In the U.S. there are over 4 million adults with an addiction to food. Add to that the ever growing number of adolescents with eating problems and the unhealthy views and eating habits of eating shared by so many others, and you have what is obviously a major problem. The most common types of food addiction are binge eating, bulimia, and anorexia. These
food addiction disorders and treatment for them are discussed below.
Understanding Food Addiction
Food addiction is characterized by compulsive eating and an obsession with weight and body image. Persons with a food addiction display an obsession with, and craving for, food and eating, a preoccupation
with finding sources of food associated with pleasure and comfort, a compulsive cycle of eating, and the lack of an ability to stop abusing food.
Signs of a food addiction and compulsive eating include:
• Preoccupation with body weight and food.
• Eating to relieve worry or stress.
• Continuing to eat even after feeling sick from eating too much.
• Becoming anxious while eating.
• Daydreaming or worrying while eating.
• Depression or mood swings
• Eating too fast and overeating.
• Eating everything on the plate.
• Feeling guilty when you eat.
• Eating much more rapidly than normal
• Eating alone due to shame and embarrassment
• Cannot eat one cookie, or any treat that you really like.
• Binging after a diet.
• Awareness that eating patterns are abnormal
• History of weight fluctuations
• Withdrawal from activities because of embarrassment about weight
• History of many different unsuccessful diets
Types of Food Addictions
There are several types of food addiction, each resulting in significant emotional and physical problems. The three most common food addictions
are described below.
Binge Eating Disorder or Compulsive Overeating
An individual suffering from compulsive overeating disorder engages in frequent episodes of uncontrolled eating, or binging, during which they may feel frenzied or out of control. They
will eat much more quickly than is normal, and continue to eat even past the point of being uncomfortably full. Binging in this way is generally followed by a period of intense guilt feelings and depression.
Unlike individuals with bulimia, compulsive overeaters do not attempt to compensate for their binging with purging behaviors such as fasting, laxative use or vomiting. Compulsive overeaters
will typically eat when they are not hungry, spend excessive amounts of time and thought devoted to food, and secretly plan or fantasize about eating alone. Compulsive overeating almost always leads to
weight gain and obesity, but not everyone who is obese is also a compulsive overeater.
Compulsive eaters are unable to control their food intake and repeatedly attempt to lose weight by dieting. While there may be some initial success at weight loss, the weight is ultimately
gained back, plus additional pounds. Fluctuations in weight and medical complications are characteristic of this disorder. Individuals with binge eating disorders often find that their eating or weight
interferes with their relationship, their work and their self-esteem. Left untreated, compulsive overeating can lead to serious medical conditions including high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension
and clinical depression. Additional long-term side effects of the condition also include kidney disease, arthritis, bone deterioration and stroke.
For more information see the website pages on excess weight and eating
and weight and emotional eating, and weight
Bulimia Nervosa is a potentially devastating problem which is characterized by periods of binge eating followed by attempts to prevent weight gain through purging behaviors such as laxative
use or vomiting. For more information visit the page Bulimia Nervosa.
Anorexia Nervosa is a progressive and potentially fatal disorder that is characterized by a 15% below normal body weight, an intense fear of fat and repeated claims of feeling fat even
when obviously underweight. Anorexics typically have trouble experiencing feelings or handling stressful situations in their lives. Restricting food becomes a way to numb their thoughts and feelings
and establish a sense of power and control. Individuals with anorexia may also engage in other forms of purging behaviors, including vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse, use of enemas or excessive exercise
in order to maintain their low body weight and emotional control. For more information visit the page Anorexia Nervosa.
There is no known exact cause for food addiction and causation appears to depend on the person and the type of food addiction. There is a significant
emotional element to all food addictions. Most sufferers cope with overwhelming emotions of shame and depression. Many feel guilty that they are "not good enough" and are ashamed of their
bodies and weight. Most have very low self esteem. Sufferers also frequently have a constant need for love and validation.
Compulsive overeating normally begins in childhood, when eating patterns are formed. Most compulsive overeaters never learned effective ways to deal with stressful situations, and instead
learned to turn to food as a way of blocking out painful emotions. Some compulsive overeaters consciously or unconsciously use excess body fat as a protective layer, particularly those who have been the
victims of sexual abuse. They sometimes feel that being fat will make them less attractive, and therefore less likely to be abused further.
Although many sufferers of compulsive overeating try to
combat their increasing weight through dieting, this can exacerbate the condition. Dieting can lead to feelings of deprivation, which the compulsive overeater is then driven to block out by further binging.
Unless the emotional reasons for binging are resolved, the sufferer frequently becomes locked into an unending cycle of dieting and binging, with the accompanying feelings of guilt,
shame, self-loathing and depression that result.
In addition to a significant emotional element, for a food addict, food may have physiological addictive elements as well. In some ways a food addiction can be seen as similar to drug
addiction and alcohol addiction. Very often for a food addict, refined sugar, flour and fats become what alcohol is to the alcoholic, or cocaine to the cocaine addict. When eating food in this
group, the addict sets the phenomenon of "craving" into motion.
Like the drug addict, the food addict experiences withdrawal when attempting to cut down on foods that trigger cravings. They can
experience both physical and emotional withdrawal such as tremors, cramps, depression, teary periods and self-hatred which leads
to self abuse.
Treatment for Food Addiction
Food addictions are treatable with nutritional and medical counseling, individual and group psychotherapy,
self- help and spiritual programs such as Overeaters Anonymous and Food Addicts Anonymous, and medication.
Food addiction disorders are behavioral patterns which stem from emotional conflicts that need to be resolved in order for the sufferer to develop a healthy relationship with food. In helping clients, I have found that the treatment for eating problems needs to focus on establishing healthy eating patterns, the reestablishment of a healthy body weight, identifying and treating emotional
issues, developing effective coping strategies to assist the client in dealing with stress and anxiety, and providing support and guidance for maintenance and long-term recovery.
For more information about food addiction or other eating problems, please click on
the linked websites listed below.
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