Addiction does not always have to involve an addictive substance or drug, as the term can be used to describe an excessive behavior such as compulsive eating. While there are different schools of thought and the scientific literature in the area of food addiction is still in the beginning stages, many experts believe that addiction to food really isn’t about the food.
To elaborate further, foods do not have addictive properties that make someone depend on them, unlike chemical substances. Food addiction has more to do with how a person behaves around food, what they think about food, and the way habits are formed with food. The habits are the real source of the addiction.
Food can become a way to cope with emotional matters, and the repetition of this coping mechanism can breed an addiction. By using food as a means to deal with anxiety, stress, grief, and the like, the body becomes conditioned to crave that process to feel relief.
People often associate pleasure with foods that contain fat, sugar and salt. As innocent as it may seem, this starts at a young age when candy and soda are given as a “treat” or “reward” for good behavior, grades or a celebration. Research studies have shown the reward centers of the brain to light up and release dopamine when pleasurable foods are consumed. Could this be that we’ve conditioned our bodies to react this way?
The slippery slope of food addiction
Someone doesn’t just decide that he or she wants to feel out of control with food. It’s often a slippery slope that leads a person into an addiction with food. Below are some of the warning signs and common traits among people suffering from a food addiction:
- Changes in mood
- Labeling food as “good” and “bad”
- Restrictive dieting
- Eating in secret or sneaking food
- Feeling out of control with food
- Rewarding/treating yourself with food
- Thinking about food all the time
- Feeling unsatisfied even after meal times
- Weight fluctuations and/or difficulty managing weight
- Body dissatisfaction
- Feeling disgusted, guilty or upset after eating
- Feeling stressed or tension that is only relieved by eating
How to overcome food addiction
Recovering from a food addiction is a process, and one that is worth taking to find freedom from food. Taking the power back from food often requires a team approach in order to achieve a full recovery. Here are a few steps to take to help someone recovering from food addiction:
- Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food. In traditional 12-step addiction-based recovery models, addicts are challenged to remain abstinent for healing. However, with food addiction, one can’t simply abstain by not eating, as food is essential to life. Thus someone suffering with food addiction must learn how to eat properly again by establishing a healthy relationship with food.
- Set Boundaries with Unsafe Foods. Typically, trigger or “unsafe” foods are removed from the diet and boundaries are set so that managing these foods in a healthier way can be relearned. If someone binges on ice cream when he or she is stressed, it’s best not to keep it in the house. Eliminating the temptation until he or she can eat ice cream again in a balanced way is a safe option.
- Follow a Structured Meal Plan. A person suffering from an unhealthy relationship with food can get on the right track to recovery by following a meal plan and normal eating pattern. This helps the person set safe boundaries with food, and feel satisfied so that there is not a physiological need to eat. It’s more tempting to be out of control with food when there is physical deprivation.
- Learn Healthy Coping Strategies. Address reasons for turning to food to cope. Identify healthier coping mechanisms and strategies so that one can begin learning healthier means of dealing with emotions.
- Seek Professional Advice. Beating a food addiction is a process and does not happen overnight; it often needs to involve a registered dietitian and licensed therapist that specialize in the area of disordered eating. These professionals will help a person suffering from food addiction implement appropriate strategies, and provide accountability and sound advice.
Recovery from a food addiction is achievable. If you or a loved one is suffering, share this article, provide reassurance, and encourage him or her to find professional support.
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