Medical Nutrition Therapy for Food Addiction

Lady in Fast Food Drive-Thru working her Food Addiction Treatment

Contributed by Staff of Timberline Knolls

Famous comedian and actor ANT recently publicly shared his struggle with an addiction to illegal drugs, which quickly developed into a food addiction. In taking this bold step and openly discussing his battle with food addiction, light is now being shed on a serious condition that many individuals struggle with today and how therapy and nutrition play a role in Food Addiction Treatment.

Sadly, the stigma around this disorder prevents many people from getting the help they need. A common misunderstanding about food addiction is that this occurs only in individuals who are obese; this could not be farther from the truth.

A research study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that the obesity epidemic cannot be fully attributed to addictive eating, and a high proportion of under-, normal-, or overweight individuals (approximately 10 percent) can be classified as food addicted [1].

Understanding Food Addiction

doughnuts in a boxFood addiction is unique in that it is characterized by behaviors similar to both eating disorders and substance abuse.

In the same way that a person can develop an addiction to the biochemical responses created by using a substance, like an illicit drug, individuals can also develop addictive eating patterns to certain foods or food groups.

Research on food addiction has shown a connection between food addiction and foods that are “hyperpalatable,” such as those foods that are calorie-dense, high in sugar, salt and/or fat, or containing other addictive additives [2].

The parallels between substance dependence and the excessive consumption of hyperpalatable foods have been demonstrated in animal research models, which have shown that rats develop both behavioral symptoms and neurochemical changes that are comparable to drug use [3].

A food addiction is also characterized by compulsive overeating, including binge eating behaviors. This may involve emotional indicators, such as having a sense of loss of control, experiencing feelings of guilt or shame, and increased prevalence of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.

Because there is a variety of complex factors involved with the development and progression of a food addiction, including biochemical, psychological, environmental, social and more, comprehensive treatment is often the most effective approach for healing and recovery. The management of a food addiction may combine approaches used for both eating disorders and traditional addiction methods, including psychotherapy, medical nutrition therapy, medication management, 12-step groups, and more.

Incorporating Medical Nutrition Therapy

Nutrition interventions through medical nutrition therapy can be effective in helping an individual manage a food addiction. Medical nutrition therapy is defined as a therapeutic approach to treating medical conditions and associated symptoms with individualized dietary instruction, diet therapy counseling, meal plans, etc., which are provided by a registered dietitian (RD).

With food addiction treatment, an RD is part of a multidisciplinary team that will collaborate together to address the many complex issues involved with this disease management. It is important to understand that medical nutrition therapy is most effective in the context of a comprehensive treatment plan that also includes psychotherapy.

Because a food addiction involves irregular eating patterns, over-consumption of certain foods, frequent bingeing episodes, and compulsive eating, nutritional interventions are necessary for developing healthier eating patterns and managing this condition.

Medical nutrition therapy can occur at various stages of treatment, including acute levels of care through outpatient treatment, and is customized based on severity and present issues. The goals of medical nutrition therapy and nutrition education should provide the following through an individualized treatment plan for food addiction:

  • Address any nutrient deficiencies that may threaten physical and mental health
  • Help reduce cravings through normalized eating behaviors
  • Address any resulting health disparities from food addiction
  • Address any medical conditions that are co-occurring through normalized eating
  • Supply a meal plan that gives balanced, calorically appropriate meals/snacks
  • Encourage consumption of regularly scheduled meals/snacks
  • Manage nutritional implications of any prescribed medications
  • Support the development of eating skills as appropriate, including cooking, preparing foods, and grocery shopping
  • Promote an overall balanced lifestyle to accompany recovery efforts

Seeking Out Comprehensive Care for Food Addiction Treatment

Young woman speaking with her therapist.Despite the overall objectives of medical nutrition therapy for food addiction listed above, a treatment plan should be individualized to meet each person’s unique needs, as well as address any co-occurring issues that may also be present.

Depending on the treatment setting, nutrition therapy may take place as part of an overall treatment program, in which a person would have regular sessions with and frequent access to a registered dietitian, or in an outpatient setting, where a dietitian may be seen on an “as needed’ basis.

Many eating disorder treatment centers offer specialized care for people who may be struggling with a food addiction, and this may be a helpful place to start when seeking out treatment options. Treatment teams for food addiction should include an RD, who can provide the essential component of medical nutrition therapy as part of overall management and recovery.

By opting for comprehensive care for food addiction, you are ensuring that a multidisciplinary team will work together to meet your unique needs and concerns.


[1]: Meule, A. (2011). How Prevalent is “Food Addiction”? Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2, 61.
[2]: Cocores J. A., Gold M. S. (2009). The salted food addiction hypothesis may explain overeating and the obesity epidemic. Med. Hypotheses 73, 892–89910.1016/j.mehy.2009.06.049
[3]: Avena N. M., Rada P., Hoebel B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 32, 20–3910.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019

Thank you to Timberline Knolls for providing this article.

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Timberline Knolls is a leading residential treatment center for women and adolescent girls, ages 12 and older, with eating disorders, substance abuse, trauma, mood and co-occurring disorders. Located in suburban Chicago, residents receive excellent clinical care from a highly trained professional staff on a picturesque 43-acre wooded campus. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is also available in nearby Orland Park, Ill., for women to step down or direct admit. For more information on Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, call 630-755-5173. We are also on Facebook – Timberline Knolls, LinkedIn – Timberline Knolls and Twitter – @TimberlineToday.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 19, 2017
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 12, 2021
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.