We’re all guilty of overeating sometimes, especially when we keep eating something delicious even though we’re full, simply because it tastes good. But how do you know if you have an occasional over-eating problem, or a full-blown food addiction?
More and more studies have been done on the effects of compulsive overeating on pleasure centres in the brain, confirming that certain bad-for-you foods trigger feel-good dopamine and an overall rewarding and pleasurable experience.
Foods with a high concentration of sugar, fat or salt stimulate the reward centres in the brain, which is why eating these foods can result in a similar type of high that a drug addict would get from drugs like cocaine and heroin.
Often referred to as ‘stress-eating’, ‘binging’, ‘emotional eating’ or ‘going into a food coma’, these unhealthy eating habits could be signs of food addiction.
Food addiction can feel like an automated or out-of-body experience, as it’s a behavioural addiction that involves losing yourself (and losing control) to food. Food addiction is considered to be just as serious as alcohol or drug addiction.
Food addiction can lead to type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and depression. Like any addiction, food addiction can also damage your relationships with others.
It is a form of self-sabotage – a destructive behaviour that stems from deeper internal issues. Willpower goes out the window and you lose control while you indulge in anything and everything. Below are 10 traits of a food addict followed by some tips on how to overcome the addiction:
1. You overeat when you’re alone – it’s a secret habit you’re embarrassed of
You know you have a problem when you’re embarrassed by how much you eat, and you wouldn’t want anyone seeing you engage in your abnormal eating behaviours. If you find that you control your eating when you’re with a friend, yet start binging the moment they leave, that’s a sign of a food addiction. You may even find yourself overcome with obsessive thoughts – to the point where you can’t wait for your friend to leave so that you can eat those cookies hidden in your bedroom.
2. You can’t control your eating – portion control is an unheard of concept for you
Even if you’ve had a full, nutritious dinner out with a friend, you’ll still indulge in overeating afterwards – throughout the evening. Even if you’re not hungry, you’ll continue to eat and eat. Portion control is not your strong suit – you wouldn’t be able to have one small bowl of chips. You’ll definitely eat the entire family-sized bag.
3. You avoid social gatherings because you feel ashamed about your weight
Your unhealthy eating habits are keeping you locked up in a metaphorical prison. You avoid people because you don’t want to be seen, and you avoid social gatherings because you’re ashamed about your weight and it’s tough to find a decent outfit in your closet that fits you properly. You’ll never be truly free until you free yourself from your prison (the food addiction.)
4. You eat to feel happy – you chase a pleasurable feeling or a ‘high’
When you’re feeling down, you find comfort in food. Food seems to calm you down, make you feel happy and generally it makes you feel good. Food is your ‘drug’ and it’s incredibly easy to obtain.
5. You spend excessive amounts of time and money on food
You go out of your way to fulfil your cravings and gather food from far-away stores or restaurants, which takes up a significant amount of time. You then spend excessive amounts of time focusing on food instead of focusing on other important things. You choose to procrastinate and avoid important errands or work – and sit and eat instead of doing what you should be doing.
6. You continue to overeat even though you’d like to lose weight
If you continue to over-indulge in unhealthy, fatty foods even though you’re desperate to lose weight, that’s a sign that your eating habits are outside of your control: you’re addicted.
7. You continue to overeat despite its negative impacts on your well-being, your relationships and your social life
You notice all of the negative impacts your weight and your overeating has on your life, yet you continue to engage in this self-destructive behavior because you’re attached to the behaviour of compulsive eating. The habit seems hard to break – and that’s because it has developed into an addiction.
8. You often eat so much that you feel physically ill afterwards
If your eating sometimes seems like an out-of-body experience, or feels as though you’re in a trance, you might eat alarming amounts of food only to feel physically ill afterwards. Some food addicts binge and purge (vomit after eating) and other food addicts binge without the purge (stew in the misery of that painful ‘too full’ feeling).
9. You feel ashamed and guilty of how much you eat
If you’re ashamed, embarrassed or feeling guilty about how much you eat, this is a good thing as it means you’re aware of the problem. It means that you’re aware you eat too much, you’re aware that you need to work on portion control, and you can recognize the detriments of keeping up this pattern.
10. You feel anxiety when you’re being kept from eating – and you instantly feel calmer when indulging in food
You’re numbing yourself with food – it’s like your medicine. You need it, and you’re addicted to it. So, if your friend won’t leave your house, you’re stuck in a lengthy meeting, or for any reason you’re being kept from eating what you want to eat, you’ll get anxiety and you’ll get irritable. You’ll instantly feel calmer and happier once you’re able to indulge. This is a sure sign of a food addiction.
So, how can you fight back and overcome food addiction?
There are lots of different ways to fight against food addiction rather than letting it take control. Below are some tips to overcome unhealthy eating habits:
- Exercise releases feel-good endorphins and can simulate a ‘high’ just like the ‘high’ you get from eating. After a workout session, you tend to crave healthier foods because you’ve just worked so hard and you feel good. Since exercise releases stress, you’re less likely to stress-eat after a workout session.
- A big part of food addiction is force of habit. Be aware of stimuli and patterns when it comes to your eating habits. If you tend to overeat while watching TV find a way to occupy your hands and mouth with something else instead of eating. For example, you can chew a piece of gum while painting your nails, or you can suck on a sugar-free lollipop while knitting.
- Try to get out of the house and avoid your couch if your couch is where you tend to engage in compulsive eating. Go to a coffee shop and read, where you’ll be around other people and you’ll be unlikely to start mindlessly eating. You’ll notice that switching up your environment can help you overcome your bad eating habits because it’s a way of breaking a comfortable pattern.
- If you always go to McDonald’s because it’s only a block from you apartment, take a walk in your neighbourhood and find some other (healthier) restaurants that are just as short of a walk. Once you know where those healthier spots are, it’ll help you break the habit of going to McDonald’s.
- If you notice that you only over-eat when you’re alone, try to plan more outings with friends or invite a friend over to watch a movie with you, as you’ll probably eat considerably less if there’s someone witnessing your every bite. Support from friends goes a long way.
- Abstain from sugar, refined flour, wheat and overly salted foods. Choose fibre-rich foods and protein-rich foods instead. Other foods you can get a natural ‘high’ from include tofu, avocados, sesame seeds and watermelon. These foods do trigger the brain’s reward centre, but they aren’t made to be addicting the way food manufacturers made sure those chips would be addicting.
- Look up a local Overeaters Anonymous group or book an appointment with a psychologist
- Read self-help books that focus on food addictions such as Breaking The Bonds of Food Addiction or The End of Overeating by David Kessler.
- Stock your home with healthy options that you actually enjoy, so that when you’re hungry you can easily grab something healthy. Meal-prep so that you have healthy options on-the-go.
- Practice portion control by using smaller plates and smaller bowls. Over time, you can train your brain to decide that the smaller portion is actually enough.
- Believe in yourself. You have the power to make the change. Don’t fall victim.
- Face your negative emotions. If you’re feeling sad, depressed or angry – and you think these feelings might be causing you to numb the pain with food – get help. See a psychologist, write in a journal, talk to a friend – do whatever it takes to self-heal and deal with those emotions so that you’re not eating due to being unhappy.
Some of these tips might fall outside of your comfort zone, as you may not be comfortable with seeing a therapist or spending a Thursday evening at a coffee shop instead of at home on your couch – but remember:
The Best Things Happen Outside Of Your Comfort Zone – Neale Donald Walsch