What’s the Difference Between Binge Eating Disorder and Food Addiction?
Updated: Mar 14
There are many similarities between the behavioral indicators of binge eating disorder (BED) and food addiction. People with BED and those with food addiction both experience diminished control during consumption, continued excessive patterns of consumption despite adverse consequences, and a set of parallel triggers.
However, there are also a variety of significant differences between these two disorders. Food addiction, unlike BED, doesn't necessarily include elevated concerns with body image and weight, nor does it occur in a discrete period of time.
If you're concerned that you or a loved one may have BED or food addiction, this piece may help. In it, White Pine Center for Healing, an emerging leader in eating disorder treatment, reviews the similarities and differences between BED and food addiction, discusses the symptoms and dangers of both, and provides a variety of helpful resources.
Binge Eating vs. Food Addiction
Binge eating disorder (BED) is a treatable yet severe and life-threatening mental disorder in which a person repeatedly consumes large quantities of food. Signs of BED include, but are not limited to:
Recurrent episodes of eating immense amounts of food very quickly
Feeling a loss of control during binges
Experiencing feeling of guilt and shame after binge eating
Most people have experienced eating too much during a single sitting. But binging episodes are much different than a spontaneous occasion of overindulging. However, people with BED experience episodes where they're:
Binge eating at least once a week for three months
Eating in isolation due to embarrassment
Eating large amounts of food quickly despite not feeling hungry
Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
Feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after eating
BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It impacts people of all backgrounds, body types, educational-attainment levels, genders, races, sexes, and sexual orientations. While some people with the disorder are overweight or obese, they can also be normal weight or even underweight.
In contrast, food addiction, also known as eating addiction, is a disorder in which a person overeats highly palatable (hyper-palatable), high-calorie foods that are often highly processed. These foods typically include high concentrations of refined carbohydrates, fat, salt, sugar, and sweeteners. People with food addiction experience a loss of control over their ability to regulate consumption.
There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the addictiveness and toxicity of these foods, which researchers have likened to tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. However, it should also be noted that various studies suggest that food addiction has less to do with processed foods and more with an individual's eating experience and the "reward value" they place on excessive food intake.
Many experts assert that food addiction, especially to refined foods, conforms to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV’s (now the DMS-V) criteria for substance use disorders. Like substance use disorders, those experiencing food addiction often:
Have strong cravings
Continue to increase consumption over time
Make numerous attempts to abstain from certain foods
Overeat despite negative consequences
Feel a psychological dependence on food
Spend a significant amount of time seeking out certain foods
There are a variety of similarities between BED and food addiction. To get a clearer picture of the relationship between BED and food addiction, it's helpful to review the findings from the Department of Psychology at Yale University, where researchers found clear similarities and differences:
Similarities between BED and Substance Dependence
Differences between BED and Substance Dependence
• Diminished control over consumption • Continued use despite negative consequences • Diminished ability to cut down or abstain from problematic substance • Elevated levels of impulsivity • Elevated comorbidity with mood/anxiety disorders • Triggered by cravings and negative affect • Similar patterns of neural activations
• BED is associated with elevated concerns with shape or weight, but substance dependence is not • BED diagnosis specifies that consumption must occur during a discrete period of time, but substance dependence does not • Substance dependence diagnosis assesses withdrawal, tolerance, amount of time spent on substance-focused activities and activities given up due to substance use, but BED does not • Substance dependence diagnosis places a greater emphasis on the contribution of the substance (e.g., addictive potential of substances), BED diagnosis does not consider specific types or properties of food consumed (merely the amount) • Substance dependence treatments typically focus on abstaining from the problematic substance, but BED treatments do not
Like many mental health disorders, BED and food addiction operate on a neurochemical level. Yale researchers noted that similar patterns of dopamine activity occur during binge eating and episodes of food addiction where people are eating highly palatable foods. Even activation in parts of the brain, such as the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the dorsal striatum, have similarities for people with BED and food addiction. Ultimately, researchers found that "BED and substance dependence appear to share multiple behavioral, clinical, and neurobiological similarities."
Both BED and food addiction can lead to various life-threatening health conditions. If you suspect that you may have BED or another eating disorder, please contact White Pine Center for Healing today. We offer education & prevention and outpatient services. You can also find an eating disorder treatment center in your area by visiting the National Eating Disorder Association's (NEDA) website.
Please Note: This content is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you’re experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.