Is Your Struggle with Food an Addiction?

Big Chicken Sandwich

Is your struggle with food an addiction?

Many of us have tried losing weight, repeatedly. At times we succeeded and even kept it off for a time; and then inevitably, the weight returned, plus more. Some had gastric bypass surgery, lost weight, and found the weight started creeping on again. When the weight returns, we beat ourselves up and often say critical things to ourselves like: “If only I had more willpower, self-discipline or wasn’t so lazy; what’s wrong with me; why can’t I do this”…

Researchers have said 95% of diets and exercise plans fail, but why? For many who struggle with weight, it’s not about willpower, self-discipline or laziness – it’s about addiction. Diets and exercise do not treat addiction. Consider the following definition: When we use food or overeating to numb or alter the way we feel and cannot stop this pattern even at the threat of potential health issues – that’s addiction!

The Obesity Epidemic

The United States is in an obesity epidemic with the second highest obesity rate in the world . The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that “During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and rates remain high. More than one-third of U.S. adults and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese (compared with 7% in 1970). Obesity-related conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer are some of the leading causes of preventable death. In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion.” Add in adults who are overweight, as opposed to obese, and the number skyrockets to 2 in 3 Americans. Americans spend over 40 billion dollars a year on dieting and continue to struggle with their food. Clearly we have become an addicted nation.

Researchers have said 95% of diets and exercise plans fail, but why ? For many who struggle with weight, it’s not about willpower, self-discipline or laziness – it’s about addiction. Diets and exercise do not treat addiction. Consider the following definition: When we use food or overeating to numb or alter the way we feel and cannot stop this pattern even at the threat of potential health issues – that’s addiction!

How did this happen?

These are alarming statistics and the sad reality is that weight-associated medical conditions are largely preventable through healthy nutrition and regular exercise. Yet, we continue our obsession with food. America has not always had an obesity epidemic or been so addicted to overeating, so what happened? Let’s take a look:

If you are a baby boomer, you may remember your first fast food experience. It was a big deal, a fun family outing. Now ask yourself, what did you have for lunch yesterday? If you are like many Americans, you probably ate fast food. Some studies show that 25% of Americans eat at fast food establishments every day. It is no longer an occasional treat to eat out – it has become a way of life. Here are the facts:

• The 210 calorie bag of French fries that you ate 20 years ago has 610 calories in it today.

• The cheeseburger you ate as a kid had 330 calories and today carries a whopping 590 calories.

• The 20 oz. soda you drank yesterday has 65 grams of sugar, more than half of what is recommended in a daily diet.

Oatmeal with Smiley Face

And you haven’t even super-sized yet!

Over the years, with increased portion sizes and easier access to fast food, the result is a national health crisis. 42% of Americans eat fast food a minimum of 12 times a month. We spent $215 billion dollars at fast food establishments in 2008.

Likely you are alarmed at this information; but you may still be wondering “Is my struggle with food really an addiction?” Let’s consider what happens in the addicted brain.

Your Brain on Food

Recent research into the brain shows that fat, sugar and salt activate the pleasure pathways in the brain – releasing dopamine, a brain chemical that is at the root of most addictions. When the brain is flooded with dopamine repeatedly over a period of time, it causes attention and focus deficits, impulsivity (remember the last time you put that cookie in your mouth without even thinking about it?), judgment problems (you continue to eat sugar, for example, despite warnings about the health implications), procrastination (I will walk tomorrow), disorganization and emotional disconnection. Now when you feel stressed out, tired, sad, lonely, angry, grief, or bored – your brain says “I know what to do for that!” and you start planning what you will eat on your next break, head for the nearest drive thru, or grab for the cookies or chips. All of this affects your ability to take charge of your life. But that’s not about willpower -it’s about addiction!

Healing the Addicted Brain:

The Good News!

Reversing the effects of the addicted brain happens through the following conditions which decrease dopamine levels and normalize them. These conditions help to move the brain functioning out of the instinctual limbic system and into the purpose-driven prefrontal cortex:

Purposeful Activities

Addiction functions in the instinctual limbic system which compromises one’s ability to self-regulate. People who struggle with food addiction, find it difficult to stay with goals to exercise or eat in healthy ways. Symptoms include procrastination, difficulty focusing or staying on task, impatience and irritation with others. Training the brain to use its prefrontal cortex requires tasks and activities to increase self-regulation.

Become Mindful

Many who struggle with compulsive eating feel somewhat disconnected from their body. This makes it difficult to recognize real hunger or feelings of fullness, which can lead one to eat mindlessly. Other needs may not be noticed or addressed as well. Stuffing emotions is common and can result in “comfort eating” or eating to “numb out”. Becoming mindful of our feelings when we are hungry and responding to what we need, can help heal the addicted brain.

A Healthy Relationship with Food

Making a nutritional plan to follow each day can help to transform an unhealthy relationship with food into using food as it was intended. Food is fuel and when it is used to fuel up the body with energy rather than to numb feelings, we begin to transform this important relationship by changing the way food is viewed and engaged.

Structure and Organization

 Research shows that attachment, or healthy connections with others help to heal the addicted brain.

Research shows that attachment, or healthy connections
with others help to heal the addicted

People who struggle with addictions are prone to more impulsive, haphazard and spontaneous actions and decisions. We live stress-filled lives, running from one thing to another. We skip meals or overindulge. Healing can be promoted through making and following a plan of action, through putting structure and organization into our lives. Life functions more smoothly and has less stress when we are living in harmony and balance, which can be created and fostered through taking charge of our day to day schedule and putting a system into place with consistency and stability.


Isolation is one of the most common – and most significant – stumbling blocks faced by individuals with compulsive-eating behaviors. When we begin to feel anger, fear, or any strong emotion, a natural response is to retreat. It may seem easier to be alone and to isolate from others, either physically or emotionally, than to seek help. Even people who seem social on the outside may feel emotionally isolated or “shut down.” Research shows that attachment, or healthy connections with others help to heal the addicted brain.

Getting through withdrawal

As with all addictions, withdrawal can be a difficult part of the process of recovery. One reason we are not able to maintain changes in healthy eating is because withdrawal can be so uncomfortable for us and those around us! Withdrawal includes experiencing irritability, headaches, cravings, fatigue and increased emotionality. When we lose a major coping mechanism the emotions from which we have been running start coming up, demanding to be heard. Part of the cure for addiction then is to begin to look at the very issues we avoid. This is called “leaning into the pain”. The issues we avoid will need to be faced if we are to find healing and peace from addiction.

Watch out for Addiction Transfer

When underlying issues are not addressed, it is common to embrace something else to replace that which was given up. Recent figures suggest up to 30% of those who had weight-loss surgery engage in some sort of addiction transfer. Musical star Carnie Wilson appeared on Oprah to share that she developed an addiction to alcohol two years after her highly-publicized gastric bypass surgery. Down from 300 to 150 lbs., the negative feelings that fueled her food addiction were still there. With overeating gone as a coping mechanism, the singer turned to alcohol to cope with stress. “I’m here to get the message out that after you’ve had surgery, you need to focus on what’s in your head,” she said, adding that it’s not always possible to “solve it all” before surgery because many people who are obese face life-threatening illnesses that mandate weight loss now, therapy later.

Getting Help

Close up of a Scale

“If I am addicted to food, what can I do?”: Dealing with food addiction is different than dealing with drug, alcohol or nicotine addiction. We can give up association with those things in recovery; but we can’t stop eating. Remember food addiction isn’t about food management, it’s about pain management. Using the conditions listed earlier will help to learn new ways to manage emotional pain and develop habits that help heal the addicted brain. With that healing, over time, the brain begins to act from the prefrontal cortex which is more purpose-driven, rather than from the limbic system which is more instinctual and where addiction lives; this leads to increasingly greater control over the way we eat.

Recovery programs that encompass the successful practices of psychoeducation, individual and group therapy, and encourage use of Twelve-Step meetings are healthy options for dealing with food addiction. When combined with a medically-sound weight loss program, the possibility of successful outcome is greatly enhanced.

Perhaps you have been dealing with food addiction for many years. You may have had times when you lost weight only to put the weight back on plus more. You may have had weight-loss surgery but still struggle with eating or you may be considering weight-loss surgery but are concerned to take that step without having your eating under control. Life doesn’t have to be this way. There is hope! Treating food addiction can unlock the areas that keep you blocked from a healthy lifestyle! Consider this quote by Eckhart Tolle who shared this important truth; “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.”

Michael C. Roubicek, PhD, LCSW and Stacey B. Thacker, MA, LMFT

About the Authors: Michael C. Roubicek, Ph.D., LCSW and Stacey B. Thacker, LMFT are psychotherapists in private practice in Fresno, California at Roubicek and Thacker, Individual, Marriage and Family Counseling, Inc. where they provide clinical supervision, individual, couples, family and group therapy. They are co-directors of LifeStyle Transformation, a Program for Recovery from Compulsive Eating and LifeSTAR of the Central Valley, an outpatient recovery program for sexual addictions.  This article originally appeared in the Valley Health Magazine.

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