What Does Food Addiction in Youth Look Like?

Spot It and Stop It In Your Children.

Key Points

  • You could determine if your child is food addicted by evaluating how the diagnostic criteria for addictions compares to that of food addiction.
  • Societal factors such as accessibility in schools and communities and how food is marketed to children needs to be examined.
  • The biochemistry of the brain and how children are socialized around food needs to be considered and implemented as part of the treatment.
Source: Askar Abayev, Pexels

Why is it that we all know what it takes to maintain a healthy diet, yet many are on a roller coaster of losing weight and gaining weight with no reprieve? Our children are no better off. Especially those that have weight challenges or have a genetic predisposition for weight gain. The frustrating cycle of dieting, restricting, losing and gaining weight often starts in childhood and continues throughout adulthood, with some adults successfully working through it and more often, those that never do.

To determine whether your child is food addicted, we will evaluate how the diagnostic criteria for addictions (alcohol, cannabis, etc.) compares to the criteria food addiction. Take note whether your child is: (a) consuming larger quantities of food for longer periods of time, (b) persistently desiring or repeatedly has unsuccessful attempts to cut or change behavior, © spending a great deal of time on activities to obtain, consume or recover from over-consumption, (d) challenged with cravings and strong desires to consume food, (e) consuming despite important social or recreational activities that is given up or reduced, (f) overindulging despite having knowledge of the adverse consequences on physical health, (g) eating more and more just to feel “normal” and avoiding withdrawal symptoms (tolerance), and (h) using food to relieve withdrawal. If your child meets some or all the specified criteria, there is indication that your support is needed.

How To Directly Help Your Child:

  1. The Yale Food Addiction Scale was developed to measure food addiction.[i] Although it was geared toward adults you could take a look at it or review it with your child if it is developmentally age appropriate. It can be beneficial to evaluate the extent of the issue and whether you need to get help for it.
  2. Children need easy access to healthy snacks and a variety of fruits and vegetables. If given the choice they will opt for the “junk” which is typically considered candy, sugary soda, and high fat fried foods. In the survey administered by the CDC mentioned earlier, it was discovered that more added sugar calories are eaten at home rather than out. This can be monitored and prevented. It is important for parents to model healthful behaviors and directly carry them out. For example, if a dessert choice is offered, decide on fresh fruit like watermelon, mango or pineapple, an all-fruit ice pop or angel food cake with a baked fruit or a drizzle of all fruit sorbet. Also, always have fruits and vegetables available.
  3. Subsidies need to go toward broadening accessibility in schools and in poor communities. Poverty and obesity are strongly correlated. Poor communities also have a right to high quality foods and fruits and vegetables. When conducting my focus groups for my book Free Your Child from Overeating: 53 Mind-Body Strategies for Lifelong Health, a teen reported that he walked almost a mile to find a salad to eat for lunch and finally just gave up and settled for a hamburger and fries because it was readily available to him. We have a responsibility to advocate and legislate for subsidies for needier communities.
  4. Children are directly marketed to in the US. There are strong policies and restrictions against such marketing in fifty other countries (e.g., UK, Sweden, South Africa, Brazil, etc.) but it does not hold true in the US. The average young person views more than 3000 ads per day on television, on the Internet, on billboards, and in magazines.[ii] Increasingly, advertisers are targeting younger and younger children in an effort to establish “brand-name preference” at as early an age as possible.[iii] Immediate change needs to happen in the US. This is another area we need to take direction on.
  5. Because it is food, practicing abstinence is unrealistic. “Junk” food will always be available and accessible. Many of our traditions and rituals count on the consumption of sugary processed foods to honor certain occasions (e.g., birthday parties, bonfires, etc.). The key here is to limit the accessibility and consumption. There are healthier alternatives or better “junk” foods that offer some nutrients. For example, instead of leaving big bowls of chips in the middle of the table, a variety of vegetables could be left out and a handful of chips could be rationed out on each child’s plate at a birthday party. Also, water can be offered as the singular beverage.
  6. Understanding and explaining to children that food addiction involves the same areas of the brain as drug addiction. Functional imaging studies have shown that during drug intoxication or a craving frontal regions of the brain become activated.[iv] The same neurotransmitters like dopamine, are a part of the “reward system” in the brain which is responsible for motivation, want, desire, and cravings.[v] Many of the symptoms are identical (e.g., hiding behavior, unable to control consumption despite knowing the harm its causing, etc.).[vi] Food addiction is not caused by a lack of willpower but believed to be caused by a dopamine signal that affects the biochemistry of the brain.[vii] Children are typically surrounded and tempted by calorie dense/empty calorie foods. Most menus in restaurants, foods that are served at children’s events, and food that is offered to kids in general tend to be saturated with high calorie, sugared, or processed foods. They are often not taught to, don’t know how to, or feel comfortable enough to advocate on behalf of their health. It is important for them to know about their body’s response to these foods and how it thwarts their ability to be mindful in their decision making. Furthermore, because of how challenging it is, they may need support and may need a plan and strategies in place to help empower them.
  7. Having awareness that it is not only an addiction but that there is addictive behavior that must directly be addressed. One article referred to the issue as an “eating addiction” rather than a “food addiction.”[viii] This includes awareness that there is a behavioral (e.g., habit), psychological (e.g., self-soothing), physical/physiological (e.g., releases dopamine/tolerance/dependence) and neuro-biological (e.g., reduces the size of the orbitofrontal cortex) that eating has and needs to be addressed to get at the crux of the issue. Each child is an individual and must be treated uniquely based on their needs. There is a reason why addicts relapse so often, especially if not all these components are recognized and addressed. It is understandable why for some addicts a stint at rehab is enough and for others multiple visits are required with continual follow-up for many years or even for a lifetime.
  8. If there are certain foods that trigger overeating behavior, like an addiction, these select processed foods may need to be curtailed initially before re-introducing them mindfully. While “everything in moderation” may work well for some children, it may not work for all of them. You could introduce it as an experiment rather than a punishment and only follow through with it if they are on board with the plan. You do not want to make the choice to restrict behavior unless they are in agreement with the decision. If it is imposed, it will most often lead to obsessing and seeking out those foods, whether in secret or out in the open. Again, similar to how an addict would be desperate for their fix.

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It is hard to think about food as an addiction and our children potentially being addicted. It puts things into perspective and provides direction as to how we can find suitable ways to best help them and understand their plight. We can directly make changes with our children and more globally if we are willing to be assertive and proactive. Our children have the fundamental right to thrive and be given the tools to enable them to reach their full potential. With more awareness of the issues that impact them and a willingness to help them, we as parents, can make all the difference.

Here is a Praising Our Accomplishments Guided Mediation led by me.


[i] Gearhardt, A.N., Corbin, W.R., & Brownell, K.D. (2009). Preliminary validation of the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Appetite, 52(2), 430–436.

[ii] Goodman, E. (1999). Ads pollute most everything in sight. Albuquerque Journal. C3.

[iii] McNeal, J. (1992). Kids as customers: A handbook of marketing to children. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

[iv] Blumenthal D.M. & Gold M.S. (2010). Neurobiology of food addiction. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 13(4),359–65. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e32833ad4d4. PMID: 20495452.

[v] Solinas, M., Goldberg, S. R., & Piomelli, D. (2008). The endocannabinoid system in brain reward processes. British journal of pharmacology, 154(2), 369–383. https://doi.org/10.1038/bjp.2008.130.

[vi] Volkow, N. D., Fowler, J. S., & Wang, G. J. (2003). The addicted human brain: insights from imaging studies. The Journal of clinical investigation, 111(10), 1444–1451. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI18533.

[vii] Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 32(1), 20–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019.

[viii] Hebebrand, J., Albayrak, O, Adan, R, et al. (2014). “Eating addiction” rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 295–306.



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Dr. Michelle Maidenberg

Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R works with children age 8 and above, adolescents, teens, and adults. Michelle is the Co-Founder of “Thru My Eyes”