If you eat to soothe or stuff your feelings, does that make you a food addict?
For years, science said “no”, you can’t really be addicted to food, not as you can with alcohol or cigarettes. Now, though, it’s become clear that the massive amounts of sugar, salt, and other substances in our foods do trigger our brains to want more and more, and to resist stopping. With such foods, then, especially in large amounts, there are physical consequences once we start, and then try to stop. And certainly we can become psychologically dependent on using food to tame emotions.
Groups like Overeaters Anonymous and Food Addicts Anonymous define chronic overeating patterns as addictions. They help people change their behaviors by treating them as addictions, just as if binge foods were like alcohol. For many reasons, though, these approaches don’t always stop overeating for good. As people say again and again, “At least with drinking, you can stop completely….you have to keep eating.” Also, people often do learn to eat “trigger” foods in moderation, even if this is not easy at first.
In the end, I think whether or not you call your overeating an addiction depends on how you want to deal with it. It helps a lot to think of certain foods (sweets or chips or other carbs, usually) or types of eating (grazing from a bag, for instance) as “triggers”. Staying away from these things can equal “abstinence”. Continuing to avoid them may well increase your sanity and bring your weight down. Avoiding them forever, though, is very hard in our world. And many people simply don’t want to—they’d much rather learn moderation if they could.
Sometimes aiming for abstinence can help you gain stability. Giving up certain foods completely can return a sense of control, calm cravings, offer needed experience with a “cleaner” diet. Problems erupt, though, when life gets particularly hard and stressful again, or when temptations loom too large. For, if you haven’t learned to deal with those brownies or bread loaves, you remain vulnerable. Groups like OA and FAA help with this, and are indispensable if you choose the lifetime abstinence route.
In other cases, whether you call it addiction or emotional overeating, you face the same hard work of change: identifying trigger foods, situations, and emotions. Trying new behaviors and practicing them over and over, even after “bad” stretches. Learning to care for emotions without food. Learning how to choose, stick with, and ultimately like and prefer healthier food.
No, it’s not easy, but this is another way that overeating is like those other addictions. The process of stopping can be uncomfortable, to say the least. But in time, people always look back and say it was worth it.