Research has shown that certain foods have addictive properties, in much the same way as drugs or alcohol. For example, eating products that are high in added sugars, fats, and/or refined carbohydrates (e.g., a milkshake) can activate the same pathways in the brain as drugs of addiction. Though “food addiction” is not an official clinical diagnosis, recent studies adapting the diagnostic criteria for drug addiction estimate that almost 20% of adults (in all shapes and sizes) report symptoms of addiction toward food. Although researchers have not yet identified evidence-based treatments, scientists are quickly jumping on board to search for viable options. The purpose of this article is to arm you with hope by suggesting strategies I’ve gathered based on research, along with my own experiences and observations in working both with people addicted to drugs and food.
1. Nurture Your Health.
The most addictive foods are those high in added sugars, fats, and/or refined carbohydrates such as chocolate, ice cream, pizza, and French fries. Companies that manufacture and sell these foods have spent billions of dollars figuring out just what combinations of taste, texture, and brain stimulation will keep you coming back for more. They are in the business of convincing you to consume their products.
But the good news is, you can be free. Replacing addictive foods with nutritious foods like fresh fruits and vegetables will nurture your mental and physical health (e.g., reducing risk for diabetes, depression). You’ve probably noticed that when you eat healthy foods you feel more in control of yourself. However, not all food products advertised as “healthy” are what they claim to be. Take a closer look at the ingredients list for generic pasta sauce or peanut butter, and you’ll likely see at least one sweetener. Even dried fruit and – yes – baby formula often contain added sugar. Pay attention to labels. If you need to avoid added sugars, it’s generally safer to stick with whole foods (i.e., fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, plain nuts, etc.) that have only one ingredient and are made by nature, not a factory.
Affordable whole foods can be found at generic grocery stores (e.g., Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, Winco, Aldi, and Winn Dixie). Farmer’s markets and co-ops may also be a relatively cost-effective option; no need to go anywhere expensive. But since money is a valid concern for many, it may help to consider the following: if a doctor offered you a pill to solve your problem, how much would you be willing to pay per month? Write down your answer, and add that much to your monthly grocery budget. Consider this as an investment in your mental and physical health.
2. Reach Out.
One of the key factors in long-term addiction recovery is social support. Addiction can feel like a solitary struggle, but you don’t have to do it alone. As you’re seeking to make long-term, healthy changes, accept the support of people who sincerely care about you. Many people have found social support groups such as Food Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, or other 12-step organizations to be helpful.
Providing support to others is also powerful. Research suggests that helping others may result in improved confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, and mood compared to only receiving help. So, why not find small ways to lift someone else, as you take small steps to lift yourself? Simple examples could include smiling at a stranger, actively listening to your partner, or giving your mother a call to see how she’s doing. Small deeds can make a big difference to both the giver and the receiver.
If you feel addicted to food, know that you are
not alone, and that there is hope. Nurturing
your health and reaching out to others can help strengthen your existing
efforts in this real-life battle.