There are many people who use food to avoid dealing with problems and confronting their own feelings. This type of behavior can lead to food addiction, which can be unhealthy for the mind and body. To help understand where food addiction stems from and what someone can do to overcome food addiction, I have interviewed therapist Leora Fulvio, LMFT.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I have a Masters in Counseling Psychology and I am a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I have a full time Psychotherapy practice in San Francisco where I specialize in the treatment of eating disorders. I am a member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, as well as the San Francisco chapter of CAMFT. I am also a member of the National Eating Disorders Association and the International Academy of Eating Disorders. I publish a support blog with tips to heal from binge eating disorder. (http://www.bingeeatingtherapy.com) I am currently writing a new book to help people heal from binge eating disorder.”
Where does food addiction stem from?
“Typically, though eating disorders such as binge eating and bulimia are considered addictions, the concept of “food addiction,” is not something I generally refer to. There are some people who believe in the concept of food addiction, but many who do not because it’s not a chemical substance such as drugs or alcohol. Addiction to an eating disorder is partly a process addiction. In a process addiction, people are addicted to a particular process such as sex, gambling, or shopping, rather than a substance. An addiction to food is doubly challenging because it is both a process and a chemical addiction. All foods elicit a chemical reaction in our bodies. Thinking and obsessing about eating also elicits a chemical reaction in the brain.”
“It’s hard to say where the addiction to an eating disorder stems from. It’s different for each person. Like any addiction, people who are addicted to food are attempting to feel better and to make their lives better. Of course, the solution then becomes the problem. People who turn to substances or compulsive behaviors tend to be uncomfortable with their thoughts and their feelings or don’t know how to manage them. In order to regulate their emotions, they turn to food in order to “stuff” their feelings. There are many reasons as to why people don’t feel comfortable in being in touch with their feelings. For some, they’ve never been taught to talk about their feelings. When they felt sad or angry, they were yelled at or forced to put on a happy face. For others who might have grown up in violent homes or with volatile parents, the expression of feelings might feel uncontained or scary. As human beings, we have millions of emotions, yet it’s only socially acceptable to express one or two.”
“Physically, eating certain foods can create a chemically addictive reaction in the body. Eating certain foods, such as candy, chocolate, bread, pasta or other simple carbohydrates, releases seratonin, which is a neurotransmitter that’s formed in the brain, which improves your mood and helps to calm you down and relax you. That’s why some people feel high after a big meal or eating sugar. This feeling can last 1-2 hours and can be addictive. After the “come down,” people might have the need to eat more food to get “high” again. After eating a meal made up of simple carbs, insulin is secreted. Insulin lowers the blood levels of most amino acids with the exception of tryptophan. Amino acids then compete for transportation across the blood-brain barrier, and when there is a larger proportion of tryptophan, it enters the brain at a higher rate, which boosts serotonin production. Seratonin is then released. However, protein rich foods block seratonin receptors, so even though tryptophan is present in protein, it doesn’t have that same chemically addictive charge, though there can be an emotional or process component to it.”
“The process of eating can trigger a sense of peacefulness. For instance, eating a hotdog might trigger the feeling of being at a baseball game with your dad; something that was wonderful and you associate with happiness. You might find that you are addicted to hotdogs. They help you to feel better.”
What type of impact does food addiction have on a person’s overall life?
“Being addicted to eating and certain foods has a great impact on people’s lives. They might feel unsafe around food and unable to be social, go to restaurants or parties or events that are centered on food. They might isolate themselves because they believe that they are unable to eat their favorite foods in front of people for fear of being judged. Food addiction can lead to cholesterol issues, heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay and other degenerative issues.”
How can someone overcome food addiction?
“Delete the Word “Diet” from Your Vocabulary
Kind of scary, huh? Many people think that if they cease to diet, that they will lose control completely. But for many, it’s liberating.”
“Dieting sets up a precedent that’s very difficult to stick to. Diets often recommend that we eat only a certain amount of calories per day; some suggest that we cut out whole food groups such as carbohydrates. If these rules are some how broken, it’s possible to feel like a failure, many people feel as though they messed up the whole day and thus to go to the other extreme and binge with the idea that they can compensate by going back on their diet the next day.”
“Deleting the word diet does not mean that you are giving up your aspirations of healthfulness. This is about self-acceptance and recovery. You can accept yourself as you are in the moment AND do things to help yourself to become healthy.”
“Get to Know Yourself
Keeping a food and feelings journal is tremendously helpful. This enables you to understand when and why you binge. Perhaps you got some bad news on the phone, or you had some kind of mini-traumatic event at work, maybe you ran into a person who triggered some bad feelings that you have about yourself. It’s difficult to know. Many people aren’t even aware of why they are feeling bad. Keeping a journal can help you to know what triggers your binges. Write down everything that you eat for 2-3 weeks. In the margins, write how you were feeling. If you binge, write that down as well. Write down things that happened that day, write down what happened before the binge. Write down how you felt after the binge. You are becoming an investigative journalist uncovering truths about yourself. This kind of self-knowledge will help you understand and recognize your triggers and thus enable you to find options to stop a binge before they begin.”
Overcoming food addiction takes awareness. You have to begin by being mindful. Try, each time you eat to ask yourself, “is my body hungry or am I trying to shut down?” If you are trying to shut down, set a kitchen timer for 10 minutes and vow to yourself that you are going to do something other than eat. Then, do something loving for yourself. Take a bath, call a friend, and take a walk around the block– anything to interrupt your process. Addiction is automatic– something that you do without thinking. If you can give yourself a reminder to think before you eat, you might actually be able to think about what you ACTUALLY need.”
“Increase your Capacity to sit with Uncomfortable Feeling
Many people will compulsively eat or diet in order to soothe themselves, but how are you wounding yourself? Is it with unkind words? Is it with food? Is it with restrictive dieting? If you find yourself going for the food, first ask yourself, “am I hungry?” if not, what else might be going on? “Am I angry? Am I tired? Am I lonely? Am I bored?” Set a timer and see if you can go ten minutes without the binge. During these ten minutes, write about your feelings. Make a phone call to a loving, supportive, safe person, or just sit alone and allow yourself feel the uncomfortable feeling. As you learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings, set the timer for longer. As the weeks go on, you’ll be surprised at how long you might be able to postpone a binge. At first it might be moments, but eventually it will grow to hours, then days, then weeks.”
“Re-learn Your Cues for Hunger and Satiety
Children know when they are hungry and when they are full. However, the nurturing mother, in her attempts to nourish her child will usually distrust the child’s internal cues and force the child to take “just one more bite,” or to “clean your plate.” Clearly, these suggestions were made with the best of intentions, however, many people grow up not trusting their own instincts about hunger and wind up eating whatever is on their plate regardless of whether they are hungry or not. In the beginning of your recovery, it might be important to eat by the clock to ensure that you are eating your three meals per day, however, it is important to figure out when you are hungry and when you aren’t.
This hunger/satiety scale can help you to relearn your cues of hunger. During at least one meal per day, rate yourself before your meal, half way through your meal and at the end of your meal to figure out where on the scale you are. Put your fork down, sit quietly, close your eyes and tune into your body to see where you are, then rate yourself using the following scale.”
1 = You are starving, you have a headache, are dizzy, indecisive
2 = You are quite hungry, you are unable to concentrate
3 = You are feeling hungry and are ready to eat
4 = You are beginning to feel signals of hunger
5 = You are feeling neutral, neither hungry or full.
6 = You are feeling satiated and satisfied
7 = You feel full
8 = You feel stuffed
9 = You feel uncomfortably full,
10= You are stuffed, feeling sick, having to unbutton your pants.
“Try to not to allow yourself to go below a 3 and try to stop eating before you get to a 7. It’s important not to let yourself get too hungry. Allow yourself to snack on high protein foods such as string cheese or yogurt during the day so that you are not ravenous when meal times come. This will help to prevent bingeing.”
Many people recover with the help of therapist, group therapy or a 12-step program such as Overeaters Anonymous or Eating Disorders Anonymous.”
“Many people use both. Having people who are going through similar recovery can be very comforting. The support is invaluable and having someone to turn to who is going through the same thing as you are is a great way to talk through your feelings and figure out what is going on instead of turning to the food for support.”
“Give Yourself Some Love, You Deserve It
Be patient and loving with yourself. Progress is not linear. Many compulsive eaters are looking for a quick fix. For every accomplishment it is possible to experience a set back. But these set backs can be great information and learning experiences to find a way to do things differently. Each binge can give you information about yourself. Recovery time is slower and more methodical. It takes time to unlearn all the negative feelings that we have established about ourselves and do undo all the false beliefs that we have about ourselves. Repeating daily affirmations are amazing for combating such beliefs.
Some people say things such as “I love myself no matter what,” or “I am loved, loving, capable and strong,” each night several times as they’re falling asleep. It can feel difficult or uncomfortable or untrue at first. Do it anyway. It’s necessary to have ammunition against the voices that are giving you negative messages about yourself. Don’t let them win.”
What last advice would you like to leave someone with a food addiction?
“Be kind and gentle with yourself. People who think too much and feel too much tend to latch on to something that helps them to feel better about it all. Have some compassion for yourself. The last thing that you need is to shame yourself when you are feeling bad already. When people act out with food, it’s usually because they are feeling badly about something. When you are feeling badly you need to get support and love and help, not to be unkind to yourself.”
Thank you Leora for doing the interview on how to overcome food addiction. For more information on Leora Fulvio you can check out her website on http://www.leorafulvio.com.
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