I grew up loving food. I was well-fed by my Italian mother. She cooked delicious meals for us all of the time. We would have a protein, a starch, a vegetable, and a dessert. My favorite meal growing up was chicken cutlets, Velveeta Shells & Cheese, spinach, bread with butter, and brownies or anything cake-like for dessert. I wasn’t a particularly active kid, so that was a lot of food for a young couch potato. I quickly became overweight and obsessed with food. When my parents would leave the house, I would jump on the opportunity to grab a glazed donut from the dining room table or some chips and cookies from the cabinet. I loved icing! I would eat entire jars of icing and knew enough to hide the evidence. I was around 9 or 10 years old when I became addicted to food.
The doctors would tell my parents that my BMI was too high and they would try to make healthier food choices, though I traded my healthy snacks for Tastykakes and oreos at the school lunch table. By the time I was in college, I was big and hungry. I wanted to lose weight and joined one of those medically supervised weight loss programs where you eat pre-packaged “food” and drink “shakes”. I lost a lot of weight on this program–over 60 pounds. I loved being thin so much that I took not eating to the other extreme. It wasn’t long before I was labeled disordered and sent to nutritionists and therapists to cure me of my food addiction.
Throughout my life until after the birth of my now 10 year old son, I struggled with all that is food and internalized this struggle as my fault. Having been told I had a disorder and an addiction that will always be a part of my life by “experts” in the field of eating disorders was a detriment to my health and well being. The truth behind my food addiction and my ability to overcome this addiction was not found in a label or a medication or a even a therapist. The truth was found in my ability to take matters into my own hands.
I am going to share my 5 expert tips with you today that will help you overcome your food addiction.
“I couldn’t cope with my feelings,” she said, “so I ate them.”
—Trevor Butterworth, in a story by Christine Winter on a woman who had joined Overeaters Anonymous, The Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1975
Tip 1. Learn the facts.
One of the best ways to create change is to find the truth. Do your research. What are the statistics saying about food addiction and obesity? What is the science behind food addiction? Finding the truth means seeking facts. Facts don’t have emotionally charged statements. Facts are not clouded with opinion. Facts can be harsh at times, but they provide us with the information we need to fuel our motivation to create change within ourselves.
5 Facts to Empower You Right Now
- According to estimates by David Kessler, professor at UCSF & former commissioner of the FDA, there are more than 70 million food-addicted adults in the United States .
- Dopamine and serotonin tend to be the major players in the addiction of numerous drugs and alcohol .
- Sugar also elicits a response from both serotonin and dopamine. Tryptophan is a precursor for the release of serotonin & high-carbohydrate diets leave excessive tryptophan in the blood and this leads to an increase in serotonin .
- An estimated 400,000 adult deaths each year in the United States are associated with obesity. Total costs, which include medical costs and days lost from work because of illness, disability or premature death, from obesity in 2000 were estimated to be $117 billion .
- At least 1 out of every 3 kids born today will develop diabetes at some point within their lifetime. 
What are Serotonin and Dopamine?
Serotonin and dopamine are both neurotransmitters. Dopamine plays an important role in controlling motor behavior, emotional reward, and behavior motivation mechanisms. It regulates emotional responses, hormone secretion, and actions related to reward sensations. Most types of rewards increase dopamine levels in the brain and cause satisfied feelings, which serves as motivation to perform the behavior in the future.
Serotonin regulates the functioning of the cardiovascular and endocrine systems. About 90% of serotonin is found in the intestine, with the remaining 10% in the central nervous system. It has an important role in regulating sleep, appetite, memory, mood, body temperature, and muscle contraction.
Piecing together the facts about food.
The truth is that food can make us feel good by eliciting a serotonin and dopamine response similar to the response that is felt when someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. Remember that overcoming food addiction is not a moral failing, nor is it about willpower. Sure, food is debated as an addiction because we need food to live, so how can we just stop using food the way we would stop drinking alcohol or stop using drugs?
The short answer is that you can’t just stop eating. You can, however, stop eating the things that make you feel so good that you can’t stop eating them.
Tip 2. Eat this, not that.
I love donuts, cake, double stuff Oreos, chocolate, Chex Mix, pretty much anything that is salty, crunchy, chocolately, and yummy! What would you say if I told you that because I am aware that eating these foods cause me to overindulge, I just don’t eat them?
Yes folks, that’s right. In order to overcome a food addiction, we must first be willing to accept the fact that food can be addictive. What foods are you sensitive to? Is it a huge pile of broccoli or a bowl of fresh berries? Or is it potato chips, pizza, cheese, and ice cream? If you can have just one cookie, but can’t let go of the whole pint of Cherry Garcia, stay away from the ice cream. You can also try an elimination diet to identify any food allergies. We often crave the very foods that we are allergic to. This causes inflammation in the body on top of weight gain, changes in our hormonal profiles, and changes in our mood. Remember this: Binge eating stems from physical cravings. If you are trying to lose weight and overcome a food addiction, you have to stay away from the foods that make you feel way too good completely– this includes artificial sweeteners as they too have been proven to elicit a similar neurotransmitter response.
So, I can’t ever eat cheese again?
In life in general, it’s a good idea to stay away from all or nothing thinking. Earlier, I said I love donuts and anything yummy. Once I was able to name the foods that cause me to binge eat, I was able to take back control of my body and my eating habits. I eat donuts now and have even been seen eating ice cream– though I do not make a habit out of it AND I definitely do not keep these items in my house. So yes, you can eat cheese again one day… once you have met your weight loss goals, if your leave your house to get it, and when you have become aware of your food addiction so as to prevent full-blown relapses. (And as long as you aren’t allergic to it! If you carry an epi-pen for a bee sting allergy and still eat dairy even though it messes with your stomach…well, that just doesn’t make sense does it? If you aren’t going to let a bee sting hurt you, don’t choose to purposely hurt yourself.)
Tip 3. Exercise. Sleep. Repeat.
Movement is key to living a healthy lifestyle. You don’t have to be a hero in the gym to start exercising. You don’t even need a gym. You can go for a walk, play with your dog, or even dance and sing at the top of your lungs in the comfort of your own home. The bottom line: Move your body.
Balancing your blood sugar is key to controlling food cravings. Exercise can help because your muscles need energy to work. To feed your muscles, your body burns sugar as an energy source, lowering the glucose levels in your blood. When you exercise regularly, it helps your body use insulin more efficiently. This can lower your blood sugar levels for up to 12 hours after you exercise.
Working out will contribute to better sleep. If you are exercising and sleeping for at least 7-8 hours a night, you will have the most control over your cravings.
Tip 4. Drink more water & take some good quality vitamins.
Energy levels, appetite, strength, endurance, and mood all rely on getting enough essential nutrients. When you don’t get them, things break down.
Berardi and his team at Precision Nutrition have made a list of the most common deficiencies they see with new clients:
- water (low-level dehydration);
- vitamins and minerals (especially from vegetables and fruits);
- protein (particularly in women and in men with low appetites);
- fiber (95% of the population is deficient here); and
- essential fatty acids (especially omega-3’s).
Getting rid of nutrient deficiencies can start with drinking more water and purchasing a good quality multivitamin, probiotic, and fish oil supplement. Not all vitamins are created equal, so be sure to do your research. In addition to water and vitamins, you can increase your protein intake and add more vegetables and berries to your current diet.
Tip 5. Feed those impulses with healthy coping strategies.
So you can’t have cheese and cake anymore, now what? It is never enough to look at the biological underpinnings of behavior, especially if a given behavior has been repeated over several years time. Practicing new habits is difficult, especially if food felt so good that it was your go-to strategy for dealing with overwhelming feelings. I always say that food feels like a big warm hug. If you can relate to that, then this tip is for you.
It is no secret that we prefer to do what feels good. Feeding our impulses generally feels good and taking away the foods that fed the impulse to feel good feels bad. It can even feel like a loss. If you need to mourn the loss of food, I respect that and you should too. Starting on the journey of giving up foods that make you feel out of control is not something to be taken lightly. Food became your way to cope and now it is time to mourn the loss of that maladaptive coping skill and replace it with a coping skill that will enhance your life rather than hurting you.
I love to sing loudly and out of key, play with our German Shepherd, Katja, and play basketball with my husband and our son. What can you do to fill that empty space where food once was? Is it journaling, walking, playing music, doing arts and crafts, creating a blog and telling the world about your journey, taking up a new hobby or sport? It is important to find something that is unique to you that feels good and fuels your new, healthy lifestyle. What else can fuel your emotions in a healthy way?
Remember this: Food doesn’t always have to feel good or be hyperpalatable. Food should fuel our bodies, not our emotions.Rose Skeeters
Rose Skeeters, MA, LPC, PN2
Rose Skeeters is the CVO of Thrive: Mind/Body, LLC, an innovative mindset coaching & online counseling practice aimed at empowering motivated individuals to master every area of their life. Rose also provides consulting and clinical supervision to like-minded and driven clinicians. Are you interested in working with Rose? Schedule a consult with her here or contact her today at Rose@thriveonlinecounseling.com.
: Thompson, J. Kevin. Handbook of Eating Disorders and Obesity. John Wiley & Sons, 2004.