Is Food Addiction a thing?
I know it is, and I have been struggling with it for over 20 years.
It first seems to start with binge eating here and there; then it evolves to emotional eating and a secret affair is born. Each time you feel sad or upset, you reach out for a treat. You do it to either manage stress, increase positive affect or numb negative emotions. Finally, it gets so bad, so out of control, that I see no other way to approach it than to call it an addiction. It becomes a chronic problem – and, like any other type of addiction, it affects your wellbeing and quality of life.
You are a food addict when you continuously use food impulsively and compulsively. Impulsive and compulsive eating are often used interchangeably and easily confused but they are two different conditions. We say someone is eating impulsively when they pick and eat food without conscious awareness of the consequences of doing so. They just crave the thrill they perceive a particular food or meal might give them.
Compulsive eating means someone is binge eating and they know the consequences and the negative impact certain foods in high quantity have on their body. For instance, there was a time I was having issues with peanuts and I knew I should not have them. They were likely to trigger and ignite a nasty migraine. I knew my body would react badly to peanuts and yet I had them anyway, one packet at a time. I’d become obsessed with the sensorial experience I had associated with them – a salty, crunchy feast in my mouth which distracted me, although temporarily, from my feelings of anxiety and discomfort.
The Experience of Food Addiction
Both impulsive and compulsive eating make overcoming food addiction a hard journey to talk through. On one hand, we want to get that “spike” or “nudge” we think a particular food will generate. On the other hand, we may well know that’s actually not accurate. We might even find ourselves conflicted over the fact we can’t stop a specific behaviour we know to be unhealthy and disordered.
When you are dealing with food addiction you have virtually no margin to stop yourself from using food as a desperate attempt to change your psychology. All your energy goes to cravings, the effort to restrict yourself, compulsion and then the emotional and cognitive hangover that comes with each relapse.
Over time, food addiction also aggravates judgment, decision making and our capacity to self-regulate. Combined with the psychological suffering associated with the condition, it is well known that high consumption of sugar and saturated fat harms brain health and functioning.
Unlike alcohol or cocaine addiction though, we can’t entirely say food addiction is a substance problem. It is a behavioural problem and more psychological in nature. You can go through withdrawal when you decide enough is enough but it is your mind that craves certain foods, not so much your body as it happens with drugs.
Is food addiction substance abuse?
Food addiction falls in the category of process addiction rather than substance addiction. The same happens when we talk about gambling or shopping addiction. When someone is addicted to food, they are more addicted to the process in itself – the behavioural intricacies of the act of overeating than the substance alone.
The whole act in itself seems to be satisfying and psychologically rewarding. When a food addict indulges in food, dopamine is released in the brain. That’s why we get “pleasure” or “high” on food. The behaviour is surely serving a purpose and satisfying a need, which is to either increase the experience of “good feelings” or distract ourselves from negative ones.
For this reason, the behaviour ends up being reinforced. However, the number of times a food addict needs to repeat that same behaviour, just to get the same effect, increases. That’s when the addiction escalates and it becomes harder and harder to break free from it. And unlike alcohol or drugs, you still need food to survive so you are constantly being requested to remain mindful about what, when and why you eat.
A Never Ending Cycle of Restriction, Compulsion, and Shame
The satisfaction a food addict gets from a binge eating episode is, nonetheless, temporary. Soon enough, a new cycle of shame, restriction and compulsion begins. We are back to square one and likely to feel even worse after each relapse. We probably put on weight and feel like a total wreck. So why do we do it? It makes no sense, right?
Well, for some people, this temporary solution is the only source of relief they have or can think of. It is important to remember that no one is an addict because they love the experience. Most people get trapped in addiction because they want to escape from a stressful event, a negative state of mind, or a lifetime of unmet needs.
Sometimes, the true reason someone engages in food addiction may not even be clear but it surely runs on a person’s subconscious and it comes out in the form of a compulsion to eat, causing harm to one’s health and wellbeing.
It can be hard to pinpoint the real needs and reasons behind food addiction. Behind a food addict, there can be a huge cocktail of individual and environmental factors.
From genetics to childhood attachment style, from personality to the environment someone grew up in, there can be a lot to unpack. For some of us, this can take a lifetime’s work but it’s the only path leading to healing and recovery.
If you or your loved ones struggle with food addiction, it is important to understand that there is always a deeper reason to engage in such behaviours. No one is broken for not being able to stop themselves. The solution is to investigate and seek professional help.
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3 thoughts on “Understanding Food Addiction and its Relationship to Emotional Wellbeing”
You made an important point, Vanessa, about experiencing the same dopamine effect and thus craving for more. I have heard about stress eating but I am sure it depends on various other genetics and lifestyle factors. Food addiction is a vast subject and much more research is required as modern society’s priorities change. I guess a full-body medical checkup and a consultation from a nutritionist can help.
I hope your journey to recovery and healing is successful.
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Very nice and informative post. Really enjoyed reading the content. Thanks for sharing.
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“Most people get trapped in addiction because they want to escape from a stressful event, a negative state of mind, or a lifetime of unmet needs.” This is a very powerful and true statement you made. Food addiction is real. My 600 lb life reality show is a true testament to this fact. Most times, food addiction as you mentioned, is tied to some level of emotional inner turmoil. Great blog post, Wellbeing Blogger.