Drugs and alcohol seem to take center stage when it comes to addiction and there is little support available for food addiction. Maybe if we were smoking sugar, or shooting up fizzy drinks, food addiction would get the same attention and support that other substance abuse problems do. Whatever the case, the physical, mental and social effects of food addiction are serious and should be treated so.
Processed junk foods have a powerful effect on the “pleasure” centers in the brain. Foods containing sugar, and other refined carbohydrates, are the most addictive as they are usually felt as most pleasurable. The consumption of these foods results in the release of dopamine (2), a chemical in the brain which makes us feel good, just like narcotics do.
When it comes to dopamine, chemistry trumps self-control. It “hijacks” the brain, meaning food addiction is not just about a lack of willpower but a chemical withdrawal.
So, how do you know if you are an addict?
1. Do you crave certain foods even when you’re full?
2. When you eat what you were craving, do you eat more than you intended?
3. Do you eat the craved food to the point of feeling “stuffed” or sick?
4. Do you feel guilty after, but then eat it again anyway?
5. Do you make excuses as to why you should eat your craved food?
6. Have you tried to quit eating or set rules, but been unsuccessful?
7. Do you hide your eating from others?
8. Do you feel out of control when it comes to the unhealthy food you crave?
Above are eight common symptoms, from the American Psychiatric Association, that are typical of a food addict. If you’re saying yes to 4-5 of these symptoms you might have a problem. If you’re saying yes to 6+… You might be considered a food addict.
Food addiction is not something to ignore. It can lead to serious diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Mental health can also be affected by addictions, especially if there is lack of support or inadequate help. Depression, anxiety and low self-esteem have all been seen in cases of food addiction as the struggle to control eating becomes overwhelming. Food addiction can also affect your social life and relationships. Avoiding functions, friends and family in favor of the addiction.
But, like any addiction, it can be beaten.
Just like a recovering alcoholic doesn’t drink socially, a food addict will need to go cold-turkey on the donuts.
Below are a few specific tips to begin combating food addiction:
- Manage triggers. Managing triggers is a common concept in addiction recovery, and food addiction is no exception. Write down a list of the foods you tend to crave or that trigger binging. Learn this list and stay far, far away.
- Get a back-up plan. Find some healthy fast food places to fall back on when you don’t feel like cooking. Thai stir-fry or Mexican salads are often a safe choice. Choose dishes with lots of veges and protein.
- Make a plan. Pre-planning meals means you won’t be left thinking about what you might want instead of what you should have. Preparing healthy meals with foods you genuinely like in advance should make this easier.
- Remember your reasons. Make a list of reasons to quit your addiction. Keep it with you, maybe in a pocket of your wallet, and look at it if you feel your motivation fading.
Another important step in overcoming an addiction is acceptance.
Accepting this new way of eating as a lifestyle choice, not a diet, is crucial and so is accepting it’s a process. Restricting your calories too hard too fast, or trying to lose a heap of weight right away, will make the process harder and a relapse more likely.
If you’re still unsure if this is worth the sacrifice, write down a list of pros and cons.
Pros: I’ll lose weight, I’ll live longer, I’ll have more energy, I won’t feel like my eating is controlling my life etc.
Cons: I won’t be able to eat ice cream with my family, no cookies on Christmas, I might have to explain my food choices… (Most of these social dilemmas can be solved easily…)
Write everything down, no matter how peculiar or vain. Then put your two lists side by side and ask yourself which is going to give you the best quality of life.
And if I relapse or keep binging on junk foods?
If you end up relapsing and losing control of your consumption again, then you are not alone. Often when battling an addiction you need more than just you in your corner. This is where health professionals, like psychologists or psychiatrists, and support-groups can help. Google search a food addiction group in your area. Find others who have beaten this, or are still battling, to encourage you. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be the one doing the encouraging.
There are several free options available, including 12 step programs like Overeaters Anonymous (OA), GreySheeters Anonymous (GSA), Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA) and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA).
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