Food addiction for me hits close to home. For most of my life, I’ve struggled with overeating. I was considered morbidly obese from my sophomore year of high school until I had to take a surgical approach to weight loss for an unrelated medical procedure about five years ago. The same mentality tied to an addiction to drugs fuels my relationship with food. For me, emotional eating helped numb whatever pain or disappointment I felt.
Growing up, my mother always went the healthy route with both available foods in the house and allowed food when out and about. Nothing excessive! She would send me with healthy snacks for school, homemade popcorn for the movies, and limit sugar to fruit juice pops over ice cream and the “healthier” candy over pure chocolate or pure artificial colored options. She made all of our meals so “fast food” was a burger from a local diner, not Mcdonald’s.
I have always craved what I couldn’t have. So as far back as I can remember, I took every opportunity to eat what I wasn’t allowed. I would ride my bike to the convenience store and rather than get one candy bar I’d get six because I didn’t know when I’d get to eat one again and immediately ride to the school fields to devour them all. At parties, I would ask friends who didn’t want the cake if I could have theirs (not one friend but any and every friend). I would get candy however I could and hide it in the one closet I had full of stuff I no longer used.
If my parents went out, even just for an hour, I would make and eat an entire pound of pasta, wash the dishes and pretend it never happened. The older I got the more I was fighting against my parents’ control over me and the more the mere act of eating as much of whatever I could helped me numb that.
The similarities between food addiction and substance addiction are vast. Certain activities that are hardwired into our brain, such as eating, stimulate the release of dopamine, a highly pleasurable hormone that encourages us to repeat the action for survival. However, sugary and highly-processed foods flood the brain’s reward centers with too much dopamine—cocaine and other powerful drugs do the same thing—programming the brain to want more than what is nutritionally required.
In high school, I would cancel plans or lie to my parents about a practice or a meeting and just pull into a McDonald’s and order two 20 piece nugget and a few cheeseburgers, pull out of the drive-thru into a spot, crank the rage music and devour it all before my stomach could even tell my brain I’d eaten more than a few bites. For that hour or so I would not think about anything other than eating and the music, it numbed me from my own thinking.
Overeating has the obvious sign of gaining weight so when I went from a “big-boned but athletic” young adult to an obese teenager. My mother obviously noticed and would try all she could to both encourage healthy eating habits and make negative comments about my appearance and inability to lose weight. For someone like myself who often feels trapped when not in control of things, this had the reverse effect. It messed with my head causing more negative feelings leading to more emotional eating and more weight gain and commentary from my mom.
As with any addiction, the more you do something the more it takes to reach that same high. I went from the candy to McDonald’s, to going into school early to get two sausage egg and cheese bagels before class followed by two at the morning break, lunch, and a snack before my after-school activities. It took more and more to fill me up. Now since my mental health was closely tied to my eating, as I got older and gained more weight my thoughts got darker (they got darker on their own as well) and overeating led to trying drinking and smoking pot, seeking that same numbing sensation. High school was both amazing and terrible for me and the ability to control things like food and chasing that numb feeling became my focus. I rebelled against anything and everything my parents tried to have me do.
College was much of the same in terms of chasing that “high” my dual cravings gave me but now I was set free, with no one telling me what or when or how much of anything I could eat or drink or smoke. College for a girl like me was similar to setting a fox free in the hen house. No rules, no need to make excuses or hide as much. But even with this freedom, I would still choose to do any of my destructive behaviors in private. I wanted the appearance of everything being wonderful on the outside.
After college, overeating was just ingrained in my personality. I would always order the biggest of whatever, I would eat at buffets as often as possible because I could go back up as often as I wanted and only the servers would notice. I also chased those feelings with other substances and it was hitting one bottom that got me to another. Getting diabetes didn’t stop me, fights with my parents didn’t stop me, my own disgust in myself and my actions didn’t stop me, but instead, it was my first severe physical consequence as a woman in her late 20’s that led to confronting many of my issues.
I tried many different support groups as food addiction treatment, Overeaters anonymous being one of them, along with finding a therapist and eventually having the gastric bypass to jumpstart my metabolism that had basically slowed to a crawl by this time.
Thankfully with a ton of hard work and huge life changes I found healthier ways to cope with my emotions and continue to use tools I’ve learned to this day.
Food Addiction Treatment Options
- 12-Step Program- While most consider these for alcohol and drugs, 12-step programs are also beneficial for food addiction. These types of programs help provide a support system that is unmatched with other treatment options.
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy- Therapy is a great way to help address the mental concerns behind food addiction. Therapists that are specialized in food-related concerns are a good place to start.
- Psychiatrist- Psychiatrist is a good avenue to explore if you are interested in the assistance of medication. While there is no medication used specifically for food addictions, there are drugs that can target that sector of the brain.
- Treatment facilities- Like other addictions, there are facilities around the USA that provide inpatient treatment.
Benefits of attending a residential recovery center include:
- Focused, around-the-clock care.
- Absence of the triggers and stressors of the outside world.
- Scheduled and carefully portioned meals, which reduce the possibility of binge eating.
- No need to worry about transportation to and from treatment.
- Supervised detoxification, medication-assisted treatment, therapy, and support groups.
- The support of peers facing similar addictions.
- Food addiction ultimately stems from mental health issues that are unresolved. These issues can lead to any form of addiction including to food. In order to find appropriate help, it is best to first admit that there may be a reason for concern. Food should be used to provide for your body, not cause irreversible damage.
You can find the nearest Overeaters Anonymous meeting for you or your loved one.
Like any addiction, a person with a food addiction can not stop or change until they want to do it for themselves. So the first step is admitting one has a problem.