Anyone trying to figure out how to fight food addiction has to reckon with a hard truth: you have to eat food, so you can’t treat it exactly the same way that you might handle some other kinds of addictions.
For many kinds of addictions, you can live without the thing you’re addicted to and sobriety is usually defined by total abstinence. If you’re an alcoholic, you stop drinking alcohol and avoid drinking it the rest of your life. If you’re a gambling addict, you stop gambling and never gamble again. Sobriety is pretty easy to define. Did you drink? Did you gamble?
But there are other kinds of addictions where stopping completely is not an option. If you are a sex addict, you could technically stop having sex for the rest of your life, but there may be some people in your life who aren’t very happy with that decision. If you are a workaholic, you could in theory stop working, but that could have a severe negative impact to you in all kinds of ways – financially especially!
When it comes to food addiction, you can’t just abstain and learn to live without it. You’re going to have to eat food your whole life, so while many things about your recovery will resemble recovery from other addictions, your sobriety will not be defined by abstinence: it will be defined by having a healthy relationship to food.
By way of full disclosure, I want to note that I do not have a food addiction, so what you’re hearing is advice from someone who has successfully recovered from a different addiction and has gotten to know the stories of food addicts among a variety of other addicts. I stand by this advice, but it is not a substitute for counsel from a trained professional or a group dedicated to food addiction recovery.
What Does Your Food Addiction Look Like?
Food addiction, like sex addiction, can show up differently in different people’s lives.
For example, some people are addicted to a specific food or a specific type of food (junk food is very common). Some food addictions show up as eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. Other food addictions may manifest as an obsession with a specific diet or dieting in general. Yes, as you can see, food addiction can mean over-abstaining from food just like it can mean overindulging.
Getting a handle on what your addiction looks like is important for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons is helping you come up with a definition of sobriety that fits your situation and will serve you in your recovery. For one person, sobriety may mean never eating another doughnut. For another person, sobriety may mean consuming at least a minimum amount of calories each day or each meal. For yet another, it may mean never eating at a fast food restaurant, again.
It’s important to keep in mind that the food addiction you recognize may also be associated with other food addictions or other addictions in general. Addicts use substances and behaviors to escape the pain of their lives in the present and, as such, it’s very common for addictions to show up in small clusters. Maybe you are obsessed with a specific diet and only eat a certain type of food. Or maybe you have a cigarette after every fast food binge.
Getting an accurate map of where you’re at is vital to moving forward in a healthy direction that will work for you. It usually helps to invite a trusted friend into this process to help you see into your blind spots. A trained professional like a therapist can also help, and you can also get some insight from recovery groups such as Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.
Once you have this map of your current situation, it’s much easier to come up with what healthy behavior needs to look like for you. Obviously, abstinence from food is not an option, but abstinence from certain kinds of food or diets is entirely possible.
Get Someone Else Involved
As I mentioned above and as I’ve mentioned before in other articles, you absolutely must get someone else involved.
I know in a very real and personal way that this is embarrassing and hard. I remember vividly the first time I shared the story of my addiction with someone else. Actually, I remember vividly the first five times. It requires a lot of courage. There’s shame there, there’s risk involved – I completely understand this.
See, we don’t know each other, but I know something about you, if you’re an addict. I know that, inside you, there’s a little voice that says, “If anyone knew about what you were doing, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with you.” Well, it turns out that voice is a lie.
True, when you first open up to someone about your addiction, you probably don’t want to pick the most judgmental person you know or someone whose life will be profoundly affected by your news. You might choose a close, trusted friend who has shown they care about you unconditionally. You might choose a spiritual mentor. You might choose to reach out to a food addiction recovery group. You might choose a therapist.
But whatever you decide, the one option you should not choose is seeing how far you can get by going it alone. I don’t know what food addiction has done to your life so far, but it has killed people. It has made life hellish for many others. Reading books and articles and websites is all good stuff and you should inform yourself as much as possible, but you will not be able to break a genuine addiction on your own.
On the plus side, getting another person involved is one of the most powerful things you can do to boost your recovery. I even know a couple of cases where the act of sharing with someone else itself broke the grip of the addiction. That’s highly unlikely, but it just demonstrates the power this one act has.
I recommend finding another human being you can talk to in person, but if you are just utterly paralyzed by this, hop over to the Contact Info of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous and send them an email. They have heard your story before.
What Starts You Down the Path?
The craving that you feel inside actually started long before you felt it.
I think of acting on our addictions sort of like a bobsled track with “acting out” being the finish line. Nobody starts at the finish line. In a specific bobsled event, you start at the top of the track, start running with your sled, hop in, and fly down a chute with twists and turns until you are inevitably pulled across the finish.
My questions for you: what got you to the top of the track? What got you running with your sled? What got you in the sled?
In other words: what were the events, thoughts, and emotional states that brought you to the point of acting on your addiction?
In the heat of the moment, these things are invisible to us, at least at first. We need to get them recorded when we’re in a better state of mind. This way, we can look back over this information and discover patterns.
One way we can get this information down is by journaling. It can be something you keep every day or even progressively throughout the day. At minimum, journaling about the times you act on your addiction will be important. The goal at this point is not to obsess about the behavior but to identify the circumstances that led up to it.
In your journal entry, you answer questions about what happened to you before you acted out. What were the day’s events beforehand? How were you feeling emotionally and physically? What thoughts were you dwelling on? Journaling regularly about these things is actually my preferred way to go, at least for a while at the beginning. Like me, you might see things that surprise you.
Another way of doing is with the Three Circle Exercise. In this exercise, you identify your destructive behaviors in the red circle. Then, you identify the practices, locations, thoughts, people, circumstances, etc. that tend to trigger or lead you to those behaviors in the yellow circle. Finally, you identify healthy practices, thoughts, locations, people, etc. that you can strive for in the green circle. The idea is to fill your time with green circle behaviors and avoid as much as possible the things in the yellow circle. Doing this keeps you out of the red.
The Three Circle Exercise is a very powerful and effective exercise that I recommend for any recovering addicts. I’ve found, though, that when people are very new to recovery, they have a hard time truly identifying what goes in the yellow circle, which is where journaling can help. Also, the other person we’ve gotten involved in our recovery can help us see things we might not see, ourselves.
Search Out the Underlying Causes
I know it might seem like the underlying cause is “I like ice cream” or “I don’t want to be overweight.” That’s not the issue, though. Lots of people like ice cream and don’t want to be overweight.
Many addicts believe the underlying cause is that they have little or no willpower, and this causes a lot of shame. It’s true that we do not have the willpower to resist our addiction (it wouldn’t be an addiction if you did, right?), but this is not the cause. It’s not true that people with low willpower become addicts and high willpower don’t. In fact, many addicts have willpower in many areas of their lives but find that they can’t resist their addiction.
There are reasons why you can’t resist your addiction and none of them involve not “wanting to” enough.
To go back to the bobsled analogy, the days when we act out are like a single bobsled race. But before that race even happens, a bobsledder was drawn to the sport, and they had to learn about it, and they had to train for it. A good portion of their lives were spent just laying the foundation for being able to bobsled.
The life of an addict is very similar. It may seem to you that you just tried a food or a diet or a behavior and were just instantly hooked, but the reality is that there are forces in your past and present (many of which were beyond your control) that have shaped you for addiction.
This is why simply stopping the behavior you don’t want isn’t enough to truly break free from addiction. If you successfully stop your unwanted behavior but never address the underlying issues that brought you to that compulsion in the first place, the odds are very high that you will relapse or gravitate to a new addiction. You can’t just cut the head off a dandelion; you have to dig out the roots.
Like everything else in addiction recovery, this is virtually impossible by yourself. I find that trained professionals like therapists are especially valuable for this part of the process. They are usually trained in helping someone walk through their past and present to find the traumas, the false beliefs, the survival mechanisms, the stories – all the things that shape us to be addicts that we cannot see, ourselves, because it was just normal to us.
But if you aren’t quite ready for that step, yet, simply having another person to ask questions from the outside can be helpful, whether it is a friend or, better yet, people who recovering from our struggle. Often, their hindsight enables them to ask good questions, and we can usually see ourselves in their stories.
Food Addiction is Beatable
I know it doesn’t feel that way.
If you haven’t started recovery, it probably seems impossible to imagine a single day, much less months or years, where you aren’t in the grips of behaviors you don’t want. That’s the power of compulsion.
If you have started recovery, let me congratulate you and encourage you to stay the course, even if you stumble on the way from time to time. Maybe you’re discouraged at your progress, especially if you know other addicts that seem to have broken free much sooner than yourself.
Something I can tell you from experience is that progress in recovery will not look the same from individual to individual. Our underlying issues are different, our investment is different, and the damage done by our addiction is different.
But wherever you’re at, this is a fight that you can and will win. The stakes are very high, but you have brothers and sisters who have walked this road before you.
In case you missed it the other times, here’s a link to Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous: https://www.foodaddicts.org/
Are you a food addict in recovery? Does some of this square with your experiences? What are your thoughts and stories? Let me know in the Comments.