“I’m addicted to food.” “I’m a foodacholic”. I hear many of my clients express these beliefs and if the truth be told, I used to say the same things about myself. I remember planning binges that consisted of high fat, high sugar, and high salt foods. One of my favorite “meals” after a long, hard week in the retail industry (many years ago) was two huge chocolate chip cookies, an extra large bag of Doritos, and a two-liter bottle of Tab (I said it was a long time ago). Can anyone find any protein in those choices? After eating all of that, or two large tacos, two orders of large onion rings, and two large cookies (yup, chocolate chip), I’d feel like I was in a fat and sugar induced coma. Soon afterwards I’d fall asleep and wake up the next morning with a food hangover. Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. Been there, done that, you’re thinking.
There’s actually science behind that physiological response. High fat and sugar foods activate the pleasure centers in the brain, producing dopamine, in similar ways that alcohol and drugs affect the brain. And the more pleasure we experience, the more we want. Right? Well, kind of. Just like brain altering chemicals eventually affect quality of life (an understatement), high fat and sugar foods and the impulse/ compulsion to eat more of them, can lead to obesity and numerous life threatening illnesses.
Okay, so now what? Do we throw up our hands and say not my fault, my brain (the devil) made me do it? A resounding NO! We go back to basics. Our bodies have innate wisdom. They signal us when we’re hungry and when they do, they want nutritious foods that will fuel both body and brain – proteins, complex carbs, fruits, veggies, dairy products (so many of these are delicious, so stop thinking BORING) – not high fat and sugar choices that make us lethargic, put us in metabolic crisis, and cause us to crave more high fat and sugar foods. If you want to explore the science behind the cravings, read The End to Overeating by David A. Kessler, MD, former FDA commissioner and self-proclaimed (recovering) overeater.
Our bodies are self-regulating machines so to speak. They need “fuel” every three to five hours and will send us signals when we need to “refuel” them. So if you’re wondering if you’re truly hungry, pay attention to hunger signals, (they often make noise in our bellies) and to the last time you ate. If you had a steak dinner and hour ago, you’re not hungry!
So many of my clients feel like failures regarding their relationship with food. “Why can’t I just shut my mouth and stop eating? Why don’t I have any will power?” Here’s where the similarity between substance addiction and overeating breaks down. Alcoholics and addicts can design meaningful, fulfilling lives, without using drugs and alcohol. We can’t do that with food. We need food to live. And to complicate our challenge, right from birth, we were given food for both nourishment and nurturing. Of course we associate food and eating with comfort and connection!
I love food and I love to eat. Eating is one of the most pleasurable experiences in my life. However, just as recovering alcoholics decide to acknowledge their addiction and take responsibility for their behaviors, those of us who have food issues need to recognize our areas of vulnerability, our trigger foods, and take responsibility for our behaviors. I can’t keep chocolate chip cookies or ice cream in my house but I can go out for a cookie or a cone! If we eat when we’re not hungry and eat so much that we’ve made ourselves sick, we need to look at what is driving that behavior. What areas of our lives need fixing? What relationships need repairing? What are we procrastinating about and why? Why are we sad or angry and what can we do about it? If we’re really being honest with ourselves, we know in our heart of hearts, that the answer is not simply “I’m addicted to food”.
More on stopping emotional eating next month. However, if you want a preview of coming attractions, check out Breaking Free from Emotional Eating by Geneen Roth.