Are you worried about your relationship with food?
Food addiction might sound quite extreme but it is much more common than you’d think, and you don’t have to take it to the extreme to cause yourself harm. Food addiction is distinctly different from other types of substance abuse because we need food to survive. We don’t need alcohol to survive or drugs to survive. In the case of food addiction, the addict believing that they need food is absolutely correct. They just don’t need the amount (and mostly the type) of food that they’re consuming.
If you're worried about your relationship with food, you may not necessarily recognise food as just a way to fuel your body. Oftentimes food is something that enriches life to such an extent that it has become not just a necessity to survive but a friend. Perhaps you connect empathy with food, it’s always there to comfort you. Perhaps it fills a hole you feel inside of you. Perhaps you feel insecure and the food is filling an emotional gap in your life that you feel unable to fulfil in other ways.
Anyone familiar with the programmes “Fat: The Fight of My Life” or “Obese: A Year to Save my Life” will also be aware of food addiction. In these programmes, personal trainer Jesse Pavelka helps individuals whose food addiction has got so out of hand they are literally going to feed themselves to death unless they do something immediately.
What is food addiction?
For the record food addiction is completely different to Prader-Willi syndrome - this is a condition caused by a rare genetic disorder where seven genes are either deleted or unexpressed and one of the symptoms can be extreme and insatiable appetite leading to morbid obesity. Although it is said to be the most common genetic cause of morbid obesity in children, please note there are lots of symptoms including low muscle tone, short stature, incomplete sexual development, cognitive disabilities, problem behaviours and many, many more traits of this condition. There is currently no consensus as to the cause of an insatiable appetite as a particular symptom.
If you're worried that you may be suffering from food addiction, or you feel your relationship with food is not healthy or normal, please know that you aren’t "just greedy". Many food addicts, or those with an unhealthy relationship with food, suffer considerable psychological and emotional pain when trying to control cravings and the amount of food consumed. For example, some people report that they feel as though they have suffered a death in the family if they cannot have their favourite food or they can’t consume as much as usual.
Many people report that they do not feel full, even when the required calorie intake for the day has been reached. One conclusion that people reach is “I must need more than the average person” - but is this likely? Or is it more likely that thinking like this means that you can carry on consuming food? Perhaps you feel emotionally empty rather than hungry but you've used food to fill this emotional gap for so long that you see emotional emptiness and hunger as one and the same. Perhaps you're attracted to high fat, high sugar, high cholesterol foods. This could be because these foods tend to include chemicals and sugars and flavourings designed to give us the best taste possible, and this can feel like a high from a drug. Also, too much sugar can have all sorts of effects on us, think about the effect sugar has on children!
Have you tried to curb your consumption of food and found yourself suffering from emotional and behavioural changes? These could include feeling emotional (possibly crying), being irrational, snapping at people, acting 'like a child' etc. This is akin to withdrawal. Although the behaviours may seem very immature there is a very good reason that you feel like this and a therapist can help you work through and handle these symptoms whilst you work on your relationship with food.
Food addiction can take a while to manifest. If someone has suffered a trauma at a young age, they could’ve used food for comfort. When we take this comfort away, the person might regress to the age they were at when the trauma occurred. If the trauma occurred in later or in adult life, the person might still regress to that age and demonstrate the symptoms of the unresolved issues. Hence behaviours and emotions can range from crying (they’re upset about something) to anger (they’re holding on to internal rage) to panic (they feel vulnerable).
Managing and overcoming food addiction
So, how do we treat someone who feels they have an unhealthy relationship with food? Firstly I would ensure that you have been to see a doctor and had a check-up. How at risk of diabetes are you? What’s your blood pressure like? I believe that it's important for you to face reality if there are any physical problems this could affect how you change your diet and your weight loss journey if losing weight is a factor for you.
Alternatively, if there are health issues this can be a great motivator to improve your relationship with food and cut back on the sugar and carbs! When you're ready to start making changes, the first few months could be rather uncomfortable and definitely a challenge! You will need to make some serious changes not just to your diet but to your life. If you're a huge fan of fast food and drive past McDonald's every day to work and you can’t resist going in, perhaps finding a different route that doesn’t take you anywhere near any food outlets would be a better option.
Counselling encourages you to look at your life as it is now, how do you feel within yourself? It encourages you to look at beliefs about yourself and give you coping techniques to help re-write these beliefs, develop better self-esteem and confidence, and a better relationship with food.
I hope this article has been useful. If you believe you have issues with your relationship with food please know you are not alone. You are not a bad person. You are human and going through something. If you want to, you can connect with a therapist and get the help you need.