Diet and Weight Loss

Food Addiction: When the Struggle is Real

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Many of my followers have asked me to talk about my personal battle with food addiction. I’ve wanted to talk about this for a while but had to take some time to think about how best to address the topic in a way that would inspire others who might be battling the same thing. I’ve struggled with food addiction since I was 12 years old. I’d like to say I beat it, but honestly at 43, it’s something I occasionally struggle with to this day, especially emotional eating.

If you’re reading this, you might be struggling with some form of food addiction too, without even knowing it. But knowing starts with understanding what exactly food addiction is. So, let’s start there.

What Is Food Addiction?

As implied by the name, food addiction is a type of eating disorder in which one essentially becomes addicted to food. This addiction is generally associated with eating highly processed foods rich in fat, sugars and salt. My struggle started with all of the above. At the age of 12, I spent all my waking hours thinking about food. At night, I dreamt of breakfast, which usually included bacon, butter-drenched toast, sugary cereal, chips and juice. 

On the way to school, I was already thinking about the battered fried shrimp or hot dogs with French fries I’d enjoy during open lunch. During my walk home from school, I couldn’t wait to get to the local barbecue house for my daily dose of rib tips or chicken wings with more fries smothered in sauce. Dinner would be my fourth super-sized meal of the day. Unlike all the other meals, this one would be the most nutritious as it was prepared by my mother.

Obviously, I wasn’t eating out of hunger. Eating behaviors are determined by more than just our energy or calorie needs. In the case of addiction, the mere palatable and, therefore, pleasurable properties of highly processed foods far outweigh our basic needs for nourishment. As with drugs and alcohol, foods rich in fat, sugars and salt, stimulate the release of dopamine in our brains. 

Dopamine and Food Addiction

Known as the “feel-good” hormone, dopamine provides intense feelings of reward. Simply put, it regulates our feelings of pleasure, including the pleasure we feel when eating certain foods. The problem with dopamine is that our bodies can naturally develop a tolerance to it. In the case of food addiction, as we continue to eat the fat, the sugars and the salt, we’ll eventually need to eat more and more of them to reap more “rewards.”

If we don’t eat them, as with other addictions, we’ll start to experience symptoms of withdrawal. With that withdrawal comes intense cravings for more food and ultimately an utter loss of control over eating. This transforms into a vicious cycle of liking, wanting and seeking out food rewards. Breaking the cycle is complicated by the fact that, unlike other addictions, we can’t just abstain from eating. We actually need food to live.  

How I Became Addicted to Food

I was bullied as a kid, so my brain was looking for rewards in all the wrong places. I was especially vulnerable to highly processed foods, as they were cheap and easy to come by. So, I turned to these foods for comfort. I ate these foods to cope with feelings of loneliness and isolation. As the bullying continued, I continued to eat. Over time, I couldn’t control myself around food, no matter how hard I tried. 

Making matters worse, my tendency to overeat eventually became a bad habit. Out of habit, merely taking the bus, studying or watching TV triggered urges to eat. Even when bullying was no longer an issue, I continued to habitually eat. 

All the while, my parents were completely oblivious to my poor eating patterns, as I was a latchkey kid. Over time, I started feeling shameful and guilty – but I just kept eating. Eventually, I started hiding and hoarding food, which led to even more shame and guilt. Needless to say, my eating behaviors ultimately led to significant weight gain. By the age of 13, I stood 5’6″ and weighed 215 pounds. 

Having noticed my expanding waistline, my mother called me out and immediately acted. She started keeping tabs on what and how much I ate, bought me a 10-speed bike and even introduced me to the gym. As physical activity triggers dopamine release, exercising eventually supplied the reward I was looking for. During this time, I also developed a love for running, which substantially raises dopamine activity in the brain.

Over the course of a summer, at the age if 14, I had lost 65 pounds. By my 16th birthday, I was on my high-school track team and had even landed a job as a group exercise instructor at the gym I regularly frequented. Though I’d essentially became “addicted” to exercise, this wasn’t the end of my food addiction.

A Constant Struggle with Food

I was able to temper down my poor eating patterns long enough to experience significant weight loss, but my battle with food addiction was far from over. Truth is, I’d never really addressed the underlying cause of this addiction. Even with all my successes, I still found pleasure in eating highly processed foods. Boredom, stress, sadness and even happiness, all triggered urges to eat these foods.

The only difference was that I managed my weight by balancing out my overall calorie intake with exercise.

It was not until my junior year in college that I finally acknowledge my vulnerability to food, mainly because my degree was health focused. As I gained more knowledge in the areas of exercise science, nutrition and psychology, I was able to apply this knowledge to better myself and improve my relationship with food.

During this time, I also developed daily affirmations of telling myself things like, “I will only eat when I’m hungry,” “I will eat slowly,” “I will go for a brisk walk when food cravings hit.” Though some days felt worse than others, these affirmations did work, and I remained relatively consistent over the years. But I can honestly say that I’ve experienced the most success with intermittent fasting.

Intermittent Fasting Changed My Life

I’ve written about my intermittent fasting journey before. If you’re struggling with food addiction or managing your eating patterns in general, I highly recommend giving it a read. Back in 2012, I started eating one meal a day (now known as “OMAD”) – and it wasn’t for dieting or weight loss purposes. Being a wife, mother, business owner and PhD candidate at the time, I simply chose an eating style that fit into my super busy schedule. 

Back then, I didn’t realize that doing so would benefit my eating patterns over the long-term. Intermittent fasting has not only allowed me to dissociate myself from feeling as though I always need to eat, but it’s also allowed me to feel full, satisfied and pleasured from mindfully eating one large daily meal. As I’m no longer thinking about the next meal and the meal after that, I’m more focused, productive and present, both in work and in life.

Breaking the Food Addiction Cycle

Let me be clear, I didn’t write this blog to convert you to a lifestyle of intermittent fasting. My goal here is to offer some personal and professional insights to help you better understand the cycle of food addiction and better address it if you’re struggling with it. The first step is acknowledging that you might in fact be addicted to food. From there, you can take necessary steps to change your relationship with food. 

Though there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this, targeting habits is an excellent first step. 

Most people don’t realize that simple choices like eating fast food for lunch, buying a soda from a vending machine or even snacking while binge-watching TV are habits. Habits themselves are formed by different triggers in our daily lives. For some people, the simple act of being at work could trigger an urge for a soda in the morning or a candy bar in the afternoon. For others, a stressful day could set off a craving for fried food or sweet treats.

Food addiction generally manifests as a series of overlapping poor food choices rather than a single one. For instance, enjoying a doughnut with coffee, eating candy or chips at your desk and then grabbing take out for lunch – all in the same day – is a repetitive pattern of habits that increases the risk of addiction.

Small Changes Lead to Big Gains

As a healthy living coach, I help others make better lifestyle choices largely by inserting new routines into old habits. An understanding of triggers is essential to doing this. In relation to food addiction, understanding that emotions and feelings can be powerful triggers for many, I always encourage people to journal a lot. This is something I regularly do.

Journaling not only helps in identifying triggers that lead us to seeking out food rewards, but it also allows a safe space for analyzing and challenging thoughts and perceptions about food, developing coping strategies and recording outcomes on both the “good” and “bad” days. 

Whether or not you decide to journal, know that changing habits is a gradual process that involves slow, steady changes, as they tend to be easier to maintain.

With time, small changes can lead to big gains. Most important, progress should always be the focus, not perfection. This holds especially true when it comes to food addiction. Constantly seeking perfection can lead to self-defeating thoughts and negative feelings that further trigger poor eating patterns. Here at That Salad Lady, we want you to find delight in the eating experience.

In the here and now, one of the simplest ways to improve your eating patterns for the better involves the formation of one or more keystone habits. A term coined by Charles Duhigg, “keystone habits” are fundamentally simple, and very doable changes or habits that almost instinctively lead to bigger, better choices.

Keystone habits could be anything from taking smaller bites, chewing more and just being mindful when eating, to consuming fruit or fruit-infused water to curb sugar cravings, to breathing deeply in order to reduce the influence of stressful triggers on your eating behaviors. While these habits might seem small, over time, they can lead to better choices and considerably improve your overall relationship with food.

So, what’s your take on all of this? Let me know in the comments.

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