If you struggle with overeating, binge or emotional eating…
…then you have probably wondered whether you might be addicted to food.
Not only have I seen the term “food addiction” countless times on social media; I hear it almost daily from clients or women who approach me for help.
I’ve seen the hopelessness on their faces when they put their food struggles down to addiction, because they fear that this will be a lifelong struggle (as is the case with alcohol / drug addiction).
But here’s the deal. 9/10 times, binge & overeating are not signs of food addiction. They are symptoms of a complex biological and psychological process that occurs in response to food scarcity, among other things.
In this post, I want to explain why what you are experiencing is probably not food addiction, and what you can do to break the overeating / binge eating habit for good.
First, let’s take a closer look at what addiction actually is.
Addiction can be physical and / or psychological. Being physically addicted to something means that not having it causes withdrawal. Let’s take drugs, for example. Drug addicts typically experience extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when they stop using a substance.
And yes, you may experience some withdrawal-like symptoms if you cut down on e.g. carbs. You might have a headache and battle to concentrate. But here’s the difference: your body needs those carbs to function optimally. What you are experiencing is not withdrawal; it’s your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong.
Food is essential to our survival, just like sleep, water, warmth, etc. Imagine you decided to restrict your sleep to two hours per day. You would probably fight the urge to sleep all day, but this does not mean you are addicted to sleep.
Psychological addiction, on the other hand, means that having / doing something helps you to feel better / cope. We become dependent on certain behaviours, such as turning to food when we need comfort or exercising to relieve stress. Psychological addiction is not necessarily always a bad thing. Plus, it’s usually easier to overcome than physical addiction, because we merely need to find an alternative behaviour that achieves the same outcome. For example, you might find that cuddling up with your partner gives you as much comfort as eating a tub of ice-cream.
Binge eating is a survival mechanism on overdrive.
We need food to survive, and an urge to overeat / binge is often a biological & psychological response to dietary restriction. Your body does not know the difference between voluntary restriction and famine, so it makes perfect sense to eat as much as possible while food is available – before the next famine starts.
Plus, food becomes immensely pleasurable when you have limited access to it. As a result, eating becomes a highly effective coping mechanism for dealing with life’s stressors. You might be “addicted” to the behaviour of overeating / bingeing to soothe, but not to the food itself.
So what can you do to end the food struggles for good?
Let me start of with an important disclaimer: binge & emotional eating are typically multifactorial, complex processes that require an individualized approach. If you want a more individualized plan, you can book a complimentary Binge-Free Game Plan call here.
That being said, here are four of the most effective strategies to help you to escape the urge to overeat / binge.
Tip number 1: Keep your body nourished by eating regular meals.
I’ve seen this time and time again: women who struggle with food tend to eat in a chaotic and unstructured way. They often skip meals (especially breakfast) or go for long hours without food. This then has a boomerang effect, where they find themselves overeating or snacking non-stop to compensate.
By eating at least 3 meals per day (plus optional snacks), you are giving your body a very important message: food is available; there is no need to binge. You are also preventing primal (urgent) hunger – a key overeating driving force.
Tip number 2. Get rid of restrictive food rules.
Do you live with internalized rules about what, when and how much you should be eating? Well, here’s the deal: food rules perpetuate the scarcity mindset that drives overeating. That’s because living with food rules is a form of restriction… even if you are providing your body with regular meals. This restriction usually triggers deprivation, resulting in overeating when your willpower runs out. Typically, once you break a food rule, you are likely to eat as much as possible before the restriction starts again.
Now, I know that ditching your food rules can be seriously scary. Plus, if you do this too aggressively, you could end up bingeing…and trusting yourself even less around food. This is why I recommend that you start by simply taking stock of your food rules, and then reframing them to be less absolute / rigid. Then challenge these rules one by one, in a controlled and relaxing environment.
Tip number 3. Use emotional coping tools.
Overeating and binge eating are almost always linked to an emotional state – be it stress, anxiety, sadness, or just feeling “meh”. The trick to not letting your emotional state affect your eating habits, is to identify what your emotional eating triggers are. Then, once you have done this, you can brainstorm alternative coping mechanisms for each emotional eating trigger. For example, if you tend to eat when you feel stressed, you might decide to try a stress-ball or some breathing exercises.
Finding coping mechanisms that really work for you takes a fair amount of trial and error, and sometimes these coping mechanisms just won’t do the trick. In this case, you might still choose to eat. But guess what? That is OK – as long as you stay present and avoid eating on autopilot.
Tip number 4. Re-frame negative food experiences in the context of learning.
Most people respond to a binge by beating themselves up and then trying to compensate with restriction or exercise. However, this response is ultimately going to keep the scarcity mindset going…and keep you stuck. How you respond to your binges can have a profound effect on how successful you are going to be in breaking free.
So instead of responding with guilt and compensation, respond with compassion and curiosity. Grab your journal and reflect on what events led up to the binge; on what you could have done differently; and on how effective the binge was in helping you to feel better. Reframe your binge in the context of the situation. In this way, you are learning from your binge and reducing the odds of it happening again in a similar situation. You are using your binge to your own advantage.
BONUS TIP – get support.
The journey to a healthy relationship with food can be lengthy and challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. If you want to accelerate your food freedom journey, so that you can be binge-free and feel confident about your health ASAP, then you may benefit from individualized professional support.
Use the button below to apply for a complimentary call, where we can chat about your unique roadblocks and come up with an actionable plan for you. This will also give you a chance to decide whether you would like to continue working together.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Marna Oettle, RD & Food Freedom Expert