The diagnostic construct of "food addiction" is a highly controversial subject. The current systematic review is the first to evaluate empirical studies examining the construct of "food addiction" in humans and animals. Studies were included if they were quantitative, peer-reviewed, and in the English language. The 52 identified studies (35 articles) were qualitatively assessed to determine the extent to which their findings indicated the following addiction characteristics in relation to food: brain reward dysfunction, preoccupation, risky use, impaired control, tolerance/withdrawal, social impairment, chronicity, and relapse. Each pre-defined criterion was supported by at least one study. Brain reward dysfunction and impaired control were supported by the largest number of studies (n = 21 and n = 12, respectively); whereas risky use was supported by the fewest (n = 1). Overall, findings support food addiction as a unique construct consistent with criteria for other substance use disorder diagnoses. The evidence further suggests that certain foods, particularly processed foods with added sweeteners and fats, demonstrate the greatest addictive potential. Though both behavioral and substance-related factors are implicated in the addictive process, symptoms appear to better fit criteria for substance use disorder than behavioral addiction. Future research should explore social/role impairment, preoccupation, and risky use associated with food addiction and evaluate potential interventions for prevention and treatment.
Keywords: eating behavior; food addiction; process addiction; systematic review.