Updated: Feb 23
“I am completely and utterly addicted to food. Once I start eating... I never stop.”
Food addiction is one of the many misunderstood topics that society grapples with today. This confusion, made worse by diet culture and “old-school” medical practitioners, can have long-term damaging effects on many people who struggle with food addiction symptoms. This misunderstanding feeds into chronic shame cycles and perpetual feelings of failure. Trauma and attachment histories are often overlooked and the need for mental health support ignored.
Many of my clients come in for the first time asking for help with their food addiction. They believe that they are at a high risk for cardiovascular disease simply because they are fat. Very often I get people telling me that they need help with their sugar addiction because “the Dr. on TV that wrote a book said that sugar causes cancer”.
While it is true that foods rich in sugar, fat, or salt can induce a rush of neurochemicals such as dopamine, allowing people feel good, this feeling in-and-of-itself is not harmful or addiction forming. It’s actually a blessing. Dopamine is a chemical that is released during enjoyable situations, and facilitates pleasure in the brain.
And as far as sugar causing cancer… well, what doesn’t cause cancer? In reality all cells REQUIRE sugar (glucose) for energy. Your body’s cells consume sugar constantly. This is the way a HEALTHY body functions. Your body NEEDS sugar to function normally. Eating sugar DOES NOT cause cancer (although in some cases, an oncologist may recommend limiting sugar for specific types of tumours that can increase in size faster with excess sugar). There are so many other factors at play (hormones, predisposition, lifestyle…) when it comes to cancer. It is not as straightforward as the Dr. from TV claims.
This is similar to the misinformation about cardiovascular health. In outdated research, BMI was the single measure used in studies to determine heart health. In fact, Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor of Harvard Health Publishing sites that the original authors of the study took accountability for its limitations and inaccuracies, admitting that it was “mislabeling millions of people as unhealthy and also overlooking millions of others who are actually unhealthy, but are considered “healthy” by BMI alone”.
More recently (2019), a research team from Columbia University presented findings at the American Heart Association (AHA) scientific conference. They found that women who tend to yo-yo diet (as little as 10 pounds) have a significantly higher number of risk factors for heart disease than women who have never been on a diet. They concluded that encouraging healthful eating attitudes while educating about the importance of filling your body with nutrient rich foods would better prevent additional risk factors than focusing on restrictive diets and BMI.
The difference between food “addiction” and addiction to other substances is that we actually need food in order to live.
We don't NEED drugs. we don't NEED alcohol. We don't NEED nicotine... but there is no denying that we do NEED food. And, as Yankie Greenberger, LCSW pointed out during his Mental Health Monday Live interview with Project Proactive on “Understanding Sexual Addictions & Moral Incongruence” food and sex stimulate the brain in the same way because they are both basic human needs. It is interesting to note that both disorders are not included in the addiction section of DSM-5. Perhaps it is because both are life-sustaining. It's a blessing that they are pleasurable because they both ensure the future of life and humanity. As opposed to the addictions listed in the DSM-5 which are a means to an end, both food and intimacy are in-and-of-themselves “end-goals”. They help us connect with people. In their purest forms, food tastes great, and intimacy feels good (although both eating alone and self-gratifying can be pleasurable, neither are as satisfying without the connection component). Connection is a basic human need. As Johann Hari said, “The opposite of addiction is connection”. Based on attachment theory, it is quite understandable that depriving someone of primal connections (and shaming them for their desire to connect in this way) would have long-term damaging effects.
A new study from Johns Hopkins University found that neurons in the Ventral Pallidum are linked to “Binging Behaviors”. There is a great article by Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today that delves into this, and other similar research in more depth, but the bottom line is that many of the latest research studies are pointing towards food addiction as being a bit of a stretch (although it might be semantics). But understanding that binging (and restricting) behaviors have different characteristics and treatment prospects than other addictions is actually very hopeful.
On the most simple biological level, food is to our bodies as gas is to a car. When a car runs out of fuel, it will no longer run - until the gas tank is replenished. Similarly, whether or not we engage in strenuous activity, our bodies are constantly burning calories just by breathing. We must replenish those calories if we want to continue sending healthy nutrients to the cells in our bodies. We can't abstain from food if we have the desire to be healthy.
Society has become fat phobic and judgmental. We are so afraid of gaining weight that we restrict.
How many times have you promised yourself “this will be the last cookie I will ever eat for the rest of my life” only to find yourselves stuffing your face with cookies because you feel deprived and obscenely hungry? You convince yourself that if you could just exercise more “self-discipline” you would be more successful. Then you shame yourself into thinking you are a failure. Feelings of hopelessness kick in, and destructive patterns take over. You binge on cookies again until you feel sick and can’t look at yourself in the mirror. You gain 20% more weight back than you lost on your newest doctor show approved, trendy, restrictive food-plan. Then you start the binge/restrict cycle over again.
Famous shame researcher Brene Brown explains that the more we feel shame and shove down the feelings that cause shame, the more it grows. When shame grows, it actually stimulates the very behaviors that we try to control. How ironic. We want to stop binge eating. Failure to do so causes great shame. We feel horribly shameful, so we eat to numb the pain of said shame.
We are taught to believe in myths - that if we feel deep feelings of guilt and shame for these unwanted behaviors, we can use those feelings to fuel motivation.
We learn to believe that if we do something "wrong" or against our moral compass, if we at least feel badly about it, it takes away some of the badness. In reality, we can never guilt or shame ourselves into lasting change. As I said before, guilt and shame actually fuel the fire. The painful feelings of shame are so hard to live with, that we will do anything to disassociate from those feelings for as long as we can.
In reality, we need to practice owning our shortcomings and mistakes. We need to take hold of our perfectionist tendencies and shift our mindsets to foster healthier thoughts and behavior patterns.
Have you ever gotten into a big fight with someone you care about, and as soon as the other person expressed their anger or hurt, you spiraled into destructive thought patterns and started beating yourself up about it? You might have thought that if you expressed what an idiot you were to them and how awful of a person you are, that somehow the other person would feel better about what you did.
The fact is, by reacting in this way, you are actually invalidating that person's pain. What you are essentially saying to them is that you can't accept that you made a mistake. It’s somehow easier for us to say that we are complete failures, awful people, that we will burn in hell, than it is to admit that we made a mistake. Often this black and white thinking is a learned pattern that is completely warped.
It would be a much more effective exchange to say, “Oh man, I am so sorry. I can see how much my behavior has hurt you, and I apologize profusely. Although I might mess up again because I am a human, I will try really hard not to do that again. I understand why it was hurtful.”
Own the mistake. Learn from it. Move forward. Try not to let the shame cycle kick in.
When we can learn to talk to ourselves like that, it can be the first step to healing binge / restrict behaviors that tend to lead to more serious eating disorders.
Something that has helped me tremendously is the “victory method” that I learned from a mentor of mine. Basically, you write 3 things down a day that you did right. It’s just as effective if they are smallest acts;
I was about to scream at my kids and I held myself back for one minute (just before I exploded… hey, I’m not perfect but I’m improving.)
I focused more during my prayers (or other meditative practice) than I usually do.
Even though I felt like I was drowning in responsibilities, I took 10 minutes to myself and went for a walk.
I was able to tap into my intuition today and realized that I really didn’t want to eat the chocolate cake that I was saving in my fridge. My body was really craving an apple.
Last year I held back from eating birthday cake at my son’s party because I was worried about food addiction and judgement. As soon as everyone else in the house was asleep, I ate the entire rest of the cake. I felt awful and beat myself up about it for weeks. It derailed my diet. Today, one year later, I ate a piece of chocolate cake at my son’s birthday party - the same size as everyone else’s - and I was full after eating ¾ of it. I felt satisfied. It was delicious and I loved feeling like I was part of the celebration. I did not feel guilty and I continued to eat mindfully without a hitch.
In today's world, we are so focused on results that we forget to value the process and effort.
Principle #3 of intuitive eating is called “Unconditional Permission to Eat”. This is probably the hardest and most misunderstood principle. It is the paradox of permission. According to this, the antidote to overcoming the feeling of food addiction is actually systematically making peace with the foods you have been restricting. With effort, you will come to the realization that food is just food. We eat to connect, to fuel and to enjoy... and then we move on.
Anyone who has labelled themselves a food addict will have a very hard time with this idea.
We need to learn to stop catastrophizing mishaps and take the pressure off, realizing that if we ate in an undesirable way that doesn’t feel good... it’s not the end of the world. Tomorrow is a new day.
“Mess ups” can be valuable information used to plan better for next time.
When we allow ourselves to notice things like “when I don't eat until dinner, I overeat and feel uncomfortably full” or “when I do not prioritize my self care, I use food to self soothe” we can start to change the way we approach health. Instead of responding in our typical patterns, we will start to ask ourselves “How can I better prioritize self care?” or “What nutritious foods can I keep at my desk so I don’t forget to eat during the day?”
When we consider mental health and the destructive powers of shame cycles when attempting to treat food challenges, the “prognosis” begins to look brighter and more sustainable.
So do you still feel like you are addicted to food?