Relationship Between Food Addiction and BED


Some might ask why Childhood Obesity News is even talking about Binge Eating Disorder (BED). “This is an adult problem,” they might say. But they would be operating on outdated information, as Caroline Davis, Ph.D., points out. Sadly, these days binge eating increasingly shows up as early as middle childhood. The journal Current Obesity Reports published Davis’s paper about compulsive overeating as an addictive behavior.

It comes as no surprise that the pattern of overeating known as Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is very much connected with a high body mass index, a.k.a. obesity; and so is the phenomenon commonly known as food addiction. The public has gotten used to recognizing that term, although Dr. Pretlow considers “disordered overeating” a more appropriate descriptor.

Either way, there are arguments for it as a legitimate addiction. The idea that overeating can be an addictive behavior is supported by the existence of 12-step programs specifically designed to address it, and by a great deal of anecdotal evidence from overeaters who found that the programs modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous had worked for them.

Davis mentions that there is “compelling and accumulating bio-behavioral evidence” to indicate that if food contains enough sugar, fat, and salt, it can indeed be an addictor. She goes on to say:

In addition, evidence of the biological parallels between drug and food abuse, as demonstrated by preclinical experiments, human brain neuroimaging studies, and behavior genetic research, has further strengthened the credibility of the food-addiction construct.

Whether compulsive eating is a substance addiction or a behavioral addiction, the results are pretty much the same: obesity and assorted co-morbidities. More to the point, substance addiction and behavioral addiction are both addressable by the same therapeutic modes.

The second half of Davis’ title, “Overlap Between Food Addiction and Binge Eating Disorder,” suggests the image of a Venn diagram: One big circle is all the food addicts (or, more accurately, eating addicts), and another big circle holds all the people with BED. Although, as the author says, BED “appears to be a behaviorally-distinct subtype of obesity with an unique risk profile,” the circles meld into each other.

The overlapping area represents the many characteristics they share. Davis says of BED:

In particular, individuals with this disorder display a hyper-reactivity to the hedonic properties of food as seen by greater food cravings, preoccupation with thoughts of food, emotionally-induced overeating, and a greater preference for sweet and fatty foods.

Surely, the same is true of the eating addict. In the psycho-behavioral realm, there are many similarities between BED and drug abuse, to the extent, says Davis, where “many have adopted the perspective that an apparent dependence on highly palatable food — accompanied by marked emotional and social distress and deficiency — is, in essence, an addiction disorder.”

Excessive and compulsive food intake are common to both. Loss of control is a huge factor for both. Davis wrote:

The parallels between an apparent “loss-of-control” over food intake and compulsive drug taking have been recognized by clinicians for decades, albeit mostly in circumstantial reports, and with particular reference to the pronounced cravings they have in common and the similarities in their mood-enhancing effects…

Ah yes, cravings and mood enhancement. One thing about food-induced attitude adjustment is, it never lasts. Whether hooked on a substance or a behavior, a person is desperate for a reliable supply, and needs more the next day, or in a couple of hours. A binge eater, on the other hand, might chill out and avoid acting out for a while, but sooner or later something will trigger the mechanism that demands, “Shovel it in.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Compulsive Overeating as an Addictive Behavior: Overlap Between Food Addiction and Binge Eating Disorder,”, 02/13/13
Image by Pat Hartman

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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