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Am I Addicted to Food?

By Michelle May, M.D.

Am I addicted to food?“Am I addicted to food?” This question gives voice to a common fear among people who are stuck in the eat-repent-repeat cycle.*

The concept of food addiction is controversial – but more important, it is counter-productive. I’m not denying that people experience feelings of powerlessness over food. However, believing those feelings are a result of addiction leads to only one option: restriction and avoidance. Abstinence works for alcohol but food cannot be avoided.

Choosing to limit the exposure to “addictive foods” is helpful at first, but ironically most people discover that restricting the foods they really love only makes the desire for those foods grow stronger. As the cravings intensify, the feelings of powerlessness increase, not decrease.

Further, trying to avoid all of the “addictive” ingredients just distracts us from recognizing the underlying drivers for eating in the first place. Restrictive eating simply replaces overeating.

My observation is that part of what appears to be addiction is the belief that a food is “bad” or we are “bad” for wanting or eating it. We experience guilt or shame, perhaps even resorting to secret eating. The thought, “I shouldn’t be doing this! I’m out of control!” is followed by another thought, “Might as well eat it all, for tomorrow I’m going back on my diet!”

The other main driver for this addictive-feeling spiral is the desire to eat food we like in order to avoid or suppress something we don’t like. When we eat for reasons other than hunger, the satisfaction (or numbness) is short-lived. The underlying trigger is still present, and thus the cycle continues.

Without a doubt, the eat-repent-repeat cycle must be resolved – but calling it addiction takes away the power to change and prevents us from learning to use food in an enjoyable, moderate way. I know without a doubt that mindful eating CAN help people relearn to eat what they love and love what they eat – and deal with their other triggers in more effective ways. The problem is that most people who suffer don’t even realize that there is another option besides abstinence!

What if Food Addiction is Real?

Now for a moment, let’s assume that food can be an addiction for some people (or at least have addictive qualities). Can mindful eating help with food addiction?

Absolutely! In the article, How to Break Free of the Addictive Fix, Elisha Goldstein, PhD writes about using mindfulness to address addiction. The article quotes Viktor Frankl, respected Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor:

“Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Whenever you feel like eating and pause to ask, “Am I hungry?“, you are creating space between wanting to eat (the stimulus) and starting to eat (the response). In that space is the possibility for awareness about why you want to eat. If you’re not hungry and pause to ask “What are my options?“, you are giving yourself the power to choose your response.Therein lies your opportunity for growth and freedom.

Whether food is addictive is the question. Either way, mindful eating is the answer.

* What is the eat-repent-repeat cycle? Download chapter one FREE to find out! Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

5 Comments

  1. Kerry Cater says:

    My name is Kerry and I am a recovering compulsive overeater who uses mindful eating. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (my late mother had been a type 1 diabetic most of her life) at the age of 39 when I reached an all time high, doubling in size from what I had been in 2005. I was placed on metformin 1000mg by my doctor and broke down in tears in her office. Up to that point, my focus had been on weight loss through 13 unsuccessful years of OA relapses while trying to achieve “abstinence”, which had done a real number on my self-esteem. Exasperated, I gave up on OA and searched for a residential treatment program that would meet my needs. I found Timberline Knolls in Chicago and spent 2 1/2 months there learning that what I had been doing was dieting restriction and that one of the keys to recovery was in an approach called mindful/intuitive eating, which I began May 15th, 2011. Within a week all of my previous ideas about “good” and “forbidden/binge” foods, “abstinence”, and the like were challenged and I was able to finally find freedom from food obsession and eat sugar and all other foods moderately for the first time without being “triggered”! Surprisingly, I found I enjoyed my daily frozen yogurt as much as I enjoyed NOT feeling “guilty” for eating it! Upon returning home, I found an early challenge: I had to leave my pro-dieting/OA friends behind due to their out-and-out rejection of my new approach as “a path to the grave.” Like many people in AA before me, I eventually had to focus on the present, one day at a time, advocating for my recovery. It’s been a hard, imperfect road, but well worth it. I am still enjoying my daily dessert, maintaining healthy blood glucose levels (between 80 and 120), exercising every other day, reading every IE/ME book I can get my hands on, going to EDA meetings, and regularly going to dr. appointments. My medium range goal is to have my meds level reduced. And the focus is no longer weight loss! Mom would be proud….

  2. Thank you for sharing your story Kerry. It is one that we encounter quite often. It is wonderful to receive an email or comment from someone who simply started by reading chapter one of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat and suddenly, their entire perspective on what the “problem” is shifts!
    I appreciate your post because I know it sounds impossible or at least too good to be true…but you CAN learn to eat what you love and love what you eat. The freedom and joy that follow are amazing.

  3. Nancy says:

    Dear Kerry,
    Thank you for sharing your exeprience. I find it very inspirational to read about people who have given up dieting as I have. At this time I feel there is still not a lot of support out there for those of us who have given up dieting. I have even encountered counselors who say they support non-dieting, but still preach limiting certain foods. Frustrating! Keep up the good work–because it is a process and it is work, but so worth it.
    Dr. May,
    I really liked what you said about food addiction. I truly believe that even if food is addictive we can be in charge of what we eat by working the “Am I Hungry” program. The hardest and most rewarding part for me thus far has been legalizing all foods. This has taken a lot of power away from food and given the power back to me.

  4. Nancy, you made an important observation! Sometimes those preaching “non-diet” are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The more you learn about this process the easier it is to spot the wolves! Be discerning!
    Michelle

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