The idea that binge eating is a type of addiction like any other, is a relatively new concept in understanding this behavior. Researchers are now aware that compulsive overeating affects the pleasure center of the brain in a similar way to alcohol and other drugs. Highly palatable foods that are rich in sugar, fat and salt trigger reward centers in the brain and feel-good chemicals like dopamine.
When a person who is vulnerable to this type of addiction receives a rush of pleasure in the brain from certain foods, the signals can override any feeling of fullness. This can cause them to keep eating to experience the pleasure even when they are not hungry. When someone develops an addiction to food they often lose control over their behavior and spend a lot of time overeating and anticipating the effects of overeating.
Essentially, compulsive overeating is a behavioral addiction that causes the person to become preoccupied with food and the pleasure that they experience from eating. Because food is not a substance like drugs or alcohol that they can completely abstain from, compulsive eaters need to learn how to change their relationship to food. Having a healthier relationship to food can help prevent addictive patterns from springing up any time a person needs to eat.
Signs and Symptoms of Food Addiction
People that overeat may find that their habit gradually turns into an addiction over time and the behavior becomes out of control before they even realize it. Their attitude and relationship with food begin to change as the addiction develops and grows into a more complex problem. Some of the symptoms of developing food addiction may include:
- Eating more than planned
- Continuing to eat when you are not hungry
- Eating until you feel sick
- Having obsessive food cravings
- Eating alone to avoid attention
- Allowing eating habits to interfere with work or spending time with others
After a compulsive eater has a period of binge eating they will experience emotional aftermath of feeling guilty, shameful, uncomfortable and feeling bad about themselves. The negative feelings they experience can cause the cycle to continue because eating may act as an emotional release for them. Food addiction can even cause withdrawal symptoms as the person becomes dependent on certain types of foods to feel normal and they can feel anxious and agitated when they try to cut them out.
Recovering from Food Addiction
Food addiction can be complicated to resolve because a compulsive overeater must still eat and they may be confronted with their issues every time they feel hungry. It is possible to change the way they view food over time and manage their addiction with the help of a therapist. Eating food to nourish themselves instead of to seek a rush of pleasure will be an important step in changing their attitude about food.
One of the first stages in recovering from food addiction may be to address some of the psychological and emotional issues that cause the person to overeat. They may have issues with depression, anxiety or they may have been through some type of trauma. Working through and resolving those problems can contribute a lot to minimize the need to seek food as an escape from their feelings.
There are many steps involved in changing the way a compulsive overeater consumes food and how they view eating. They will need to start replacing the processed, sugary and high fat foods with more nourishing alternatives. Their focus on food needs to shift from eating foods that make them feel a rush of dopamine to foods that contain the nutrients their body needs.
One of the ways that compulsive eaters must learn to manage their habits is to give themselves time to wait until certain food cravings naturally subside. Instead of giving in to obsessive thoughts about food and going out of their way to eat what they are craving, they need to learn to wait a few days until they are no longer thinking about that food.
Mindful Eating and Healthy Habits
An important strategy in dealing with food addiction is learning how to eat mindfully and listen to what our body is telling us. We have natural cues from our body that tell us what and when we need to eat or stop eating. Being focused and mindful when we eat or have the desire to eat can help prevent overeating.
People that suffer from food addictions need to make a lot of changes in order to recover from their problem. It can be a lifelong issue that they must manage the best that they can. They need to focus on maintaining good mental and physical health while striving to keep healthy eating habits at all times.
If you or someone you know suffers from overeating, contact a treatment center or therapist for help in changing their relationship to food.