Imagine living in a world where your drug of choice was on sale everywhere you turned. How tough would it be to stay sober? How hard would you fight to recover in the face of a culture that encourages consumption?
Those are the tough questions faced by the millions of people who struggle with food addiction.
“My drug is cheap, the cheapest of all drugs, and therefore the most pernicious,” writes Vera Tarman in her book Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction.
Tarman continues: “My drug is everywhere I look: in the drive-through gas station’s convenience store, in the supermarket, on the lusciously displayed menu of an exclusive restaurant.”
But then, how do you know if your daily drive-through stop is a just bad habit, or something more? What if you feel compulsive about your food intake, your daily soda, or your rich dessert?
That’s the topic of today’s post.
What is Food Addiction?
The Food Addiction Institute (FAI) defines food addiction as, “a cluster of chemical dependencies on specific foods or food in general.”
This addiction is about losing one’s ability to eat in moderation despite strong negative consequences.
There’s a biochemical component, too. The FAI notes that consistently consuming foods high in sugar, fat, and salt can lead to physical cravings, mental distortions, and an inability to find the “off switch” and stop eating.
We’re wired for survival, and that means that we seek out highly satisfying foods to keep us going. Processed, high-fat, and high-sugar foods are highly rewarding experiences for the brain. In fact, they rewire our brains in such a way as to make it harder and harder to stop eating them!
Yet food addiction isn’t just about the biochemical reactions we have to high-fat, high-sugar foods. Rather, it’s about our mental and emotional health.
When we use food as a buffer for our negative emotions, we’re very likely to develop a full-blown food addiction.
Common Signs of Food Addiction
Food addiction isn’t the same as obesity or eating disorders, though these conditions often go hand-in-hand. (We discussed Addiction and Eating Disorders in a previous post.)
The important thing to remember about food addiction is that it involves fixating on food as a source of comfort in the face of mental and emotional pain.
Food addiction is characterized by the following behaviors:
- Obsessive thinking about food; obsessive weigh-ins or calorie counting
- Compulsive eating; an inability to stop eating even when physically satiated
- Bingeing on certain foods; inability to consume a certain food without binge-eating (such as cookies or peanut butter)
- Private eating patterns that diverge dramatically from public eating patterns
- Desire to always eat alone and in private
- Developing significant health issues due to eating habits
Not sure if you fit the criteria? The Food Addiction Institute offers a free Self Assessment.
The Psychology of Food Addiction
Though there is a measurable physiological component to food addiction, most often the psychological drivers are even stronger. People are in mental and emotional pain, so they turn to food to alleviate their suffering.
Per Eating Disorder Hope’s article, food addiction is associated with the following mental and emotional health issues:
- A history of trauma, particularly physical and sexual abuse trauma
- Verbal and / or emotional abuse
- Low self-esteem
- Issues surrounding loss, grief, hopelessness, and despair
How to Heal from Food Addiction
There is significant overlap between Food Addiction and Drug Addiction, because both conditions arise out of unresolved mental and emotional pain.
The way to recover from food addiction is to find a way to feel the feelings that you’re stuffing down with food.
It’s about learning how to be with the sadness, anger, and anxiety you’ve been avoiding. It’s about learning proven therapeutic techniques such as Gestalt therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy.
It’s about finding the support you need to get through the period when you’re transitioning out of active addiction and into recovery.
Good News for Recovery
The good news is, the neurochemical changes involved in food addiction are reversible. We now know that the brain is neuroplastic, which means that new learning changes its physical structure.
If you change your diet and habits, you can teach your mind and body not to depend upon unhealthy food intake. This is a tremendously hopeful concept!
As Dr. Richard Friedman noted in our post What Do Cookies and Meth Have in Common? The Neuroscience of Addiction:
“It can take weeks and months [for the neuroplasticity to kick in], and sometimes longer, but it does happen. The trick is figuring out some kind of solution, socially and behaviorally, in order to deal with the discomfort during the transition from addiction to addiction-free life.”