For most of my life, I've been addicted to food. I remember using it as a kid to deal with the constant instability of my home life. As a teenager, I used food when I needed a friend after yet another move or when the kids in the lunchroom excluded me from their lunch table.
In college, my Friday night dates consisted of whole pizzas, and I was on better terms with the delivery guy than I was with any other man in my life.
I used food in the way other addicts use drugs, gambling or alcohol. I used food to soothe hurt feelings, celebrate achievements or avoid loneliness.
Unsurprisingly, my food addiction led to obesity. By the time I reached my mid-thirties, I was more than 100 pounds overweight, sedentary and sustaining a Mountain Dew habit that had me on a constant sugar roller-coaster. I was fat, out of shape and depressed.
Most addicts know this cycle well: I ate to feel better about something (relationships, work, school, being fat). I devoured foods that would give me a ‘food high,’ which meant I was eating junk. While eating, I enjoyed that high. Life seemed pretty great, actually, if I had a pizza in front of me, or a sleeve of cookies and a gas station tumbler of soda to wash away any negative feelings, worries or fears.
But then I’d crash. The come-down from a food high is strikingly similar to what addicts who use other substances report. I felt lethargic and tired. My body ached. And worst of all, I sank into depression.
And what did I do when I felt depressed?
Yep: I reached for the chips, hunkered down on the couch and waited for the good stuff to kick in. So the cycle started all over.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Diet and exercise are always presented as matters of self-disciple and in connection with motivation, of just wanting the results bad enough. But obesity doesn't come from laziness or from a lack of desire to eat better. It comes from the same place that all addiction comes from, which is a hamster wheel of trying to shut down and soothe emotional pain.
Yet this dark side rarely gets talked about. It's almost a taboo in our society. Many people have the attitude "Don't mention it, pretend it doesn't exist. It's just food, not a drug."
I think it's time to break through this taboo and address the issue.
Food addiction not only exists, but is common. Let's bring it out into the open.
Addiction is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. It is characterized by the inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behavior and interpersonal relationships, as well as a dysfunctional emotional response.
I definitely ticked every box on this list. I was unable to consistently abstain from eating junk food, even though I must have tried a hundred times to clean up my diet and ‘get healthy.’
Yes, I had impairment in behavior control. I wasn’t really controlling my behavior at all - my behavior was controlling me. I wasn’t sitting down to a balanced meal or going for an evening run. I was crawling into bed with an armful of snacks and watching TV until I passed out. (WAIT. I DID THAT LAST NIGHT TOO, oh crap!)
To say I had diminished recognition of problems with my behavior and interpersonal relationships is putting it mildly. Let me be more blunt: I was in no way owning my shit and being honest about just how often, how much and how poorly I ate. I always figured I was just another Monday away from the diet that would change my life.
I had seriously dysfunctional emotional responses to food including anticipation, joy, contentment, anger, guilt and then, the final emotion that always crept in: shame.
I was, in every way, a full-blown addict.
The thing is, I think a lot of people struggle with food addiction and may not even recognize the signs. It’s fairly easy to see that if you’re knocking back three bottles of vodka before noon, you have an alcohol problem.
If you’re spending the weekend high on cocaine, you probably have a drug problem. If you lost your life savings in Vegas a week ago and are booking your next ticket back to Sin City, you’re struggling with a gambling addiction.
But food is such a common and acceptable substance that it’s harder sometimes to identify when it has become an addiction. And unlike other substances, we can’t cut it out of our lives entirely or avoid it. We have to eat every day, several times a day, and that means facing our addiction every time we wake up.
So, how did I do it? How did I go from active addiction to recovery?
Like any addict will likely tell you,recovery is a tough journey. It took a lot of time and involved relapse and remission. But six/seven years later, I'm maintaining my weight loss and, more importantly, have a much healthier relationship with food, with my own body and with myself overall.
Here are three steps I took on the road to recovering from food addiction and taking back control of my own health:
I admitted I had a problem, and I realized it was a big problem. The problem wasn’t my weight; it was my relationship with food. My weight was a symptom of that problem. Once I realized this, I knew that simply dieting wasn’t going to solve this problem, and I reached out for help.
2. I got help. I began seeing a therapist to help deal with my emotions and the pain of a dysfunctional and damaging childhood. I knew that the feelings behind my compulsive eating weren’t going to go away with a low-carb diet or calorie counting. I knew, even before I first began losing weight, that if I didn’t get the emotional help I needed, I would never be able to heal myself physically.
3. I didn’t quit. I still, every day, keep at it. Like any addiction, food addiction doesn’t go away. It’s a life-long side-kick always there, dancing on my shoulder, whispering offers of a good time into my ear. I still feel urges to take down a sleeve of cookies. I still struggle. And I still keep going.
I know those are the steps recommended to deal with any type of addiction, but this doesn't mean they're easy. They certainly didn't come easy to me, and they took a long time to master. Dealing with the emotional side of addiction is hard work. It’s messy and confusing and exhausting. It would be a lot easier to get back in bed with a Domino’s pie.
But whenever that was a temptation (and sometimes there still is), I remembered the roller coaster, the feelings of shame and guilt and frustration, and I knew I didn’t want to get back on that hamster wheel.
For more information on food addiction including how to recognize it and what to do if you’re struggling with it, Food Addicts Anonymous is a great resource.
How about you? Do you experience food addiction? Do you you agree that it's time to break through this societal taboo and talk about the issue openly?
Share your views - and perhaps your experience - in the comments section. I look forward to reading what you have to say.
Let’s hear it. Go ahead!