If you struggle with feeling out of control around certain foods, you may be experiencing a food addiction. Food addiction is defined as a pattern of consuming excessive amounts of highly palatable foods in a dysfunctional way.
It involves feeling dependent on trigger foods and having intense guilt and shame around eating. Food addiction most commonly happens with heavily processed foods, such as sugary foods and fast food.
You may feel like it’s impossible to break free from the cycle of food addiction, but it can be managed in a healthy way. Continue reading to learn how to get over food addiction for good.
Understanding Food Addiction
The concept of food addiction is somewhat of a controversial topic in the medical community. Currently, food addiction is not recognized as a diagnosis in the DSM-5, the tool mental health professionals use to diagnose mental disorders.
Some scientists feel there is insufficient evidence to classify food addiction as a true addiction due to the lack of convincing human studies on the subject. Also, the case for sugar being an addictive substance is not as clear-cut in the evidence as many people assume.
However, other researchers argue that food addiction has many traits in common with substance abuse disorders. Animal studies have shown such an increase in dopamine in the brain after eating highly palatable foods, similar to what is seen in substance addiction.
Regardless of whether or not food addiction is a clinical diagnosis, it is a reality that many people feel addicted to food. Food addiction is considered to be a form of “disordered eating,” meaning it is an abnormal eating pattern that does not meet the criteria for an eating disorder.
Food Addiction Signs
You may be wondering, what are the signs of food addiction? The Yale Food Addiction Scale is a validated tool developed to assess food addiction symptoms. It was based on some of the same criteria used to diagnose substance dependence disorders.
If you are experiencing numerous symptoms from this list regularly, you may be dealing with food addiction:
- Eating more than planned
- Having negative feelings from overeating
- Needing to eat larger quantities of food to get the positive feeling
- Withdrawal symptoms when cutting out trigger foods (such as physical symptoms, feeling upset, anxiety, etc.)
- Feeling upset about eating habits
- Eating habits are significantly impacting daily function
Again, food addiction is not something your doctor can diagnose, but being aware of these signs can help you better understand what is happening with your eating. If you are experiencing these symptoms, consider scheduling a consult with a registered dietitian to help you form a treatment plan.
How to Get Over Your Food Addiction
If you’ve identified any of the above signs of food addiction, there are actionable steps you can start taking today to understand and overcome your food addiction.
Identify your triggers
Making a list of your trigger foods and situations is a great starting point for managing your food addiction. Are you drawn to sugar, fast food, or crunchy, salty foods? Do certain situations lead to more overeating, such as a stressful day at work or not getting enough sleep? Or maybe specific settings trigger your food addiction, like being out with friends.
Whatever your triggers are, being aware of them is the first step to moving forward. Next, you can start making some changes to minimize the impact these triggers have on you.
For example, attending a virtual yoga class when you get home from a stressful workday can help you destress and start your evening with a calm mind. With practice, this can replace the behavior of going straight to the pantry once you get home.
Ditch the diets
It can be tempting to go on a restrictive diet to manage your food addiction, but this can have the opposite effect in many cases. Food is different from other addictive substances because we need food to survive. We can’t abstain from food like we can abstain from alcohol, for example.
When we identify trigger foods as being “bad” or “off limits,” they have more power over us. It’s basic human nature that we want what we can’t have.
For example, if you decide to eliminate sugar from your diet, you may feel stronger cravings and want to eat it even more now that it is off-limits. When you do encounter a situation where sugar is available, you may feel difficulty moderating the amount you eat because you don’t know when you’ll be “allowed” to eat it again.
Thinking of your trigger foods as neutral (rather than “good” or “bad”) and eating them in a mindful way will help prevent this all-or-nothing cycle. Don’t be discouraged at first — it can take a lot of practice to reframe the way you think about food.
Mindful eating can be a powerful tool for managing food addiction. We’ve all had the experience of eating popcorn at the movie theater — before we know it, the popcorn is gone. We likely didn’t notice or enjoy the experience of eating it, which led to us going to refill that container.
Practice eating your trigger foods in a calm, neutral setting. Limit distractions, such as eating in front of the TV and eating while working or driving. This allows you to be present and aware of your eating, which leads to better physical and emotional satisfaction from the food.
Consider taking a few deep breaths or practicing a short guided meditation before eating. These tools can help center you as you begin eating.
The key here (at least in the short term) is to avoid eating your trigger foods when you are in a rush, feeling overly hungry, or in a high-stress environment. These situations can set you up for mindless eating and overconsumption.
Make a balanced meal plan
One of the core signs of food addiction is impulsive eating. When you don’t have a plan for what you’re going to eat in a day, it is much easier to give in to impulses.
For example, if you had a stressful day at work and didn’t know what you were going to make for dinner - you might see your favorite fast food restaurant on your way home and be more inclined to drive through and get takeout.
On the contrary, if you are driving home from a stressful day at work and know you have already purchased the ingredients to make a stir fry for dinner that day and your family is expecting it, you’re less likely to deviate from that plan.
The takeaway here is that you aren’t making a restrictive diet plan but a balanced meal plan that meets your nutrition needs. Meal planning is an area where a food addiction dietitian can be a helpful resource (look for dietitians who specialize in eating disorders or disordered eating).
Enlist friends and family
Are friends pressuring you to eat a certain way when out? Does your family serve you your trigger foods without you asking for them? These things may be well intended, but they end up making it more challenging for you to move forward and overcome your food addiction.
Let your family and friends know what you’re struggling with, and let them help. Maybe your spouse can help you make a weekly meal plan. Or perhaps a friend can sit with you while you both practice enjoying a trigger food mindfully.
Hiding your food addiction will only make it harder to overcome. You are not alone in this, and leaning on your support system can make a world of difference.
When to Seek Help
If you’ve tried all these tips and feel your food addiction is not improving, it may be time to consider professional support. It is important to understand what exactly you are dealing with when it comes to a suspected food addiction.
Food addiction vs eating disorders
Sometimes, people who feel addicted to food actually have an undiagnosed eating disorder. Food addictions and eating disorders have many common traits. Food addiction does not have clear diagnostic criteria, but you must meet specific criteria to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. It is possible to have an eating disorder while also experiencing symptoms of food addiction.
If you are experiencing recurrent binge eating episodes (defined as eating large amounts of food quickly until uncomfortably full and feeling guilty and distressed after eating), you may be dealing with binge eating disorder. It is essential that you seek treatment if you are experiencing an eating disorder or if you are concerned about disordered eating.
Nourish can help
Here at Nourish, our registered dietitians are experts in eating disorders and disordered eating. We can help you overcome your food addiction by working with you to identify triggers, create a meal plan, and learn mindful eating strategies.
We coordinate with your existing care team to ensure the best outcomes. The appointments are virtual and covered by insurance, meaning you can get support wherever you are. Get started today with Nourish.
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