Food Addiction: Does Abstinence Really Work?


I brought up the subject of food addiction a while ago on this blog, and it struck a chord for several people. After a few back and forth discussions in the comments to the post, there appeared to be some consensus that addiction to the behavior of overeating is the real problem for many of us.

In her book Eating in the Light of the Moon, clinical psychologist Anita Johnston agrees.

She explains that the behavior of overeating serves as a way to distract us from our true problems; it’s a way we can avoid dealing with feelings that make us uncomfortable; it’s a way to escape. True, the escape isn’t to any place good. While initially the act of eating/overeating might bring pleasure, it quickly turns on us as we get caught up in the regret and self punishment of the act.

But then, that’s how it works – instead of focusing on what we’re really feeling or struggling with, we battle food, weight and guilt. It keeps us focused elsewhere.

What I thought was quite interesting in Johnston’s discussion was her statement that when we eliminate certain foods because we’re trying to ‘avoid our trigger foods’ or we believe we just can’t eat those foods in moderation, we’re actually eliminating opportunities to learn what those foods symbolize for us.

Does a desire for a sweet, creamy chocolate sundae when we’re not hungry signal we’re feeling the need for nurturing? Does anger underlie a need to crunch potato chips that has nothing to do with physical hunger? Does food – any food – call when we’re feeling sad and lonely, even after we’ve finished a big meal?

If we can begin to explore these desires, instead of trying to ignore them or give in to them in defeat, they may help guide us in understanding what’s really going on with us.

This serves for me as another testament that an abstinence approach really doesn’t work for most people. Instead of running away from our feelings and desires, we want to explore them and honor them. Sure, when we’re first beginning, we might not want to take on everything at once; for some of us, that can be too overwhelming.

The anxiety we feel about our weight might send us backwards as we attempt to begin including ‘scary’ foods in our meals and snacks. Taking it slowly – a few steps at a time – may be the best approach for these folks. But ultimately taking it is the way to go.

It’s tough living your life afraid there’s a bear hiding behind every bush you see. That sums up food fears for me – food is all around us. Making it our friend is the only way to survive.

2 responses to “Food Addiction: Does Abstinence Really Work?”

  1. MomWifeChocoholic says:

    Interesting idea! Lately I’ve been trying to stop when I get the urge to eat when not hungry and examine “how do I feel? What do I really need?” So far it isn’t working too well because I have NO IDEA! I do overeat/binge far, far less than I used to (and weigh far less) but every time I think I have the monster killed, it comes back to chase me.

  2. Marsha says:

    Hi, MomWifeChocoholic!

    It’s hard to get in touch with our feelings when we’ve been ignoring them for so long. But we can’t give up the effort ‘cuz that’s the only way we’ll ever win. I really encourage you to try to read Eating in the Light of the Moon. Even after working in this field for over 20 years, I’ve found some amazing insights in this book. One of the best things is that the author is so nurturing in how she writes and what she says, it makes you want to open up. If you get the book, I’d look to hear what you think.

    Thanks for posting!

About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

View Author Page