Everyone overeats at some point. It could be an extra helping at dinner or sampling every dessert at a wedding or eating for comfort after a tough day. Others set a New Year’s resolution to lose weight but they start, stop and never really let a new eating program take hold. All of these behaviors fall within the realm of “normal.”
Then there are people who are struggling with food addiction. It’s one of the toughest addictions to manage because, quite simply, we need to eat. Eating, for many, is a both a pleasure and a necessity.
So where is the line between overeating and being a food addict? Here are some things you need to know.
Food can be addictive. There was a time when people didn’t believe that food was a substance you could get addicted to. Overeating and obesity were chalked up to laziness, lack of willpower or gluttony. Now we know that for some people, food is like a drug. And food addiction can be as debilitating as any other addiction.
Food addiction can mirror drug or alcohol addiction. For some individuals, certain foods like fat, sugar and carbs can trigger the same pleasure centers of the brain that are triggered by addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin. One of the earliest 12-step food addiction programs, Food Addicts Anonymous, has long identified food addiction as a chronic, progressive disease.
There are behavioral signs. People suffering from food addiction tend to exhibit symptoms such as:
- Thinking about food all the time
- Focusing so much on food that it makes it difficult to function in daily life
- Spending significant amounts of money on binge foods
- Having decreased energy or chronic fatigue from food choices and overeating
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disorders, such as insomnia or oversleeping
- Digestive disorders
Psychological issues are part of the disease. Like most addictions, there are a host of psychological issues that often accompany food addiction, such as shame and guilt, low self-esteem, depression, and panic attacks and anxiety. They may experience irritability, especially when certain foods are restricted. Emotional detachment and numbness can also lead to suicidal thinking.
If you’re concerned about where you stand in your relationship to food, ask yourself these questions:
- Gorge on food beyond what is needed to quell hunger?
- Eat to the point of feeling ill?
- Go out of your way to obtain certain foods?
- Continue to eat certain foods even if no longer hungry?
- Eat in secret, trying to avoid letting anyone see you put food in your mouth?
- Avoid social interaction to spend time eating certain foods?
- Avoid going out because you’re ashamed of the way you look or feel?
- Steal other people’s food?
- Eat fast and furiously, never stopping to really taste what you’re eating?
- Find yourself more interested in what food is served at social gatherings than looking forward to being with the people attending?
3 Tips for Recovering From Food Addiction
Food addicts live for food but often feel consumed by it. A telltale sign of addiction is if you eat certain foods and cannot stop. Begin to gain awareness and control with the following tips:
- Identify and avoid trigger foods. Since many food cravings are shown to be related to allergies, allergy testing can be a good place to start. Separate the food you eat and at different times of the day see which cause a reaction, especially the craving for more of the same food or foods like it. Once you identify foods that lead to binging and cravings, gradually cut those foods from your diet and see how you feel.
- Notice your reaction after eating. If you pay attention, you may find that different foods make you feel different ways. For example, some people find that wheat makes them exhausted or sugar makes them feel anxious or depressed. Sometimes we eat more to cover up the reaction to the first food that caused it, or because we think more food will make us feel more grounded. This can make things worse.
- Practice mindfulness. When a craving arises, bring yourself back into the present moment with mindfulness exercises. For example: Inhale to the count of five, hold for the count of five, and exhale to the count of five. Do it again, until it quells the desire to overeat.
Compulsion is often born of an inner pain that we try to numb with food. The more we hide our problems, the longer they will run our lives. You are not alone. Reach out to others dealing with the same issues and find out how treatment can help.