, eat the Weight and Wellness Way every day. Get back to eating real foods—the food that comes without fancy labels or pretty packaging. Many people, including Nell, find that the only way to stop cravings is to eat balanced meals and snacks frequently throughout the day. This means choosing protein instead of a pasta plate and rainbow-colored vegetables instead of rainbow-colored candies. With one simple switch at a time you’re on your way to rebalancing your brain chemistry for decreased cravings and good moods. Meals and snacks don’t have to be perfect: a quick run to the deli for some chicken with an apple and peanut butter works fine in a pinch—far better than chips and a soda. Nell is proud to say that she maintains a healthy weight and her cravings are gone once and for all!

Give these craving-buster tips a try:

  • Breakfast – choose eggs or turkey sausage with onions and peppers instead of cereal or toast.
  • Lunch – pack a chicken salad with a few grapes.
  • Dinner – try batch cooking a couple of meaty recipes for leftovers. Beef chili, salmon cakes or shrimp curry work really well.

Stay motivated and on track by listening to our podcast Dishing Up Nutrition. Additionally, if you are struggling with addictive eating, we recommend that you schedule an appointment in person or online. Our nutritionists can help you break the cycle of cravings and let you get back to living your life!

About the author

Alyssa has personally experienced the radical improvements that nutrition has on cholesterol levels, anxiety, anemia, energy and more. These experiences inspire her to support others to make real changes with real food in order to be happy and healthy with themselves and those around us. Alyssa is a registered dietitian and licensed through the Minnesota Board of Nutrition and Dietetics. She received her B.S. in dietetics from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Then she completed the Mid-Willamette Valley Dietetic Internship in Oregon.

View all posts by Alyssa O'Brien, RD, LD


Cindy Okusako
Never have butter and bread in the house at the same time. A suggestion I got from the Marie Claire website. I found I can have them both in the house but now I am aware of my problem with them so t works for me just not to eat them both together.
April 13, 2020 at 12:37 am


Thanks for sharing that tip that works for you!

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