In October of 2020, I had been on a strict macro counting regiment for almost 6 months. My goal was to lose the baby weight from two children and depressive eating patterns I had sustained over the previous 4 and a half years.
It was working.
I had lost 25 lbs and was fitting into clothes I hadn’t worn since before my first was born. I felt confident and happy with my progress.
But something was coming undone in my head. A voice I had kept in check for the previous 6 months.
What started as excitement and felt almost easy had turned exhausting. Every piece of chocolate I passed up and every bowl of ice cream I turned down chipped away at the wall I had constructed to keep the demon in.
It had been easy at first. I was highly motivated. But motivation is fleeting and as it started to wane, the voice got louder.
My husband was putting the kids to bed and I was alone in the kitchen. I opened the pantry and peered in.
That bar of chocolate looks good!
But no, I can’t start. I’m an abstainer and one piece will lead to several.
There’s that quart of Keto ice cream in the freezer! It was a tough day and I deserve some ice cream!
But no, one bite will turn into the whole quart.
MMMMK. But look at those collagen marshmallows. They’re made from COLLAGEN for goodness sake and 0 net carbs. I’ve been so good for the last 6 months. I can have ONE.
But still, no. I have been able to stay on track because I’ve been diligent about limiting sweets.
With each attempt to rebuke my inner voice, I felt my resolve waiver. I knew it was crumbling.
Might as well just give into it so I can start the process of starting over tomorrow.
I grabbed the chocolate bar and took a bite while peering at the marshmallows. The chocolate would taste really good with a marshmallow. So I grabbed the marshmallows and started eating them together.
Then I eyed the graham crackers and encased my mallow/chocolate stack, shoveling it into my mouth as fast as I could. Then I had another. And another.
Suddenly I heard the floor creak above my head. My husband was coming downstairs. I quickly shoveled the leftover food into the pantry and swept the trash into the garbage.
“I’m going downstairs to switch laundry.” I said as my husband reached the bottom of the stairs.
“I’m going outside to do chores,” he replied.
I quickly moved the diapers from the washer to the dryer and immediately opened the freezer. On autopilot, I grabbed the ice cream and hurried upstairs.
“Just one bite.”
But you deserve more than one bite.
I turned on Parks and Rec and within minutes the entire pint was gone. I buried the ice cream container in the trash, hoping my shame would be buried with it.
You’ve already started, why stop now?
I went back to the pantry and pulled out my make-shift s’mores. #4. #5. #6. All gone within minutes. I was out of marshmallows. So I had chocolate and graham crackers.
I caught a glimpse of my husband coming back in and I quickly buried more evidence in the trash.
We sat down to watch TV and I innocently asked “I think I want a piece of chocolate. Do you want one?”
I gave him one and took two for myself.
I went to bed that night trying to suppress my guilt, shame, and stomachache.
The next day, I couldn’t bring myself to count my macros. And I ate 6 pieces of buttered bread while my kids played in the other room.
What is a Food Addiction?
There is no formal definition of a Food Addiction (FA). It is not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly referred to as the DSM-5), although some researchers have found that using the DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorder is transferable to FA (although it is no stretch to say that more research is needed).
Although there is no formal recognition by the DSM-5, this concept has been gaining traction by both conventional medicine and alternative wellness circles.
Experiments in animals and humans show that the same reward and pleasure centers of the brain are triggers by addictive substances like cocaine, heroin, and alcohol are also activated by “feel good” foods.
The Feel Good Food Effect
Feel good foods are typically high in sugar, fat, and/or salt. I would argue that while some foods in their natural state can be addictive, the ultra processing and manipulation of taste and texture by modern food manufactures has created ultra addictive foods.
In his book, The Dorito Effect, author Mark Schatzker details how food scientists have used the science of food addiction to make foods hyper palatable.
In fact, many foods mimic other highly addictive substances.
According to Dr. Vera Tarman in her book, Food Junkies, “Sugar, for example, shares the same neurochemistry and neural pathways as cocaine. Sweetened chocolate mimics the effects of alcohol and opiates. Flour modulates moods and anaesthetizes pain just as many drugs do.”
You know what they say… “once you pop, you just can’t stop.” Or is it “Betcha can’t have just one.”
In those with food addictions, reward signals from hyper palatable foods override signals of fullness and satisfaction. As a result, the food addicted person will continue to eat and eat and eat, beyond hunger and possibly into the space of pain or purging.
People with food addictions lose control of their eating and find themselves spending excessive amounts of time involved with food and overeating or anticipating the emotional effects.
Signs of Food Addiction
I acknowledged my addiction after a friend shared about a very unique nutrition program called Food Addiction and Recovery. After looking into it, I felt something in me tapping on the door and saying “Hey, pay attention here!’
I had never stopped to consider that I was an addict.
SURE I joked about it. We all do.
“Oh my gosh, those breadsticks are so good. I’m totally addicted.”
And I had never really had an eating disorder. I couldn’t keep myself from eating and I tried to make myself throw up a few times in Jr. High, but could never maintain induced vomiting.
But I was a binge-in-secret, overeat-when-no-one-was-looking, obsess-over-who-would-eat-the-last-of-the-ice-cream, LITERALLY-can’t-stop-once-I-start eater.
In my lifetime, I have:
- Consecutively driven through multiple drive thru’s, ordered AND eaten several meals worth of food within 30 minutes (2 McChickens, 1 Large Fry, Small Concrete, Chicken Tenders, Hot Dog, and Curly Fries).
- Strategically threw food away in a closed container so I could sneak back to the trash and eat it later.
- Bought a box of cookies at the grocery store and ate the entire thing on the way home.
- Planned and greatly anticipated food binges while my husband would be out of town for work.
- Sneaked off-limit foods as a child and feigned surprise when someone discovered a thief in the midst.
- Felt panic and anxiety when I thought a food would be gone before I could eat some or have more.
- Ate long past being hungry and to the point of feeling ill.
- Ate food in secret and hid the trash so no one would know.
- Spent countless hours mentally beating back the voice in my head telling me I need, deserve, and absolutely SHOULD eat recklessly.
- Given in to that voice countless times and spiraled into a perpetual binge that lasted weeks or months.
Shame, not Willpower
A few years ago, a relative commented that I have one of the strongest willpowers of anyone she knew.
I smiled. “Ok.”
But not 10 minutes before I had snuck into the kitchen and binged from the party spread. Bread, dip, chips, candy, brownies, cookies, and pasta. But when we all ate together, I was careful to load my plate with salad and meat.
I think food addiction is tricky because we can all likely relate to one of the above. But when it comes to a food addict, there is an intensity. An obsession. And the physical and emotional inability to stop once we start.
Freedom in Abstinence
I am really new to the study of food addiction. But I’ve been a nutrition coach for almost a decade. Looking back, I realize I’ve witnessed signs of food addiction bubbling to the surface, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
The details vary, but the stories have a common cadence:
The story of Carla Everywoman
Carla Everywoman gets started on her new nutrition plan. She is excited. She is ready. And above all, she is hopeful that this time will be different.
Carla eats according to plan, moves her body, and feels great. Her clothes fit better, her bloodwork improves, and she moves with less pain.
But after some time, the fatigue of fighting back her inner voice starts to wear on her.
You’ve been working so hard. You deserve a break.
One bite. Just one bite. It won’t kill you!
Are you seriously expected to never eat cake again??
Then her family members and co-workers start to make comments.
“Are you sure you don’t want a little bite of cake? You’re getting too skinny anyway!”
“This is your favorite lasagna! I made it just for you! You can’t have one piece?”
The final straw is when the Instagram account she’s been following for years posts a picture of a cupcake with the caption “If your diet never allows for a treat, you’re doing it wrong.”
And Carla veers off plan. She HAS worked hard. JUST one bite. She made the cake Paleo, so it will be ok. But once she pops, she just can’t stop.
After the first binge, she rationalizes it to herself. It was just one. She’s back at it!
After the second binge, she feels her control slipping.
After the third binge, the scale ticks up.
And after the fourth binge, she gives up. Awash in guilt, shame, and regret. And feeling like a complete and total failure.
This story may feel familiar to you. Looking at it objectively, we can see a tone to the narrative around her regression. The tone of moderation.
We would never tell a person addicted to alcohol that we bought his favorite beer, can’t he have just one bottle?
We would never say to a person addicted to heroin that if her program doesn’t allow for an occasional hit, she’s doing it wrong.
We would never ask a person addicted to tobacco if he actually thinks he will never have another cigarette again.
These statements would be considered uneducated, tone deaf, and disregard the physiological process of addiction. Abstinence is necessary when it comes to substance abuse.
And yes, that’s where I’m going with Food Addiction. I’m suggesting that one of the most effective approaches to treating food addiction is abstinence from trigger foods.
Everything in Moderation?
For decades we have been told that only diets that include all foods in moderation are sustainable. Which puts those who are addicted to foods (or simply have an abstainer personality) in a real pickle.
While it is controversial, total abstinence from trigger foods seems to be one of, if not the most, effective ways to manage a food addiction.
And to be honest, this usually causes panic:
“I really cannot have cake ever again? What about soda? And my favorite chips??”
Well, maybe not. But likely so.
Dr. Vera Tarman, a medical doctor and food addict researcher in Canada, posits that first we must detox from addictive foods. This means yes, we need to abstain from highly addictive foods such as grains and sugar.
After our body has detoxed physical symptoms, we need to reflect on what our triggers foods are and those will be the foods we need to cut out. Forever.
Chocolate cake is a huge trigger food for me. Recently, I turned down some chocolate cake at a small family gathering.
“Wow, you have so much willpower!” I heard from across the room.
I smiled. And not quite ready to let them in on my little addiction secret yet, I said “Actually I have no willpower. Once I start, I just won’t stop.”
…. And now what?
As I write this, I have been food sober for 116 days. I’m deeply proud, but it has not always been easy. Some days my inner voice has been loud and RAGED against my decision. In an effort to understand the boundaries of my trigger foods, I ate potentially triggering food and immediately felt the pull of the binge. But as of now, I have not been pulled under.
Just for Today
Food sobriety is not an easy path. I live with 3 people who are not food addicted and can eat foods that would send me into a spiral. I walk through the bakery aisle at the grocery store and take my kids out for an occasional ice cream. Trigger foods are everywhere in everyday life and I’m still new enough in my sobriety that I often think “I’m going to get that to eat on the way home” before catching myself.
Every day, I tell myself “just for today.” I don’t worry about not being able to eat ice cream in two months or cake at my kids’ weddings in 20 years.
As backwards as it may sound, abstaining has made this process easier. By taking some foods totally off the table, it has decreased the emotional and mental battle of moderation.
But. I also carry a lot of guilt and shame on the topic.
I’m a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Health Coach, for goodness sake. I understand the mechanics and science of food. I understand the repercussions of my choices. I have created everything from systems to recipes to make healthy eating realistic and sustainable.
But while I was doling out advice to others on how to eat well, I was hiding cartons of Keto ice cream in my trash and obsessing over how to sneak a chocolate bar.
In the end, I think my experience with food addiction makes me a better coach. I can empathize and strategize more effectively. I can stop telling an abstainer that the end goal is moderation. I can stop implying that a food addict should be able to eat a piece of cake once a week to be successful. And I can start educating and even calling out my peers that the Moderation = Success message is very harmful to a person with addictive food tendencies.
If you think you have a food addiction, I encourage you to seek help.
I enrolled in the Food Addiction and Recovery group and found it to be absolutely life changing. I’m sending huge shoutout to Coaches Mary and Jessyca for their wisdom and leadership. I will forever be grateful for what they do.
And while I’m still in the infant stages of understanding a lot of the emotional and psychological piece, I have been helping people cut the chemical dependency on food for almost a decade. If you’d like to work with a familiar face, you can check out my personal coaching program.
And remember, there are many side effects to a food addiction (chronic pain, chronic disease, and obesity being some of the most common).
But perhaps the most crushing outcome is the shame that we feel. We often eat in secret because we feel like our habits would disgust those who love us the most. And more importantly we are constantly failing ourselves and our dreams.
You deserve more. You deserve to live your best life because you are you and you are the only one of you that there will ever be.
If you want to chat about this more, please share your experience in the comments or join my Facebook Community for more on the topic.