Food Addiction - My Experience
Food addiction is one of the lesser known eating disorders. If you’re a food addict, however, you know it’s real. I know because I’m one. I think I always have been. I have friends and colleagues who struggle with this, too. We’re always hearing about eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but food addiction isn’t often in the news, although it’s surely more widespread. Not all food addicts are overweight, either, although many are. Doctors speculate, however, that many obese people suffer from the addiction to food. And in the United States, obesity is a real and growing problem. I recently read that two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight, and that a third is obese. Wow. Those are pretty sobering statistics. Compulsive eating, overeating, and other types of eating disorders affect a lot of Americans, and that includes people from every walk of life, every educational level, every socio-economic group, and every ethnicity. It even affects children. Are they all food addicts? They might very well be. To learn more about food addiction, read on.
What is food addiction? According to many doctors and scientists, addiction to food is chemically similar to other addictive substances. In fact, some studies show that food addiction is almost identical to cocaine, alcohol, and heroin in the way the brain responds. Like some drugs, food can “turn on” the pleasure signals in the brain when food addicts eat. This is especially true when a food addict consumes really tasty foods that might be high in fat, salt, simple carbohydrates, or sugar. Sugar and simple carbs seem to be the worst culprits, like those often found in junk food. They affect the levels of dopamine in your brain, along with a release of endorphins, providing you with a quick “feel good” reward.
Of course, you also get a “sugar high” or “sugar rush” from eating sugars and simple carbs. Unfortunately, the rush is pretty quickly followed by a crash. Your blood glucose rises and then plummets. This usually leaves you wanting more simple carbs and sugars in order to get another rush or high. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds on itself, and it’s hard to break. Even worse, it’s probably a progressive condition. In other words, it takes more and more junk food to get the same feeling, or it might take foods higher in sugar and fat to get the same food high.
Many food addicts have a type of food that serves as a “trigger.” Mine is bread. If I could never have another dessert or sweet in my life, I could live with that. But I love bread – buttermilk biscuits, sourdough bread, yeast rolls, muffins, toast, etc. And it has to be spread with lots of butter or margarine. Once I start eating bread, it’s hard for me to stop, so I usually just avoid it completely, unless it’s some type of very low carb bread, which I sometimes make myself. I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about. We dine at Red Lobster often, and I’m addicted to their garlic-cheese biscuits. I can down three before I even realize it. When we go there now, I ask the waitress not to bring any bread to our table. If I’m with someone who wants biscuits, I ask him or her how many he or she is going to eat. If the answer is “one,” I ask the wait staff to bring us just one biscuit.
Why am I sure I’m a food addict? I’m pretty obsessed with food. I love to cook, and I love to share my cooking with family and friends. I love everything about food – the way it looks, the way it smells, the way it feels in my mouth, and, of course, the way it tastes. I like looking at pictures of food, shopping for food, and preparing food. I love coming up with new recipes, and I even have my own cooking site where I feature many of my original recipes.
But why do I overeat, and why am I overweight? There are plenty normal-size and even some skinny chefs who seem just as obsessed with food as I am. And besides, practically every human being alive enjoys eating. My husband isn’t overweight, and he loves food. In fact, he has a ravenous sweet tooth and goes through a quart of chocolate milk and half a bag of powdered donuts just about every night after dinner. Why isn’t he fat? It’s not like he gets a lot of exercise, either. I can outwalk him on any given day, except when my knee is out. I guess it’s because he’s not a food addict. Maybe eating that junk food that he enjoys tastes good to him, but perhaps he doesn’t get that same brain reward that food addicts experience.
Compulsive eating is described by the dictionary as frequent or continuous overeating, and it’s probably one of the most widespread eating disorders in the United States. Compulsive eaters often feel like they don’t have control over their appetite, and they often eat even when they’re not hungry. They might snack often between meals, and they might not put much thought into what they eat. If it’s handy, they might very well eat it, and hunger has very little to do with their desire for food.
It’s not surprising that compulsive eating is a huge problem today. We’re surrounded by the sight and the smell of food every day. You can’t watch television without being inundated with ads for hamburgers, fries, pizza, and candy. You can’t walk through a mall without being exposed to the smells of cookies, pretzels, corn dogs, and other foods being cooked. Food is everywhere, and it’s readily available. Even when you don’t want to leave your home, all you have to do is pick up the phone to have it delivered right to your door. Food is relatively inexpensive these days, too, although it might not seem so based on rising prices in the supermarkets. Actually, though, most of us spend a smaller portion of our household budget on food than our parents did. Several fast food chains now have dollar menus, so you can get a double cheeseburger and fries for just two bucks. It’s usually the healthy foods that are more expensive, including whole fresh foods like vegetables, fruits, and lean meats. It’s really no wonder we’ve become a nation of compulsive eaters. We’re constantly being told we’re hungry and that we need to enjoy a milkshake, some fried chicken, or some donuts.
Food is a big money-maker. I know here in the Deep South, if you want to make money for your group or organization, you have a bake sale, a candy sale, or sell tickets for barbecue. Oftentimes, the people who make the most money at festivals, parades, and fairs are the ones who have food booths. People will stand in long lines to get funnel cakes, onion rings, cotton candy, and other high calorie foods. Sometimes they don’t even care much about the prices of their “quick fixes.” Food manufacturers have picked up on this, too. They know just how to appeal to compulsive eating, with added sugar, salt, and/or fat. Food can be a drug, and it can be found in pre-packaged, ready-to-eat highs.
Overeating is a little different than compulsive eating, although the two are often associated and might overlap, and both might also be seen as eating disorders. I’m not really a compulsive eater. I don’t eat continuously or even frequently. My normal habit is to eat just one big meal a day. Beginning last January, I made a conscious decision to eat more meals during the day, instead of eating one large meal in the evening. According to my primary care physician, eating several small meals a day will help maintain my metabolism and keep my blood sugar levels normal. I’m trying to follow her advice. I also cut way down on the amount of carbs I eat, and I’ve reduced my overall caloric intake. I’m exercising, too. The results? I’ve lost seventy pounds, but because I’m a food addict, it’s a constant battle.
There a lot of different reasons for overeating. Some people eat out of boredom, and I’m sometimes guilty of this. If I’m sitting in front of the TV at night, my mind often drifts to the kitchen. I begin wondering what’s in the pantry and the fridge. I’m not hungry – I’m bored. I can usually suppress this urge, as I’ve probably just polished off a big meal. I try to remind myself of this, and I’m usually successful.
Why do I overeat? I think I overeat because it’s such a pleasurable experience for me that I don’t want to stop eating even when my tummy tells me it’s full. I rarely eat to the point of being physically sick, but I always feel guilty about overeating after the fact. By the way, that guilt is another sign of food addiction, and some addicts force themselves to throw up after they eat, as is the case with bulimics. Okay, I’ve never felt that guilty about eating. Food addicts often have a love-hate relationship with food. This is especially true if the addict is overweight.
Why Do I Overeat
Why do I overeat? I’ve been asking myself that question for years, and many other food addicts have asked themselves the same question. I’m sure a psychologist or psychiatrist would tell me that overeating is a sign of some deeply rooted emotional problem, like I eat because I’m depressed or because some emotional need isn’t being met. I don’t think this is always true. I’m a very happy person and always have been. I’ve never suffered from chronic depression, and I have a lot of good friends and a wonderful family. I also have a great husband and am retired from a rewarding career.
I don’t overeat because I’m sad or worried. In fact, at times like those, I often lose my appetite. I eat when I’m happy, and I associate food with happiness and fun. That’s the way I grew up. Food was always very important in my family, and my father owned a grocery store. My parents grew up during the Great Depression, when food was pretty scarce at times, so I’m sure that’s one reason food was a biggie with them. They didn’t want their kids to ever be hungry like they were.
My mom was a great southern cook, as were all the female members of my family. My grandmother, my aunts, and my mother would have been terribly embarrassed if they didn’t have homemade cookies, tea cakes, or a slice of cake or pie to serve unexpected visitors. Mom and my aunts also enjoyed hosting afternoon teas, seated desserts, and bridge parties, with lots of goodies. Some would always be saved for my dad, my brother, and me. My family could never get together without including some type of food – a meal, hors d’oeuvres, or a dessert. When some event was planned – even a casual get-together – the first thing that popped into our heads was “What should we serve?” If we were going out of town shopping or to see a doctor, we planned ahead where we’d go out to lunch. When we were going on vacations, deciding where we’d eat was a big deal.
I think I overeat because I associate food with happiness and with pleasant childhood memories. I don’t fully understand this, though, because I can be happy without food. I associate food with many of the things I enjoy, but not all of them. I absolutely love fishing, for example, and I never associate going fishing with eating. I’ve had to learn to find more enjoyable activities that don’t involve eating.
Food Addiction Treatment:
Food Addiction Treatment
Overcoming food addiction or other eating disorders isn’t easy. Unlike most other addictions, you can’t give this one up “cold turkey.” You have to continue eating in order to survive. Therein lies the difficulty with overcoming food addiction. If you’re an alcoholic, for example, you can vow to never drink again. You can avoid others who drink, and you can keep alcohol out of your home. Obviously, you can’t do that with food.
Learn your food triggers and avoid them. As I said above, I know bread is a trigger for me, so I pretty much avoid it. I learned to make my own low carb bread and muffins, and those somewhat satisfy my cravings.
Learn to enjoy healthy foods. I’ve sort of programmed my brain to get excited about healthier food choices. Since I’m on a low carb diet, that includes lean meats, fish, and low carb vegetables. I try to include plenty of protein and fiber in my meals, and if I want something between meals, I turn to low carb high protein snacks. They keep me full and satisfied for a longer period of time because they take longer for the body to digest, and they keep my blood sugar on an even keel.
Break up with sugar and simple carbs. More and more evidence is being found that reveals how unhealthy sugars and simple carbs are for the body. Unfortunately, some form of sugar is in many of the foods we eat. Learn to avoid these culprits. It’s hard at first, but you’ll find that once you make a clean break, your cravings for things like sugar, corn syrup, and foods made with white flour will sharply decrease.
Reduce stress. If you're a stress eater, learn to reduce stress with meditation, exercise, yoga, prayer, soothing music - whatever works for you. It's also important that you get plenty of quality sleep.
Plan your meals in advance. I try to make sure I have plenty of low carb foods on hand for meals and snacks. That way, when I’m hungry, I’m not as tempted to grab the first thing I find in the kitchen to munch on. I think about meals in advance and make out a grocery list accordingly.
Change your dining out habits. I've always loved going out to eat with friends, and I still do. You don't have to give this up. You can order broiled fish, grilled chicken, or a big salad. Sometimes when I go out to eat with a friend or family members, I might order just an appetizer, like a shrimp cocktail. I still get the enjoyment of chatting over food in a restaurant.
Make your meals enjoyable and attractive. Don’t eat over the kitchen counter. Make your plate and sit down to eat, and enjoy your food slowly. It takes your brain a few minutes to get the “full” signal. The food will be more satisfying if it’s appealing in taste, smell, and visual presentation. Experiment with spices and herbs to get more of a “flavor fix.”
Stay busy. When I’m craving food but know that my body doesn’t need any, I try to get my mind on something else. I go for a walk, go visit a friend, or go shopping.
Start moving! When I was working out at a local gym regularly, I found that strength training and weightlifting gave me a great feeling. Some people get the same reward from aerobic exercise. That’s because pleasurable endorphins are released through exercise. I haven’t been able to work out lately because of a knee injury, but as soon as that’s taken care of, I’ll be hitting the gym again.
Can you beat food addiction? Yes, but overcoming food addiction for a real addict is going to be a difficult battle, and that battle will probably continue for the rest of your life. Believe me, though – it’s a fight worth pursuing. I feel like a new person since I’ve shed some fat, and I know I’ll feel even better after losing more. All my blood tests have improved, too, including readings for HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood glucose. You might want to try the above tips for food addiction treatment first. If they don’t work for you, you can seek help from groups or from professional therapists. A couple of support groups you might want to check out are Food Addicts Anonymous and Food Addicts dot org. Know that you’re not alone – you have lots of company! Sometimes just talking to close friends and family members can be helpful. And, by the way, it’s never too late to start. I was around fifty years old when I finally admitted my food addiction.