What’s the truth about food addiction?

  • Scientific evidence does not support the idea that food as a substance is addictive.
  • But that doesn’t mean that our feelings of being addicted are not real.
  • Sometimes what we call an addiction could be binge eating disorder in disguise.

Understanding these facts is important to figure out what may be driving your feelings. But once you figure that out, what’s next?

What can you start doing right now to help yourself resolve feelings of food addiction?

The following five strategies have helped many women who have come to Green Mountain at Fox Run. They are all about tuning in, without judgment, to what we are thinking and doing, and then trusting our bodies to guide us in finding what’s right for us.

We encourage you read through them all, then take them one at a time.

Step #1: Practice Pausing

First and foremost, we need to understand why we are eating or wanting to eat to begin with. If we don’t understand what is driving our desire to eat, and we simply respond by trying to restrict our eating, we are left with a void that food was filling. Unless we find another way to fill that void or meet that need, we’ll eventually we find ourselves turning back to food.

When you find yourself craving or desiring a historically challenging food, pause, check in, and ask yourself what is driving that desire. If you aren’t sure, consider the following:

  • Are you hungry? Is it a physical need for fuel?
  • Where are you? Are you in a place that you associate with a particular food, such as popcorn at the movie theater? What is happening in your environment? For example, are other people eating around you?
  • What are you doing? Are you engaged in an activity that you associate with a certain food, such as watching TV, or are you doing nothing at all and are triggered by boredom?
  • Who are you with? Are you with a person or group of people you associate with a particular food?
  • What time of day is it? Do you often find yourself craving food at this time of day or have you formed a habit of always eating at this time regardless of physical hunger?
  • How are you feeling physically? Are you experiencing physical pain or discomfort of any kind and looking for relief?
  • How are you feeling emotionally? Are you feeling emotionally charged and looking for comfort or distraction?
  • What is your energy level? Is your body feeling tired and in need of rest and relaxation to recharge?

Could your response to any of the above shed light on what might be contributing to your craving?

Understanding where that desire is coming from is a key first step in figuring out how to effectively change your response.

If you are unsure, try journaling. Take 10 minutes to free-write about how you are feeling, what has happened in your day, and anything else that comes to mind. Are you able to draw any connections to what might be driving your desire to eat?

Maybe consider an eating awareness journal. That is, keeping a record of what you are eating, when you are having it, hunger and fullness cues before and after the eating experience, and importantly any other thoughts, observations, or comments about the experience. Record when you start to feel your cravings for certain foods and see if, over time, you notice any patterns or trends in what might be influencing your food cravings.

Important: This is not a typical diet diary that you use to limit your eating (and judge yourself when you don’t); it’s intended to help you see patterns that aren’t always so easy to pick out.

Step #2: Create a Menu of Options

With this information, you can begin to create a menu of options. Make a list of everything you could do at this moment that might help to meet whatever need it is that you have.

For example, if your desire to eat is coming from stress, what else might help you relax? A walk? Deep breathing? Calling a friend?

If it’s boredom, what could you do to occupy your time?

If you don’t know what’s triggering your desire, perhaps just delay your decision to eat. Distract yourself for 5, 10, 20 minutes and then check in – is the desire to eat still there? If it is, eating is still an option.

Having trouble thinking of alternative options? Check out our 45 Things to Do Instead of Eat  Resource.

Remember, eating is always a viable and important option to include on this menu. Why? Ultimately, making food an acceptable option allows you to feel safer experimenting with alternative options. You know your lifeline is still there if you need it. And, it prevents feelings of restriction from interfering with your ability to explore other options.  

“For the first time that I can remember, I am not obsessed with food and I feel good about my body and my being. It is a gift and a treasure that I appreciate every day.” 

– M.D., Wayland, MA

View more personal stories

Step #3: Give Yourself Unconditional Permission to Eat

This might sound scary or downright impossible. You may have years of experiences that lead you to believe this is the exact opposite of what you should do – that you’ll only lose complete control if you let yourself eat what, when and as much as you want.

But – has restricting your eating really ever worked? Maybe for a short time, but chances are, the more you’ve tried to restrict, the more out of control you feel when you finally do eat the food(s) you were restricting (recall the restrict-binge cycle we discussed last week).

So, here’s how you can start practicing giving yourself permission to eat:

  • When you find yourself wanting to eat say, “I can have this if I want it; it is my option.”  
  • Then, follow that up by asking, “Do I really want this food?” Consider the quality of the food, your hunger level, and how it’s going to make your body feel, whether it truly will help you feel better if you’re considering eating it in response to emotions. This will help you understand if this is something that you truly want to eat.
  • If you choose to eat, savor each bite. Practice noticing and letting go of feelings of judgment and guilt. When you are done, go on with your life. Do other things that you want to do. If you find yourself rethinking whether you should have eaten, take a moment to consider if there is anything you learned from the experience — did it make you feel better physically or emotionally? Then move on.
  • If you decide not to eat – same thing. Practice just moving on. This becomes easier to do over time because when you give yourself unconditional permission to eat, you know you can have the food later, or tomorrow, or next week or whenever else you decide you want it.

This process will help you reclaim the power you feel food has over you and become your own authority on food decisions.

Step #4: Aim for Balanced Meals

That means to consider including a source of carbohydrate, fiber, protein, and fat at most of your main meals throughout the day. And if that doesn’t work for most meals, aim to have a mix of these nutrients throughout the day.

Balanced meals are helpful because they can reduce physiologically-induced cravings, such as those that arise because our diets lack the necessary nutrients for optimal body functioning.

They do this by:

  • Stabilizing blood sugar levels;
  • Balancing appetite hormones; and
  • Providing our bodies with adequate nutrition to keep all of our internal systems running smoothly.

Now, if you are someone who avoids carbohydrates because you feel like you lose control when you eat them, you may be questioning whether or not eating carbohydrate=rich foods is a good idea for you.

We hear over and over again from the women who visit Green Mountain that, while they may be skeptical of eating carbohydrates initially, they are surprised how quickly their cravings for high-carbohydrate food decrease once they start eating them regularly.

Restricting any particular food item or food group only serves to increase its appeal. Plus, carbohydrates serve a very important function in our bodies, so if we aren’t getting enough, our bodies are going to let us know by encouraging us to go out and seek more.  

If you feel your meals regularly lack balance, the Green Mountain at Fox Run Guide to Supportive Eating might be a good place to start. It can guide your choices if you are unsure about where to begin or how to create balanced meals. But remember, it is only a guide — it’s meant to illustrate the different types of foods that make up a balanced meal, along with paying attention to the other important roles food plays in our lives.

You don’t always have to eat off a plate either.

Step #5: Eat Mindfully

Simply put, mindfulness is being fully present in the current moment without judgment. At its core, mindful eating is being fully present, aware, and engaged during the eating process – again, without judgment.

Broken down a bit more, that means:

  • Being deliberate in your food decisions vs. being on automatic — so you can make conscious decisions about whether or not you want to eat, what you want to eat, and how much you want to start with;
  • Slowing down the eating process and engaging all of your senses as you eat — noticing how the food looks, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels in your mouth;
  • Minimizing, and if possible removing, distraction from your eating environment, such as turning off the television if you are someone who tends to overeat while watching tv. Or parking if you need to eat in your car, rather than continuing to drive.
  • Noticing how your body feels before, during, and after the eating experience — paying attention to hunger and fullness cues and how the food feels in your body. This is key to learning to eat what you want in a way that makes you feel good.

Because you are more present and aware, you will more fully experience every bite. That helps to increase the satisfaction you experience from the foods you choose and to more easily identify the place at which you feel content. Simply by slowing down and tuning in, you may find that your choices in what, when and how much to eat change significantly.

In-House Food Addiction Program

At Green Mountain at Fox Run and our Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating (WCBEE), all of our services are specifically designed to help women improve the health of the mind. We have worked with thousands of women over the last four decades to help them overcome feelings of food addiction.

We’re dedicated to helping women live healthier lives free of dieting and body hate. Our evidence-based, time-tested strategies can help you end struggles with eating, exercise, and difficult emotions.

Talk to a Program Advisor today to learn more by calling us at 802-228-8885 or sending an email to info@fitwoman.com.