It was a typical Friday night. After a long week of work, and of stressing and feeling down on myself about just about anything and everything, I stopped at the store and purchased my favorite binge foods: Popcorn, cookies, ice cream (2 pints, because I know myself, and one isn’t enough), Hershey’s kisses, a few Cliff bars, cereal, and milk. And in the checkout line I grabbed a few candy bars, just in case. I’d leave the ice cream out to soften while I started on the popcorn and began watching my favorite T.V. series. Then, on to the rest of the items. I’d go through at least half of that food before I’d feel completely sick and self-hating for what I’d done. 

I was a binger, for sure. But I was also a snacker, opening the refrigerator door numerous times a day, wondering what might be in there that could satisfy my cravings. I nibbled on leftovers, ooey, gooey, chewy things, and anything crunchy and salty. And whenever there was a bowl of candy at work, my hand was in it…several times. 

I even had a stash of goodies in my desk drawer. I tried to eat healthy when others were around, but when I was alone all hell broke loose, and I often lied about the way I ate. 

I was addicted to food. Food was what I used for distraction from uncomfortable emotions. But I didn’t just eat to take the edge off. More often than I could count, once I started eating, I lost control. I ate far more than I’d planned, and I ate until I felt sick. 

Yes, food addiction is real. But unlike many other addictions, like alcohol, you can’t just put the “plug in the jug”. So let’s explore how this addiction works, and how one can actually heal from it.  

What is food addiction?

Food addiction is probably one of the least understood addictions. Primarily, this is because you have to eat every day. It is also what makes it one of the hardest addictions to overcome…how can you possibly overcome food addiction when you have to have food in the house?? Overcoming food addiction doesn’t mean that you stop eating altogether, but rather that you stop using food in an addictive manner, or as a treatment for emotional turmoil. The best way to understand food addiction is to evaluate one’s eating behavior using the classic markers of addiction.

What kind of people are susceptible to food addiction?

Anyone who has a genetic disposition to a slow metabolism or an addictive personality, and who has had constant struggles with their weight is more susceptible to being an emotional eater or a food addict. My experience is that at least 60% of food addicts have also had abuse in their past, whether it was sexual, emotional, or physical. Often, they grew up with an alcoholic or otherwise addicted parent. There is also a larger population of disordered eaters that may be classified as emotional eaters, who may not have had a rocky childhood, but are still using food as a form of stress-relief. 

Seeing the Signs

With any addiction, there are signs that differentiate between eating for sustenance and eating as a coping mechanism.  When we begin using food as a balm to soothe uncomfortable feelings and situations, we begin to cross over into addiction.

  • Loss of control: Do you frequently lose control once you start to eat? Maybe you intended to eat one handful of chips and end up eating the whole bag. You promised yourself you would only eat a small amount of something, but then you lost control and binged. Or maybe you just continue eating to the point of feeling overstuffed and sick.
  • Denial: Many who are addicted to food will deny it, or deny the negative consequences of their eating behavior. Do you insist that you “just like food” or “are a foodie”.  What you don’t realize is that it is a dependence on food that is causing harm to your body and mind. 
  • Obsessive thoughts: Do you have constant thoughts about food?  Thoughts like when are you going to eat next, what you will eat, how you can get more of your favorite foods (and how to hide it), and how you will mitigate the effects of what you’ve eaten.
  • Disregard of consequences: Food addicts overindulge in spite of obvious signs of physical and emotional consequences. Diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune issues, metabolic syndrome are just a few of the negative physical side effects from eating large quantities of sugar and simple carbohydrates (the preferred choice of food addicts). Poor role modeling for family members, financial strain, body shame, and disinterest in sex are some of the emotional problems that food addicts most often experience. Yet a food addict will continue to gorge herself and disregard the harm she is causing to herself and others. 
  • Tolerance: This  is a classic sign of physical addiction, and can get just as real for someone who is hooked on sugar. It takes an increased amount of sugar in order to light up the pleasure center in the brain for someone who is addicted. So over time, instead of 3 cookies, it will take an entire box to reach the same feeling of satisfaction. 
  • Cravings: Ask any sugar addict whether they have cravings after quitting sugar for a few days and the answer will likely be yes. Withdrawals from sugar mirror withdrawals from many common street drugs. Unfortunately, beyond the physical cravings and addiction, there is also an emotional craving that food addicts experience. This is one of the main reasons why 98% of all diets fail: Unless given the proper tools to cope with the intensity of their emotions, food addicts will eventually give in to the emotional craving for food.

What are some unknown symptoms of food addiction?

Food addicts will experience physical withdrawal when they stop eating sugar and carbohydrates. They may also notice feeling irritable, anxious, and tired once they stop overeating more food than their body needs for sustenance. This is because food addicts are also emotional eaters; they eat to numb their emotions and to give them quick energy to take on the next thing that will distract them from feeling things. When food addicts no longer eat excessively, the feelings they were attempting to numb begin to emerge and they can experience strong, seemingly out-of-control emotions. This can include anxiety, depression, and crying.

How do food addicts receive treatment? 

Diets and eating plans alone will not stop food addiction for a sustainable period of time. It is only a temporary solution. A longer lasting solution is one that goes way beyond food.  The best treatment plan is threefold: It addresses the physical, emotional and spiritual.

Physical: Have a simple plan of eating that eliminates addictive foods like sugar and carbohydrates (carbs metabolize into sugar, which is highly addictive) and includes eating only three times a day. The benefit of this is that you aren’t in the kitchen more than three times, and you aren’t obsessing about when you’re going to eat again. Three meals keeps your body on a regular schedule, giving it time to properly digest before you feed it again. One of the biggest benefits, however is that three meals provide space in between meals so you can actually access your emotions and process them. Emotional eaters are accustomed to burying their emotions by snacking throughout the day. When you can access your emotions, you have the opportunity to grow through them so you can finally stop running from them by overeating. 

Emotional: 98% of all diets fail because when food addicts are solely focused on weight loss, they don’t develop the tools necessary to deal with the onslaught of buried emotions that come to the surface when they aren’t overeating. So having effective tools for facing and healing uncomfortable emotions is essential. When you are no longer tipped over by strong emotions you can feel more in control around food and make healthier choices. 

Spiritual: One of the keys to having more emotional balance is establishing a self-care ritual that helps to lessen daily stress. This can include spiritual practices like prayer and meditation. Anything that brings calm and a sense of wholeness will provide an inner resource and strength that can be drawn upon throughout the day and during moments of temptation around food. 

The bottom line is that no one can overcome a food addiction alone, and no one can stop food addiction in a vacuum. From my 31 years of experience living in freedom from food addiction and showing hundreds of women how to do the same, I know that it takes having connection and community with others food addicts and emotional eaters to overcome this life-consuming problem. And it requires a step-by-step system for addressing and healing the underlying causes of one’s addiction in order to break free and to live in freedom on an ongoing basis. With these key ingredients, no one has to suffer with or die from the consequences of food addiction. 

I’d like to invite you to join my free community, The Secret Sauce to End Emotional Eating, so you can start getting the help you need today.  

Not sure if you’re an emotional eater or a food addict? Take my free quiz to find out: https://www.healyourhunger.com/quiz/