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Am I Addicted to Food?


By michelle_may_md on Jun 21, 2012 10:00 AM in Tips & Updates

By Michelle May, M.D.

"Am I addicted to food?" This question gives voice to a common fear among people who are stuck in the eat-repent-repeat cycle*.

The concept of food addiction is controversial—but more important, it is counter-productive. 

I'm not denying that people experience feelings of powerlessness over food. However, believing those feelings are a result of addiction leads to only one option: restriction and avoidance. Abstinence works for alcohol but food cannot be avoided.

Choosing to limit the exposure to "addictive foods" is helpful at first, but ironically most people discover that restricting the foods they really love only makes the desire for those foods grow stronger. As the cravings intensify, the feelings of powerlessness increase, not decrease.

Further, trying to avoid all of the "addictive" ingredients just distracts us from recognizing the underlying drivers for eating in the first place. Restrictive eating simply replaces overeating.

My observation is that part of what appears to be addiction is the belief that a food is "bad" or we are "bad" for wanting or eating it. We experience guilt or shame, perhaps even resorting to secret eating. The thought, "I shouldn't be doing this! I'm out of control!" is followed by another thought, "Might as well eat it all, for tomorrow I'm going back on my diet!"

The other main driver for this addictive-feeling spiral is the desire to eat food we like in order to avoid or suppress something we don't like. When we eat for reasons other than hunger, the satisfaction (or numbness) is short-lived. The underlying trigger is still present, and thus the cycle continues.

Without a doubt, the eat repent repeat cycle* must be resolved—but calling it an addiction takes away the power to change and prevents us from learning to use food in an enjoyable, moderate way. I know without a doubt that mindful eating CAN help people relearn to eat what they love and love what they eat—and deal with their other triggers in more effective ways. The problem is that most people who suffer don't even realize that there is another option besides abstinence!

What if Food Addiction is Real?

Now for a moment, let's assume that food can be an addiction for some people (or at least have addictive qualities). Can mindful eating help with food addiction?

Absolutely! In the article, “How to Break Free of the Addictive Fix,” Elisha Goldstein, PhD writes about using mindfulness to address addiction. The article quotes Victor Frankl, respected Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor:

"Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Whenever you feel like eating and pause to ask, "Am I hungry?", you are creating space between wanting to eat (the stimulus) and starting to eat (the response). In that space is the possibility for awareness about why you want to eat. If you're not hungry and pause to ask "What are my options?", you are giving yourself the power to choose your response. Therein lies your opportunity for growth and freedom.

Whether food is addictive is the question. Either way, mindful eating is the answer.

Your thoughts...

Are you addicted to food? 

* What is the eat repent repeat cycle? Read chapter one of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. 

Michelle May, M.D. is the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Workshops and Facilitator Training Program  that helps individuals learn to break free from mindless and emotional eating. She is the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. (Download chapter one free.)



Comments


In my experience with dropping the junk food, or just food you love to eat too much! It really does help to stop eating them. But not cold turkey, a little bit at a time, till none. You eventually forget what it tastes like and stop "imagining" yourself eating it and how its taste made you feel....therefore, you stop craving it.
I think its more of a habit rather than an addiction....but that's just my opinion, we all are different.



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There have been several studies that show our body responds to certain foods in much the way and an addict reacts to drugs, like this one  about people loving ice cream. I know I love it like crack! :)

Or this one about being addicted to water? and here I thought we were all addicted to water....but not like the people they mention.

Instead of being counter productive, information like this can be useful to someone trying to eat mindfully, since it informs us that perhaps our craving is being brought on by something that's happening in your brain.

As opposed to drug or alcohol addiction, the strong irrational desire for a particular food/ beverage is probably more like a sex addiction; destructive and unhealthy, but not an activity you could or should totally avoid in order to have a full happy life  (and marriage!). In this way these addictions may be even harder to deal with because they require integration, not irradication.

 

 

 



I think this is why intermittent fasting works well for many people.  Not eating for 12 - 16 hours (example: 8 PM to 12 noon the next day) then eating two big meals.  You teach your body to tap into your fat stores and realize that you don't actually have to eat all the time.  However, when you do, you can enjoy the food.



I don't know about scientific research and whether food is addictive but I do know that I have not eaten wheat, corn, or processed sugar products for a year and I do NOT have food cravings. I do not miss those foods and am content with what I CAN have rather than what I can't have. A book that really helped me sort through this addiction to food issue is Made to Crave by Lisa Terquist.


I have found that when I have a dessert w/ refined sugar, I continue to make poor food choices the rest of the day!  I will allow myself one oatmeal raisin cookie... and the cravings get worse instead of better.  Is this the addiction?  Wanting more and more?  Even if it's not another cookie, I crave empty calories after eating something like that.  Why?!  I started to feel like abstinence is the only answer.  Help!



Amen aprilkitty! I had weight loss surgery 11 years ago and lost 130 pounds and kept it off.  I volunteer full time to help others understand the disease of addiction that started with food.  Just like the studies referenced by another person who commented I have talked to someone who literally experienced severe withdrawal from junk food.  They vomited for hours.  I learned years ago that if I stop eating crap food that I will stop craving it.  Would you give an alcoholic a sip every now and then?  I haven't had more than 8 grams of sugar in anything for 11 years and don't even miss it.  It was only because I could admit that I was a food addict that I could start to combat the disease.  I have seen many people cross addict to drugs/alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling and/or smoking after having weight loss surgery.  I have known people who got sober in AA that switched to food and are now having weight loss surgery.  My favorite description of addiction is "uncontrolled use despite negative consequences".  The reason we end up in the "eat-repent-repeat cycle" is because the food is more important at the moment we eat it than how we will feel afterwards.  We are using food as a coping mechanism to numb pain we don't want to feel.    This article talks about the need to deal with the mental aspects when trying to combat obesity.  On top of that we have the food industry hiring scientists to invent the next super palatable food to feed our addiction.  The perfect combo of salt, fat and sugar even has a name in the industry.  Until we take a look at why we eat this way we cannot possibly fix it.



Original Post by: jdavenport82

I have found that when I have a dessert w/ refined sugar, I continue to make poor food choices the rest of the day!  I will allow myself one oatmeal raisin cookie... and the cravings get worse instead of better.  Is this the addiction?  Wanting more and more?  Even if it's not another cookie, I crave empty calories after eating something like that.  Why?!  I started to feel like abstinence is the only answer.  Help!


I absolutely agree with you.  I believe some people can do mindful eating and not be affected but I too am someone who seems to have an allergy to grains and sugar.  I am in my sixties and have tried mindful eating per my eating disorder therapist and frankly it doesn't apply to me.  I am fine when I stay completely away from the grains and sugar.  These kind of articles are misleading to people because they feel there is something wrong with them if they are unable to just have one; that is is all in their head or they can controll it.  You can control it if you are an addict (which truly some of us are) if you abstain. 



Original Post by: jdavenport82

I have found that when I have a dessert w/ refined sugar, I continue to make poor food choices the rest of the day!  I will allow myself one oatmeal raisin cookie... and the cravings get worse instead of better.  Is this the addiction?  Wanting more and more?  Even if it's not another cookie, I crave empty calories after eating something like that.  Why?!  I started to feel like abstinence is the only answer.  Help!


I absolutely agree with you.  I believe some people can do mindful eating and not be affected but I too am someone who seems to have an allergy to grains and sugar.  I am in my sixties and have tried mindful eating per my eating disorder therapist and frankly it doesn't apply to me.  I am fine when I stay completely away from the grains and sugar.  These kind of articles are misleading to people because they feel there is something wrong with them if they are unable to just have one; that is is all in their head or they can controll it.  You can control it if you are an addict (which truly some of us are) if you abstain. 



Although I appreciate the thought that went into this article, I disagree with its premise in general because: 

The author writes, "However, believing [feelings of powerlessness over food] are a result of addiction leads to only one option: restriction and avoidance."

Not all all.  Accepting that I am powerless over X has brought me freedom. 

I cannot eat certain foods without relapse into unhealthy eating.  That is fact born of my life experience, and whether or not the medical community recognizes that fact has no bearing on its truth.

What does matter is that I am free to choose to eat or not to eat the foods to which I know I am addicted.  Before I accepted that I am addicted to certain foods, I felt I had no choice in the matter, that I had to give in to their pull.  

But realizing I am an addict brought peace, because I also realized there are alcoholics and drug addicts who no longer consume that which harms them. If they can make that choice, I can make a similar choice with food.  I don't have to give in to the pull of X.   

I am an addict.  I will always be an addict. There is never going to come a day when I can eat my trigger foods without relapse.

Just as alcoholics and drug addicts handle their addictions one day at a time, I handle my food addiction one day at a time, remembering, as they do, that I don’t have to do this forever. I just have to do it today.

Three of the classic hallmarks of addiction are:

(1) Compulsion—I continue to use—or continue to crave—despite negative health and social consequences

(2) Tolerance—I need progressively greater amounts to reach and maintain my “high”

(3) Withdrawal—I go through extreme physical and psychological stress symptoms when I stop

I've experienced--endured--all three.  In fact, my tolerance had increased to the point that I was morbidly obese.  But the moment I accepted that I am  addicted, my compulsion eased. 

For the first time in my life, I could breathe. 

And as I suffered through withdrawal, I held on to my faith that I could learn to live with this addiction.

I don't crave X any more. There are occasional moments of wistful memory, times I remember mesmerizing myself right out of my own existence with X, but I don't want to go back there.

It's my choice, you see?  A choice born only after I realized I am addicted.

 

 

 

 

 



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I do think you can be a food addict, but it is psychological.  I started my "weight loss journey" by following 2 rules.  1) Never eat for comfort 2) Never eat for reward.  This helps with my psychological addiction, but it took a while to get the control where I could follow my rules, and they are great rules to follow!



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Original Post by: waterdiamonds

Although I appreciate the thought that went into this article, I disagree with its premise in general because: 

The author writes, "However, believing [feelings of powerlessness over food] are a result of addiction leads to only one option: restriction and avoidance."

Not all all.  Accepting that I am powerless over X has brought me freedom. 

I cannot eat certain foods without relapse into unhealthy eating.  That is fact born of my life experience, and whether or not the medical community recognizes that fact has no bearing on its truth.

What does matter is that I am free to choose to eat or not to eat the foods to which I know I am addicted.  Before I accepted that I am addicted to certain foods, I felt I had no choice in the matter, that I had to give in to their pull.  

But realizing I am an addict brought peace, because I also realized there are alcoholics and drug addicts who no longer consume that which harms them. If they can make that choice, I can make a similar choice with food.  I don't have to give in to the pull of X.   

I am an addict.  I will always be an addict. There is never going to come a day when I can eat my trigger foods without relapse.

Just as alcoholics and drug addicts handle their addictions one day at a time, I handle my food addiction one day at a time, remembering, as they do, that I don’t have to do this forever. I just have to do it today.

Three of the classic hallmarks of addiction are:

(1) Compulsion—I continue to use—or continue to crave—despite negative health and social consequences

(2) Tolerance—I need progressively greater amounts to reach and maintain my “high”

(3) Withdrawal—I go through extreme physical and psychological stress symptoms when I stop

I've experienced--endured--all three.  In fact, my tolerance had increased to the point that I was morbidly obese.  But the moment I accepted that I am  addicted, my compulsion eased. 

For the first time in my life, I could breathe. 

And as I suffered through withdrawal, I held on to my faith that I could learn to live with this addiction.

I don't crave X any more. There are occasional moments of wistful memory, times I remember mesmerizing myself right out of my own existence with X, but I don't want to go back there.

It's my choice, you see?  A choice born only after I realized I am addicted.

 

 

 

 

 


Well said.  I am a recovered addict and did turn to food.  Since cutting out all (as you say) X I have been able to watch a steady weight loss, finally.  I was a believer in everything in moderation but was unable to control it.  If I ate X I would spend the next day with an insatiable appetite.  I have finally found peace from these foods.

It has been proven by science that some foods cause the same response in your brain as certain drugs.  I'm not sure how you can argue against addiction with that proof.  And truthfully, why would I want to eat processed crap?  I now in my life treat myself better than that.



I have truly felt like I have an addiction to food. Even though I know things are bad for me and are making it more difficult in my life. I have done the cold turkey on giving up food and it worked very well for a while. Then one day it all crashed and I began eating more of it than I ever had before I stopped it. I also get really bad stomach aches when I don't get enough to eat. So I feel like I have to stuff myself so it carries me to the next time I eat. I have struggled with eating most of my life and I am so scared that it has carried over or will carry over to my daughter. I am trying to teach her good habits, but when I don't have them it is very hard. I have thought about diet pills and weight loss surgery, but then their is a side of me that really thinks that none of it will work for me. I also most times with medications have most of the side effects that are listed on the information. Thanks for listening. 



Certain foods I believe are highly addictive, especially to someone who has had a painful past and has not been able to cope with it.  A food coma is a much happier place to be than facing a bad childhood, a death in the family etc.  Certain foods are even advertised to make you FEEL better and we see this programming every day on billboards and commercials.  For example Arby's advertises "good mood food."  I have been a food addict, and admitting that to myself was one of the hardest things I've ever done.  Had I not done it though I certainly wouldn't be who I am today.  I suffered a tramatic childhood raised by an addict who left her children to fend for themselves.  I was homeless many times and molested and as a result ended up an obese child and adult.  Hard to face those facts, but having closed the refrigerator door has helped me to face this and be a healthier happier person, instead of slowly killing myself with carbs/sugar/fat.  Having hit 380 lbs at 5'4" I am so glad that I was able to see food for what it was in my life, a coping mechanism.  I have felt a lot of pain, and shed a lot of tears, and I swear tears have weight.  Having lost 230 pounds by working on the inside as well as the outside, I am proud to say I have kept that weight off for 2 years, and am in a place where I have been able to help many others face the true reason that they overeat.



hi all  , i am 54 obese /diabetic /high  b.p . from my several years of observations  i have noticed that the lady (the cooking manager) of the house is the chief  diet ,food  decider and manager in the house    She is responsible for the  quality , quantity , of food in the house and many of the eating habbits which get ingrained  from childhood ---overeating due to excess food remaing forms an important part of overeating

the activity meter is much to do with the man in the home

several outing ,games played , exercise , t.v. viewing habbits,  computer  habbits , and other electonic gadgets habbits get ingrained from the man (father ) in the house



I find that if I eat sugar I tend to want more & more. I do best when I limit my intake of sugary foods. Easier said than done. We are each individual and must learn what works for us.


Thank you for your comments and for sharing your personal experiences regarding this important issue. Many of you shared what you've learned about yourself and particular foods in the past. As a result, some of you have decided to eliminate certain foods and have been able to do that successfully.

That doesn't speak for or against "addiction" to those foods, but supports the concept that mindful decision making is absolutely essential for breaking free of the eat-repent-repeat cycle.

Others find that the abstinence approach actually leads to more overeating. We have had tremendous success in helping people break free of that patterns - including me! So, just because it has happened in the past, doesn't mean you are doomed forever!

Some of you might find two earlier CC articles helpful regarding your own decision making process:

The Three Most Important Questions to Ask Before Eating: http://caloriecount.about.com/blog/partners/three-most-impor tant-questions-ask-before-b546886 (This one talks about how to consciously decide how to balance what you want to eat with what you need to eat; if you feel some foods are problematic, you may decide you don't need to keep those foods around!)

Fearless Eating: http://caloriecount.about.com/eat-you-love-fearless-eating-b 394156. (This particular article addresses the self-fulfilling prophecy of believing that even one cookie will lead to a loss of control.)



I don't know. I had something with jaffa cakes, its one of MANY MANY MANY food addictions I have. I tried "everything in moderation. 1 cake. 10 minutes later, I've usually eaten 6, and will have more later. So I tried abstaining. As soon as I saw the pack, all control is lost, and I eat the same amount in double quick time. Nothing works! Can't abstain, can't eat in moderation, can only down it. Can't even avoid it because my family (except my brother) are all obese. HOW CAN I FINALLY BE THIN IF I CAN'T STOP EATING!?!?!?!?!?



I don't know. I had something with jaffa cakes, its one of MANY MANY MANY food addictions I have. I tried "everything in moderation. 1 cake. 10 minutes later, I've usually eaten 6, and will have more later. So I tried abstaining. As soon as I saw the pack, all control is lost, and I eat the same amount in double quick time. Nothing works! Can't abstain, can't eat in moderation, can only down it. Can't even avoid it because my family (except my brother) are all obese. HOW CAN I FINALLY BE THIN IF I CAN'T STOP EATING!?!?!?!?!?



Sounds like you are in a very good place. Congrats.



Above comment was for aprilkitty.

 



Original Post by: lynn81

Above comment was for aprilkitty.

 


Thank you!



I was binge eating a lot, I have a tendancy for it. When I cut my carbs by cutting out dairy, wheat and sugar I have been a lot more stable and satisfied by food and able to control my intake. It works for me.



I should say cutting down - I avoid dairy and wheat as much as possible and limit sugar.



Original Post by: dellk

I don't know. I had something with jaffa cakes, its one of MANY MANY MANY food addictions I have. I tried "everything in moderation. 1 cake. 10 minutes later, I've usually eaten 6, and will have more later. So I tried abstaining. As soon as I saw the pack, all control is lost, and I eat the same amount in double quick time. Nothing works! Can't abstain, can't eat in moderation, can only down it. Can't even avoid it because my family (except my brother) are all obese. HOW CAN I FINALLY BE THIN IF I CAN'T STOP EATING!?!?!?!?!?


I understand. It is a complicated process - the way our beliefs, behaviors, and biology all contribute to feeling out of control. I can only say that I've worked with many people who described a similar experience with various foods and are now able to eat those foods in moderation, without guilt, and without bingeing. It is not about learning to "control" yourself because willpower is a finite resource. I describe it as learning to be "in charge" instead.



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Original Post by: kmishl

I understand what you're saying, but having a "name" for something can be therapeutic. Let's say I feel I have a "food addiction" (much like cigarette addiction). I am admitting their is a problem, and with more awareness, insight, and external support, I can conquer this addiction. It can be frustrating to feel out of control, a failure, etc.. But now that I have a name for how I feel/my behaviors, I have identified a problem that is not a character/personality flaw.

I do understand that. Difficulty managing food is not a character or personality flaw - whether it is labeled addiction or not. Either way, it is an opportunity to learn a new way to relate to food and put it in its proper place - to fuel the vibrant life you crave!


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