How To Overcome Food Addiction: Eating For Strength
Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC Counsel The Mind, LLC
“I’m eating my feelings.” It is a phrase used often and innocently enough to describe using food as a method of coping. It is often spoken with some humility, or an entertaining edge, whether said on a TV show, or comes from the mouth of a friend. Although the idea of eating for comfort rather than nourishment is familiar to most, it rarely receives the type of scrutiny, consideration, or pause that other forms of coping such as substance abuse, say, or pursuing adrenaline spikes via extreme sports. Despite its supposedly innocuous designation, eating for comfort and eating to cope are potentially dangerous behaviors, and are often signs of food addiction.
What Defines Addiction?
The term food “addiction” is actually somewhat controversial. There is no single, agreed-upon definition of food addiction in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The term addiction is almost exclusively used to describe severe substance abuse. Consequently, it is challenging to craft a medically valid definition of addiction-including food addiction. Instead, several definitions have been put forward, most suggesting that addiction is a compulsive behavior that brings ill-effects to the person engaging in the behavior or addiction. Under this definition, many behaviors and tendencies qualify as addictions, and this is a positive thing. Refusing to acknowledge the intense, overwhelming, and seemingly impossible to overcome nature of addiction fights against healing and growth. Recognizing that addiction exists is an essential piece in mitigating its effects.
What Is Food Addiction?
If addiction is a compulsive, unhealthy love of or use of an item, food addiction is the compulsive, out-of-control, and unhealthy use of food. In some cases, food addiction is overeating or binge eating, while in others, food addiction does not have to be excessive in terms of amount eaten, but in attention paid to it. Addiction can be too unhealthy foods, high in unhealthy fats and sugars, or to foods generally, rather than being limited to a specific type. However, it is more common to become addicted to hyper-palatable foods. The type of food does not necessarily make the addiction: the response to food is the differentiating factor. For that reason, food addiction does not have to be to any specific type of food, food, or eating habit (time of day, for instance).
On this note, though, it should be mentioned: food addiction is not to be mistaken for pica, a condition characterized by feeling the compulsion to consume non-food items, such as chalk or dirt. Although these could seem to be indications of addiction, as it is a compulsion to consume, pica is typically driven by a nutritional deficiency or anxiety disorder and functions on a level separate from addiction.
Symptoms of Food Addiction
The symptoms of food addiction are the same as symptoms of addiction: cravings, shame, irritability, and compulsion. Although feeling hunger alone is a physiological indication, rather than a symptom, feeling hunger only toward a specific type of food could indicate addiction. These foods are typically high in sugars and fats and trigger a high pleasure response in the body and brain.
Food addiction is implicated if an individual:
- Craves a particular set of foods. If food cravings do not signal a nutritional need or indicate the presence of hunger. Instead, points toward nutrient-deficient, high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar foods, food addiction is more likely to be at play than pure hunger or desire.
- Consumes food without a biological or social need. Eating food without actually feeling hungry indicates something else at play, because the body is not designed or equipped to routinely take in excess calories and foods low in nutrient density and doing so can create adverse effects in the body.
- Consumes food to numb or deal with pain or other unpleasant feelings. If consuming food is done on the heels of feeling sad, overwhelmed, or other unpleasant feelings, it indicates that food is being used to numb or cope, rather than being consumed for fuel or survival.
- Experiences shame or embarrassment after eating. Eating is not a shameful, embarrassing, or inappropriate event; it is normal, natural, and necessary. If eating is accompanied by shame or embarrassment, and it feels impossible to stop eating, food addiction may be a cause.
The Underlying Roots of Food Addiction
In some cases, food addiction might possess a troubling cycle; overeating high-sugar and high-fat foods lead to lighting up the pleasure centers of the brain, which can create a highly stimulating response, similar to the addictive response elicited by substance abuse. Food addiction in these cases can seem to be a perpetually renewed cycle. Although food might not carry with it the same intense high provided by an illicit substance, high-sugar and high-fat foods can have significant impacts on the body and brain. They can cause an increased desire for or reliance on unhealthy foods. Turning to these foods as a coping mechanism can trigger both psychological and physiological food addiction symptoms.
Food addiction, like other forms of addiction, often has underlying roots in feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and even trauma, all of which can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including food consumption. Some of these are grounded in childhood ills, some of them are rooted in adolescence or young adulthood, and some of them arise after years of having poor coping skills modeled. No matter the precise source of the addictive coping mechanism, food addiction can be addressed and healed. Overcoming food addiction is possible-often through concurrent treatment with other health specialists.
How to Overcome Food Addiction: Learning to Eat for Strength
Food addiction can be a unique condition in that it often is best treated through multiple therapy modalities-including modalities not directly related to psychology and psychotherapy. Eating therapy, nutritional therapy, and medical evaluation can all play a role in the journey to overcoming food addiction, as there may be far more than one factor at play. There are distinct physiological responses that occur when an individual overeats, restricts food, or eats food in response to stress or overwhelm, and working through these patterns can help improve the likelihood of overcoming food addiction.
Perhaps one of the greatest aids in shifting attitudes about food, food addiction, and behaviors toward food is the understanding that food is not a reward or punishment. Food is not to be withheld from the naughty and heaped upon the worthy. Food is quite literally the fuel the body relies upon to function day in and day out and plays a role as critical to existence as air. Unlike many other addictive substances, food is not illicit, or inherently damaging; it is life-giving and life-sustaining. Overcoming food addiction and learning to eat for strength, involves multiple angles. These include:
- Learning exactly how food functions in your body, what it takes to eat in a healthy, nourishing way, and what it means to overeat and punish with food consistently will help develop a healthier relationship with food. A greater understanding of how your body can use food for strength and vitality, rather than as a coping mechanism or form of narcotic.
- Taking stock. Take stock of eating habits, especially when eating as a coping mechanism, is most likely. For some people, for instance, food is only used primarily as a means of alleviating stress. Food addiction may be inextricably tied to anxiety and stressors. For others, food might be a source of punishment, by eating to the point of feeling ill or shameful. In this case, food addiction may have been born of chronic low self-esteem. Taking stock will help begin to breakdown the most likely triggers of indulging food addiction and can help unearth some of the reasons behind the addiction.
- Learning about yourself. Learning about your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, and your pain and pleasure can help you move away from addiction because it can ease some of the uncertainty food is being used to bar against. Addiction is most commonly developed after trauma, pain, anxiety, or depression because all of these things can make life feel too unbearable without external aid. Identifying which of these applies to you, and which of these do not can help you start on a road toward healing any trauma, pain, anxiety, or depression, which can help alleviate the desire for or need to narcotize.
Healing from Food Addiction
Not all therapists will agree on food addiction. Some schools of thought do not formally recognize food addiction as an identifiable disorder. In contrast, others will argue that any form of addiction is a legitimate form of substance abuse. The substance is immaterial because the abuse is the issue. When working to find a therapy or therapist to help treat and overcome food addiction, be sure to find someone who understands that food addiction is a legitimate concern, as this will be paramount in crafting a treatment plan. There may be therapists in your area who are familiar with or specialize in food addiction treatment, or it may be best to seek the help of online therapy, such as the therapy provided through BetterHelp, to find a broader range of therapists. Whatever avenue you choose, select a therapist who is willing and able to go on a journey of food addiction recovery with you.
The signs and symptoms of food addiction can closely mimic other disorders, such as eating disorders and may even thrive concurrently with said disorders. The question of “how to overcome food addiction,” is often not a straightforward path, but instead is a path marked by numerous providers and healing modalities, including dietary interventions, lifestyle changes, medical intervention, and therapy. Learning to overcome food addiction can be difficult, as food is not something you can simply abstain from, to measure sobriety, and recovery may be nuanced. Having a team in place who can help guide and celebrate healing from food addiction is paramount. If you believe or suspect you or someone you love has a food addiction, the first step is recognizing that food-centered behavior has become unmanageable. The next step to healing is reaching out for help from a loved one, a therapist, a primary care physician, or even a 12-step program. Don’t try to fight this battle alone.