Society often stigmatizes overweight people, assuming that their weight is due to their inability to control food urges. Many people don’t realize that food addiction is often the culprit, and it affects more people than anyone might care to admit.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is comparable to other non-drug addictions, like sex addiction, gambling, compulsive shopping, and gaming disorder.
Food addiction may arise when we experience head hunger and give in to our food cravings, activating our brain’s reward system. Over time, it gets harder to feel satiated, and we need to eat more food to quell the cravings. This can easily lead to stress eating or uncontrolled overeating, accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame.
As with drug addiction, removing the addictive substance (in this case, food) leads to withdrawal symptoms, forcing us to desperately search for more of the substance and often leading us to binge-eat when we find it.
It’s a desperate, negative cycle that is only made worse because of the addictive properties of the unhealthy foods we eat. Though anyone can develop compulsive behaviors, it’s much harder to overcome a biological addiction, which, in this case, frequently involves sugar and processed foods.
Causes and Symptoms of Food Addiction
Food addiction, like most addictions, can sometimes be rooted in underlying emotions or past behaviors learned while dealing with stress and complicated emotions. Many times, we’re entirely unaware of the source and therefore neglect to address the heart of the issue. Instead, compulsive behavior steps in and creates an emotional and physical dependency that entrenches us in unhealthy patterns, which can feel impossible to escape.
To address food addiction, you first need to know how to recognize it. Here are a few telltale signs:
Feelings of Guilt and Shame After Eating or Binge Eating
When you eat to nourish your body, you should feel satisfied. However, when you eat out of an uncontrollable urge, it can leave you feeling guilty.
Many of us frequently eat too much in one sitting, but overeating shouldn’t be the norm every time we consume a meal. If you start to experience guilt along with overeating, you may be dealing with an addiction to food. This is especially likely if you’re eating to the point of feeling ill or nauseous.
As overeating becomes compulsive, other people may start to notice, and the solution is to hide our consumption habits. This can take the form of having a stash of junk food at home, at the office, or in your car that you only eat in private, compulsively.
Binge eating is categorized as a disorder that combines the three symptoms listed above. To satiate our cravings, we may find ourselves secretly eating large quantities of food to the point of discomfort, almost always followed by feelings of guilt and shame. Perhaps you’ve managed to ward off your cravings for an entire day, but when you get home, you find yourself binge eating everything you were avoiding. If you’ve experienced this, consider it a red flag.
Inability to Concentrate on Other Things
When your mind and body demand food, there’s little room for anything else. A symptom of food addiction is being unable to focus on anything else, be it a task at work or a conversation. You’re unable to get on with your day without first satisfying your urge to eat.
Along with guilt, a feeling of helplessness accompanies the lack of control you might be experiencing. An addiction to food, and anything else for that matter, can destroy your health and self-esteem and, without the right information, tools, and guidance, it can be extremely challenging to overcome.
Mental and Physical Effects
Much like drug addiction, food addiction may take a heavy toll on our mental and physical health, both in the short and long term.
Mentally, you may experience:
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Low self-esteem and self-image
- A feeling of emptiness, hopelessness, and detachment
- Increased agitation, irritability, and frustration
- In extreme cases, your self-worth may fall so much that you begin to have suicidal thoughts.
Your body may suffer significantly from your addiction, in a physical sense, especially if the food you’re eating is unhealthy. You might begin to experience:
- Digestive issues (for instance, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Insomnia and oversleeping (often related to depression)
- Reduced libido
- Allergies and food sensitivity
In more severe cases, overeating and binge eating can lead to chronic health conditions like:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune diseases like arthritis
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease.
When you’re addicted to food, your body must focus all its efforts on digesting the food you’re consuming. This doesn’t leave much time for the body’s cell repair and other regenerative functions, which occur when you’re fasting. As a result, our bodies begin exhibiting symptoms and, over time, can fall ill to disease.
How to treat food addiction?
As with other addictions, the first step is to recognize and accept you have a problem. As long as you deny this fact, you can’t help yourself.
Once you’ve accepted that you are addicted to food, the next step is to address the void you’re trying to fill with food. That is, the underlying emotional distress and trauma you haven’t been able to face. Even if you manage to shake your addiction, it will only be replaced with other addictions and compulsive behaviors until you address these unprocessed feelings.
One of the most critical steps to take to treat your addiction is to seek help and support. If you can afford it, consider seeing a therapist to address your issues directly. Also, there are Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous groups you can join to receive the guidance and support you need.
In the short term, you can start addressing your addiction by avoiding triggers that cause anxiety and stress, which may lead to binge eating. Triggers are found in the workplace or at home. Consider your relationships with others and whether they stimulate healthy or unhealthy behavior.
One approach you can take is to develop healthy habits unrelated to food. For instance, you can try picking up a new hobby, joining a group activity, or going on a retreat. You might be low on motivation, but try your best to make healthy changes to your routine.
In keeping with this idea, another positive recommendation from healthcare professionals is to have a particular activity that you set aside and is easily accessible whenever you feel the urge to eat. When those urges arise, you immediately have an established strategy that will allow you to respond effectively.