FEATURE: What’s the link between mental health and food addiction?

June 26, 2019

Bunmi Aboaba, a Recovery Coach specialising in food addiction discusses the link between poor mental health and food addiction.

Bunmi Aboaba
Bunmi Aboaba

AS the famous saying goes: “You are what you eat”. Not-so-famous is: “What you eat affects who you are on a day-to-day basis”.

We have a strong psychological connection with food, which can be positive and negative. Some foods evoke warm memories of childhood – such as a homemade stew or a certain chocolate bar you used to buy after school – but they all come with a biochemical and physical connection, affecting our mental health.

The connection between stress and eating can, sadly, start at childhood. A study ( by Dr Hill at School of Psychology, University of Leeds, looked into this further.

Dr Hill said: “It is well established that stress is linked to changes in eating behaviours. The current findings are concerning as they suggest the impact of stress on unhealthy eating may begin as early as eight or nine years old.”

Many people don’t realise the significant correlation between food and mental health… and how damaging it can be. It’s essentially a vicious cycle, so it’s crucial to know why our mental health is affected by food and what we can do about it.

Using sugar as an example: Sugar causes diabetes and heart diseases such as high blood pressure and hyperlipidaemia (high levels of fat in the blood that can ultimately block arteries). All of these can cause strokes, heart attacks and more. It’s one of the most dangerous food substances in terms of the effect it can have on your body physically. It also has a big effect on your brain and, in turn, your mental health.

A recent investigation ( comparing sugar and cocaine consumption in rats revealed something remarkable.

The rats took small amounts of cocaine until they were addicted and dependent on it. They were then given a choice between carrying on with the cocaine or switching to sugar. A staggering 94% of rats opted for sugar and demonstrated a lot more interest in the sweet stuff compared to cocaine!

Physical effects
The physical long-term effects of food addiction can also lead to poor mental health. Coping with diabetes, weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, reproductive problems, heart disease and gallstones will have a detrimental effect on the person’s psyche and self-esteem.

We can use stress eating and sugar as a benchmark for the link between food addiction and mental health. As you probably know, sugar can induce a very short-term rush of dopamine, but it also means you’ll get the dreaded ‘sugar crash’ where your body tries to bring your blood glucose back to normal by triggering more insulin. This can make some of us crave even more sugar, leading to a vicious cycle of binge eating.  Your adrenal gland is also working overtime and pumping out cortisol and adrenaline at an alarming rate. These are the famous ‘stress hormones.’ Many of us turn to sugar to get this quick fix. As a result, ‘stress eating’ sugary foods can actually greatly increase stress.

Food addiction is a one-way ticket to setting up a vicious cycle where the person will binge again just to make themselves feel better. They do it to release the serotonin and the dopamine to get the endorphins rushing… to create that high, only to crash again and feel depleted and crushed, and round we go again.

And what happens when you feel crushed? Psychologically you may feel disgust in yourself, asking “Why did I do it, I don’t feel too great.” This is only a fraction of what someone who is suffering from food addiction will feel.

Food addiction and mental health
Studies ( suggest that there is a solid link between food addiction, depression and anxiety disorders and there are higher rates of depression within the food addicted group than individuals who aren’t addicted.

Conversely, food addiction might also be the result of psychological factors.  Factors included in this category are emotional or sexual abuse, being a victim or survivor of a traumatic event, having an inability to healthily cope with negative situations, chronic low self-esteem, or experiencing grief or loss. Psychological factors such as these can influence an individual to use food as a coping mechanism to relieve the painful emotions that may have resulted.

Binge eating will initially lead to feelings of relaxation and comfort, which I call a “carb high”, followed by what can only be described as severe emotional distress. You may find yourself using words used such as “shame,” “disgust,” “guilt” and even “I loathe myself.”

The effort it takes for many to keep this going is monumental, from the minute the person wakes up, the obsession and compulsion is there. Food is the predominant, overriding thought of the day. Not only does binge eating itself damage your mental health, it takes up a lot of mental energy to plan a binge whilst going about daily routines. Procuring food is a ritual and a military operation.

On top of all that, people may feel exhausted in the morning after a carb hangover, this all leads to poor mental health. Anxiety and stress sets in and life becomes unmanageable. The person finds it harder and harder to cope with daily life, leading them to binge even more.

Chicken or egg?
Overall, it is definitely a chicken and egg scenario. Some specialists chose to treat the psychological factors first before the addictive behaviour around food and others treat the food addiction first before addressing the person’s psychological issues.

I lean towards approaching the food side of things first with a support system in place so mental health issues can be addressed.

Dr Bunmi Aboaba
is a Recovery Coach specialising in Food Addiction, helping clients to achieve a healthy relationship with food to meet long-term health goals.  Dr Bunmi’s work covers the full spectrum of disordered eating, including overeating, compulsive eating, emotional eating, addicted eating and other associated patterns. Dr Bunmi is also creator of the first Certified Food Addiction Certification to support nutritionists, personal trainers, dieticians and clinicians to help their clients achieve long-lasting results. Dr Bunmi also runs 7-day self-care retreats for clients suffering from disordered eating.