Do you feel like you struggle with food addiction?
Do you feel out of control and compulsive around certain foods?
After the first bite passes your lips, you feel powerless to stop eating until you feel completely stuffed…
You might be wondering if you are struggling with food addiction. After all, food addiction is getting lots of press these days, particularly around foods like sugar or other treats.
What is food addiction?
Food addiction is described as compulsive urges to eat food, unrelated to feelings of hunger.
When you read articles listing symptoms of food addiction, do you nod your head, thinking, “That’s me!”
- Feeling out of control around certain foods – check
- Strong urges to eat certain foods even when you’re not hungry – check
- After the first bite, you feel powerless to these foods. You just can’t stop. Check, check!
Many clinicians use a tool called the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) to diagnose and measure the level of food addiction. The Yale Food Addiction Scale uses criteria applied from drug and alcohol addiction and relates them to food.
And if it’s Yale, it must be right, right?!?
Honestly, as an Intuitive Eating Registered Dietitian, I have some concerns about the Yale Food Addiction Scale.
- It relies on self-reporting by individuals, which is highly subjective
- It does not account for the effects of deprivation (including diets) on how we eat these foods.
- It’s also rather circular in its thinking as noted by other researchers (Long, Blundell, and Finlayson, 2015):
- You might consider yourself a food addict because you score high on the YFAS; but
- You believe you score high on the YFAS because you’re a food addict.
I was recently quoted in an article about one woman’s experience with potato chips! Check it out here: Am I a Potato Chip Addict or a Victim of Food Science?
The trouble with the food addiction model
While some people find help through abstinence promoted in the food addiction model, most remain trapped in a cycle of abstinence and binge eating, which commonly comes with a side of shame. Not exactly my idea of healing…
The abstinence model of food addiction help is rooted in the belief that because certain foods “light up” the pleasure centers in the brain in a way similar to drugs, that not stimulating these pleasure centers is the key to overcoming this problem. The foods most regularly studied are ‘highly palatable foods’ like sweets and higher fat foods.
What have you tried to help with your food addiction?
If you’re like most people who feel addicted to food, you may have sought to overcome your addiction in a manner similar to treating alcohol or drug addiction: abstinence.
The abstinence model to curing food addiction means cutting this food or ingredient out of your life completely.
What has food abstinence looked like for you?
Even if you haven’t labeled your food experiences as addiction, what has banishing your favorite foods from your home done for you?
- Has it been an initial feeling of euphoria, followed by despair, frustration, and eventually caving in and eating the food, usually while feeling out of control?
- Or has it immediately made you feel overwhelmed by the food rules, making you feel anxious and overly fixated on food, perhaps with some feelings of rebellion?
- Have you stopped eating this food and felt great forever? This experience is the least likely.
Most people find that abstaining from a particular food because they believe they are addicted to it creates more stress and erratic eating in the long run.
Do the brain scans lie?
Nope! But it’s not quite that simple. The brain scans do show that certain foods do activate the pleasure centers in the brain. However, there is more to the story of food addiction than showing us brain scans that respond with high activity to certain foods:
- Food is meant to be pleasurable! That’s right. The fact that you get excited by a piece of cake or some French fries isn’t pathological. Humans, as a species, need to enjoy our food. Why would we eat if we didn’t enjoy it?
- Did you know that our brains also light up when seeing puppies?
- These studies do not take deprivation into account. This might be my biggest frustration with food addiction studies.
- Most studies are conducted on rats, not humans.
Food addiction: the forbidden fruit
We know that anything is more exciting when it feels special or forbidden. You only have to be around a kid who MUST have a particular toy, only to tire of it a few days after they receive it as a gift.
The same principle applies to food. If there’s a food that you don’t allow yourself to have because of the rules of your diet, there’s a good chance that if you love that food that you will feel addicted to it every time you eat it.
Food addiction help – a dietitian’s plan
Here are my top 5 suggestions to overcome your feelings of food addiction:
1. Stop identifying foods as good or bad.
When we assign moral value to food, it disrupts our relationship with food. It plays out in a few different ways. We tend to avoid ‘bad’ foods in favor of ‘good’ foods, even when we don’t enjoy them. This can result in decreased satisfaction around all foods. When we do eat ‘bad’ foods, we often feel guilty for eating them so we tend to disconnect from the eating experience. We eat them after a bad day, or standing at the counter, or after everyone else has gone to sleep. And unfortunately, when we eat in this way, we aren’t really enjoying it.
2. Eat 3 meals a day (or more!), according to your hunger cues.
The most frequent reason that people feel addicted to food (or overeat) is that they aren’t eating enough! That’s right! When our bodies don’t get enough food, they respond by altering our hormones to increase cravings for food. Most people report binge eating in the afternoons and evenings.
It’s such a common pattern to eat a small breakfast and lunch, but then feel out of control around food in the afternoons and evening. Many of my clients are skeptical at first, but they are pleasantly surprised to find that eating adequate meals helps quell their feelings of food addiction.
3. Identify the foods that you feel like you’re addicted to.
If you want to solve a problem, it’s important to have a plan. Discovering the foods that make you feel out of control, addicted, anxious will help you make a plan to overcome this problem.
Start by keeping a list of the foods that feel forbidden to you or the foods that you feel out of control around. Take a few days to complete this step. You can keep a note on your phone, or use the worksheet I’ve included in my Make Peace with Food Workbook here.
4. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat these foods.
Before you panic or tell me that you do already eat these foods, take a deep breath. I have a plan for you! Approaching this step with a plan will get you the results you want.
There’s a subtle but important difference between eating your forbidden foods in the way you have been and having the unconditional permission to eat them.
Unconditional permission means that you can eat this food whenever you want, and that you have the right to eat this food. The goal is to eat this food frequently and with intention, but without shame.
Is this process easy? No. But it’s possible and life-changing!
Focusing on one food at a time helps make the process less overwhelming. If you want step-by-step instructions for this process, check out my article, 5 Steps to Make Peace with Food: Principle 3 of Intuitive Eating, and download my Make Peace with Food Workbook
5. Consider working with a dietitian trained in Intuitive Eating and diet recovery.
Many women feel embarrassed that they need help along the way, but I’d encourage you to put those thoughts aside. It’s not your fault that we live in a culture that teaches us to count, measure, and weigh our foods. That just disconnects us from our eating experience!
The process of making peace with all foods helps banish the feelings of food addiction and lets you come home to your body. It’s a win-win!
I know it can feel so scary to try a new approach to your feelings of food addiction, particularly when there’s a strong cultural narrative that promotes an abstinence model. You’ll probably agree that your past experience with abstaining from or restricting foods has not worked!
My clients agree that having the guidance and support was a worthwhile investment. My clients who embrace the process, and do the work in steps 1-4 above, find that feelings of food addiction, binge eating, and food obsession disappear!
Food addiction: key takeaways
Even if you feel as though food addiction is ruining your life, the good news is that you CAN overcome it!
- Stop labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
- Eat regular meals
- Start eating the foods you feel addicted to with intention and attention. My Make Peace with Food Workbook is a great tool to help you with this step. Download it here.
- Seek professional help if you find that you need additional support.
Good news! Women like you overcome their feelings of food addiction every day – and they do it without restriction!
Feeling stuck in your relationship with food?
If you are a woman with a history of dieting or ‘clean eating,’ you might be spending much of your day obsessing about food, your weight, and your body. You might also have times when you banish all your favorite foods from your house, only to binge eat them when the exhaustion of all that restriction wears off.
Why not find out what it’s like to have the guidance and support of a professional along the way. Schedule your complimentary call with me to see what your journey might look like.
Kelly Abramson MS, RD is a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who works with clients in Alexandria, VA and virtually via telehealth. She guides women as they break free from dieting to find joy in food and their bodies. Kelly blogs regularly at NpowerYou.com and has created a free e-book for download, “7 Steps to Overcome Stress Eating.”