When you type ‘food addiction’ into Google, the first predicted autocomplete is ‘is food addiction a thing?’ People have debated and questioned the existence of the condition for years, but if you are one of the thousands of people who battle with compulsive food addiction on a daily basis, you’ll know it feels very real, and can quickly overwhelm every area of your life.
‘It’s hard to be objective about what and how much we are eating,’ says Dr Bunmi Aboaba, a recovery coach who specialises in food addiction. ‘Emotions come into play, there are rationalizations and denial. There are also no hard and fast boundaries. What’s healthy for one person could be more than enough for another.’
However, if you’re reading this article, chances are you’re concerned that your relationship with food has strayed away from that end of the spectrum – which is where Dr Aboaba’s advice comes in. We asked her for the most common indicators that you may need to address your eating habits, and what you can do to get back to a happier, healthier place.
7 common symptoms of food addiction
Thinking about food more than usual
Has food become a major subject in your internal dialogue? Are you often thinking ‘how long until lunch / snack break / dinner?’ It may not be the food itself, it may be the idea of the food. The buying, the unwrapping or preparing.
Not telling the truth about how much you eat, or hiding what you do eat
Have you ever bought extra food, then eaten it before getting home, so no one would see? Do you eat in the car to avoid a confrontation about food? Is there a stash in the house, perhaps biscuits hidden away? Have you stopped off at a café or a burger joint to have an extra meal?
‘It’s just one more slice…’ – does this sound familiar? ‘If I skip lunch tomorrow, I can have extra dessert tonight…’ – but of course, lunch still happens as usual… Do you set yourself targets, and then when you fail those targets, make an excuse for yourself?
Allowing other areas of life to suffer
Are you feeling tired, both mentally and physically? Do you skimp on family time or work time, to have more time with food? Do you put off doing exercise, because you know that it will hurt first before getting better?
Physical changes become noticeable
In addition to weight gain, if you’re eating unhealthy things, that can also show up in the form of acne, bad breath or dental problems. You might be out of breath more often. At the more extreme end, this can progress into diabetes, heart and/or liver problems.
A decline in mental health
Eating, denying that you have eaten, feeling guilty, low self-esteem, and then eating to get rid of those feelings. This can turn into a never-ending cycle.
Having cravings, even after eating a full meal
After eating a satisfying meal, one that contains all the good stuff and plenty of it, is there a voice in your head saying ‘but what would really finish the meal off is…’? You’re full but there’s a nagging feeling of wanting more.
Found yourself nodding yes to three or more of the above? Dr Aboaba says it could be a warning that you do need to address a food addiction. So, let’s take a look at the three main types of overeating and some ways you can address them:
The 3 main types of overeating
It happens: occasionally
‘We’re inundated with opportunities to overeat,’ says Dr Aboaba. ‘The foods tend to be highly palatable, refined or processed foods – pizza, ice cream, cakes, etc. It’s so appetizing that a large portion has to be finished off at once. But when we have, we may feel satisfied but also not too great. To make matters worse, that uncomfortable, too-full feeling is often accompanied by less-than-ideal emotions like guilt and sometimes even shame.’
What to do: Take a short walk an hour or two after overeating. Not only will it brighten your mood but it will get the food moving through your digestive tract. Make it a point to make your next meal a healthy and satisfying one, eating when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Sipping a little water after the event will help flush out some of the sodium consumed.
Be mindful around when overeating occurs. Most of us will do it on a whim or as a reward. When it becomes a regular thing, then we have to look at the ‘what’, the ‘why’, and the ‘need’.
2. Emotional eating
It happens: suddenly
‘For many, eating can become the go-to emotional coping mechanism – when the first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever stressed, upset, angry, lonely, tired, or bored – it’s easy to get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed. Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food,’ Dr Aboaba explains.
‘Emotional hunger often comes on suddenly and craves junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need ice-cream or pizza, and nothing else will satisfy.’
‘The secret to getting back on track to normal healthy eating patterns is to identify emotional triggers: Make a list of what situations, people, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food. Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, and feelings from the past, that are triggered by events in the moment. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions.’
What to do: To stop emotional eating, you need to find other ways to fulfil yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a big step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfilment.
If you’re feeling lonely or down, call someone who always makes you feel brighter or focus on something else, like reading a good book or watching a comedy.
3. Compulsive eating
It happens: regularly
‘People who binge and compulsively overeat feel compelled to eat when they’re not hungry and can’t stop eating when they’ve had enough,’ details Dr Aboaba. ‘Binge eating disorder involves regularly eating large portions of food in one go, without thinking and in a short space of time, until the person feels uncomfortably full, and then often upset or guilty and out of control.’
‘Binge eating disorder and compulsive overeating are almost identical. Compulsive overeaters will say that they cannot control their food intake and feel they are lacking “willpower”. They will also say that they are eating for comfort rather than hunger or physical need.’
‘There are always underlying reasons behind this type of behaviour. Perhaps it’s the exertion of control, when it seems we are powerless to make effective choices in our lives. Maybe it’s to do with negative body image.’
What to do: You may be surprised that it’s not necessary to ‘get to the bottom’ of any issue, simply to realise that there are underlying reasons. It’s not because you’re ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ or ‘have no willpower’. It is because of things that have happened, and you can learn to do things differently.
It may help to speak to your doctor or a qualified food addiction therapist or other specialist to help you with your particular circumstances. The point is that whatever the problem, there is a way out.
For more information on Dr Bunmi Aboaba and her work with food addiction, visit thefoodaddictioncoach.co.uk