It’s common for people to say they are “addicted to” chips, chocolate or some other food that they’re especially fond of – but a real eating addiction is no joke. Like all addictions, an addiction to food or eating (too much or too little) brings no pleasure. An addiction means that you’ve become reliant on a substance or behavior in a way that is destructive to your life and well-being.
Some eating addictions relate to how you eat (for example, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder); it’s also possible to develop an addiction, of sorts, to particular types of food.
People with anorexia are intensely afraid to gain weight. Though anorexia is often associated with adolescent girls, boys can also develop this condition – it can occur in adulthood too.
People with anorexia aren’t addicted to eating per se – their rigidity about what and when to eat is an effort to exert control. Though they need to eat food to survive and thrive, people with anorexia view food as an enemy and see eating as a weakness. They organize their lives around eating as little as possible.
Bulimia (Also called Binge Eating Disorder)
People with bulimia struggle with out-of-control eating. They have regular binge-eating episodes (usually binging on unhealthy foods, such as ice cream, cookies or chips). Though not all binge-eaters “purge” (exercise intensely, use laxatives and/or make themselves vomit to rid their bodies of what they’ve eaten and prevent weight gain), many do. Some people who have bulimia also have anorexia.
Sometimes people struggle with addictions to a particular food or type of food – usually sweets, carbohydrates and fat.
Interestingly, researchers are now finding many connections between these foods and mood. For example, consumption of carbohydrates has been shown to elevate levels of serotonin, the body’s “feel good” hormone and cravings for carbs have been linked to negative moods (depression and anxiety) as well as to fatigue.
Pasta, bread, chocolate and desserts are the foods most often linked to carbohydrate cravings. In one study examining the effect of carb consumption on mood, 79% of the subjects in the study reported feeling satisfied, happy, energetic and/or relaxed after eating the carb-laden food they craved.
Making a “Reactive” List
Although eating food is necessary to survive, eating and food addictions have little to do with nourishment. As is usually the case with destructive habits and behaviors, the choice to continue doing something that makes you feel bad – again and again — is “reactive” rather than active. In other words, if you have a terrible day at work and you walk in the front door to a messy house, a pile of bills and children who are arguing, you may head straight to the kitchen to grab some potato chips. You’re not eating the chips because you decided, on the way home, that it would be a good, healthy and satisfying snack – you’re eating them in reaction to all that stress at the end of a long workday.
Learning to “feel” your feelings without acting in a destructive way will help you achieve healthier eating habits. An important first step is to learn to pay close attention to your emotions and respond to your feelings instead of using food (or the lack of food) as a substitute.
This week, equip yourself to make a “reactive” list. You can start this process with your journal, which is a good place to keep track of what’s happening in your life – but I suggest that you also make notes as you go through the day (you can use your phone to leave yourself a voice message or send yourself an email).
The first step in conquering reactive behavior is noticing that you have reacted, after the fact. This takes courage and the ability to be brutally honest with yourself.
Take a moment and think back on the past three days. Did you say or do something that in retrospect you wish you hadn’t? Were there any times that you reacted without thinking? At work? At home? With friends? In the supermarket, while driving or even before, during or after a workout?
Jot down a few of the instances that you recall and commit yourself to tracking them for a week – without judging yourself. The point is not to feel shame about your behavior but to learn what’s behind it, which will then help you move on to the next step in healing.
You may be surprised by what you discover!