Understanding Food Addiction

In most respects, addiction is addiction is addiction. The thought processes, the behaviors, the inevitable self destruction are very similar regardless of what we put in our bodies. Nearly every addiction has this in common: given sufficient guidance, support, and care, the person can choose to abstain. There is one notable exception to this rule. Food addicts are the one group who must learn moderation in order to live a healthy life.

We are a country that loves to eat. We have invented “comfort foods’, “supersizing”, the Food Network, and food that is far more convenient than nutritious. We have an obesity epidemic in our country.

“Too much of everything is just enough” – The Grateful Dead “I Need a Miracle”

Many question whether one can truly become Addicted to food. Clinically, to Abuse is generally the precursor to becoming addicted. We abuse our bodies by using a substance that is unhealthy or we use it in an unhealthy manner (especially to excess). Unfortunately, we are a society that rationalizes and justifies that which we love enough to deem socially acceptable. This is nowhere more apparent than with food and alcohol. If you want to know what addictive thinking sounds like – sit with a group of folks who are eating “Death by Chocolate” after a huge meal or a group of folks who are celebrating the end of the workweek with a several cocktails. Most of us are free to occasionally overindulge without developing an addiction. Food Addicts and alcoholics are not so fortunate.

All of us depend on food to survive and most of us eat in a structured manner and/or because we experience a physical sensation of hunger. Sometimes we overdo it or enjoy very unhealthy (but delicious) food that our bodies don’t truly want. Eventually we feel full and we stop. The food addict does not.

To be satiated means to have our body’s need for food satisfied. To have a sense of being full requires that one pay attention to their physical self, which is something the food addict will never do while indulging/bingeing. The longing that is being filled is emotional in nature. It’s easy to fill a stomach. We seek to fill broken hearts and we are never satisfied, only fleetingly appeased.
We feed an insatiable emptiness and need more and more to achieve numbness. This is what people who don’t get addiction don’t grasp – after a while, it doesn’t feel good. What it feels like is nothing and feeling nothing is better than hurting.

The food addict binges and may go through times of purging, times of starvation, or may go to unhealthy extremes in exercise to burn off excessive calorie intake. They will inevitably and progressively develop shame for every behavior associated with their addiction. A very high percentage will gain weight and some will become obese. To be significantly overweight in our society carries a unique stigma and in a very real sense renders the obese person invisible.

By the time a food addict comes into treatment they have probably experienced a rollercoaster of diets, exercise programs, and weight loss strategies. Some will go to the extreme of gastric bypass surgery. Amongst the unmet needs for addict of every kind is an alternate means of coping.

I am a shoot from the hip kind of counselor. I tell people to PAY ATTENTION to themselves and to do things by conscious choice. While we are repeatedly doing unhealthy things our brains are usually on automatic pilot, so whatever we seek to change we must be more aware of. The food addict expects me to tell them to reduce their food intake. I would never do this. To accept less is to feel deprived. Instead I encourage people to start with two simple things: keep a food diary and savor every single bite.

Every addict lies to themselves with alarming frequency and effectiveness. We develop selective memories and selective hearing. Writing down what we eat forces us to be more honest and more aware. Savoring is the fun part. If a food addict sits down with a large bag of potato chips they are probably going to eat the whole bag. The first few taste good. 90% of the bad doesn’t taste like anything because we’re on automatic pilot. The last 5% taste good because we’re aware that they’re almost gone, but they also taste like regret and guilt. I say eat all you want but enjoy every single one to its fullest. This alone will change us.

The true transformation begins when we learn introspection (taking stock of our emotions instead of our refrigerators). We slowly come to grips with what we hide from. If we are willing to identify the true source of our emptiness, we can be full like never before. We can order what we really want in three courses: Happy, Joyous and Free.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.