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Fighting Food Addiction: Everything You Need to Know

By Genevieve Cunningham

Food Addiction

Food is sustenance. Its entire purpose is to keep us alive. It’s a life source, a necessity, a means of growth and energy. But who are we kidding? Food becomes much more than a basic need in our lives. It becomes comfort and delight and habit. It becomes part of who we are. And our ever growing obesity problem in America proves that to be unequivocally true.

Unfortunately, our food obsession may go further than simple habit. How many times have you said you were addicted to a certain food? To Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or tacos or your grandmother’s mashed potatoes? We become so emotionally invested in food, we feel as though we can’t live without it. But is that true? Or are these self-proclaimed addictions nothing more than hyperboles? The answer is complicated.

What Does Science Say?

According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, a little more than 70 percent of Americans are considered overweight, and approximately 40 percent are clinically obese. Those are big numbers. Really big, overwhelming numbers. In the same study, it’s suggested that these numbers aren’t necessarily all our fault. When rats were given a diet high in sugar -- or when they were given endless food options -- the rats showed neurochemical changes in the brain. Their brains literally changed in response to the food. Does that sound familiar? It should. It’s the same kinds of changes that happen in the brain of a drug addict.

The good news is that in some cases, the problem is truly an emotional connection. We turn to food as a coping mechanism. In these instances, learning new coping techniques can help us change our dangerous diet path. We have to relearn how to deal with life, but we’re not physically in over our heads. But in other cases, people need serious help. They need support and guidance in breaking the addiction, and they’ll need support and guidance for the rest of their lives. It’s an actual mental and physical addiction -- as real and as dangerous as any other.

How Do We Change?

When drug addicts finally face their demons and attempt to break their addictions, they often separate from regular life. They spend time with counselors away from the general public. They’re allowed to detox in a safe environment. Food addiction, as real as it may be, isn’t treated in the same way. Why? Because food is legal. So how do we break a food addiction and reclaim our lives?

  • Transition to real food - Though it’s possible to be addicted to any food, the most addictive tend to be highly processed, sugar-filled, or fatty foods. If we can slowly wean ourselves onto whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, we’ll be one step closer to breaking the addiction. It’s a long and hard process, but it can work over a long period of time.
  • Seek professional help - Whether it’s through personal counseling or a 12-step program (yes, these exist for food!), professional help may be the only way to find success. Studies have proven that it’s not about willpower or moderation; it’s about rewiring the brain and finding ways to deal with true addictive tendencies.
  • Seek to change your lifestyle - Food is part of our lifestyle. It’s not a separate entity, and treating it that way won’t work. To beat addiction, we must get away from things that trigger our brains to react. You may have to make new, supportive friends. You may have to avoid certain places. But changing your lifestyle is the way forward -- and it’s the only way to save your health and potentially your life.

There’s Hope for Everyone

Perhaps the best news of all is that food addiction isn’t necessarily a death sentence. It can drastically alter your life’s path, and it absolutely affects your overall health, but it can be broken. People can lose weight. They can change their behavior. They can overcome and learn new habits. They can succeed.

The key is to recognize the problem and reach out for help. Emotional eating, boredom eating, excess weight, and lack of impulse control may all signal a food addiction. Strong reactions to food or the lack thereof may signal a problem. Pay attention. Fight back. Addiction to food? Yes, it’s real. Get help, make changes, and let food be a life source without becoming your whole life.

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