Yes, You CAN Overcome Food Addiction (Here's How To Begin)

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The journey won't always be easy but these tools and resources can help.

Based on my experience, observation, and study, I've become convinced that patience and persistence are key to moving beyond food addiction. Since they are both within yourself, you have the power to improve your situation, but only over time. Though not a quick fix, hope lies in the choices you can and will make.

The bad news is that you've established neural pathways and automatic responses that provide ultimately frustrating escape routes.

Unfortunately, they may have become deep behavioral ruts that keep you stuck in the mud. Though these habits can temporarily fill voids, provide solace, and quiet emotional or physical pain—knowing any pleasure is transitory—does not always stop repetition. So, when you think of the years spent in establishing habits you want to modify, all these realities combine to make a strong case for using your persistence and patience.

Psychologists and neuroscientists can find many valid reasons in an individual's past and physiognomy for addictions and other issues involving food, such as anorexia and bulimia. Though valuable for understanding and making long-term progress, your own awareness, sensitivity, and behavioral choices lead to more immediate, accessible actions.

Knowing my own past experience as a compulsive overeater, and people who struggle with other addictions, I suspect they act as pacifiers for pain, fears, and anxieties. Other factors include challenges and intensity of living. All are escapes from freedom that mute your true powers.

You'll see from my story later the processes that eventually worked for me. Other efforts I made included psychoanalysis, Overeaters Anonymous, various diets, and reading about the issues endlessly. Approximate calorie counting, portion awareness, food logs, and weekly weighing eventually worked better for me, along with other approaches.

But since each of us is unique with original needs and histories, I will not stop with discussing my story; I will also offer options to expand your repertoire of practices and ways to support your own patience and realistic expectations.

Since there is no one best way to deal with longstanding, destructive issues, each person must find a natural rhythm and variety of viable action.

These individual choices are especially valuable because the process is not entirely logical nor linear much of the time. Regressions and stasis do occur. You'll see, though, that progress is more likely with time and your commitment, which both re-ignite self-respect and pleasure in life.

You Are Not Alone: Food Addiction in Obesity Data

Would obesity be as significant as smoking and the first cause of preventable death in the U.S if food addiction weren't rampant among all ages? Though food seems to have a benign nature in comparison to other addictions, it is still dangerous and demeaning because misuse is so apparent.

  • According to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, "obesity is common, serious, and costly."
  • More than one-third (34.9% or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese.
  • Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.
  • The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

If you think you use food in unhealthy ways or know someone who does, keep reading. Another consideration is whether food and overeating influence your life in negative ways. If these factors apply, you are in good and broad company.

Fat Talk

In a recent Washington Post interview about her latest memoir, the 68 year-old, beautiful actress, author, and photographer Candice Bergen expressed her usual frank self: “I am fat.”

In contrast, there's an anti-fat talk movement reflected in Facebook's recent announcement to remove “feeling fat” from its list of status update emoticons. Talking about feeling fat will make you feel worse and even drag other people down with you, according to Renee Engeln, psychologist and North Western University professor, in The Problem with ‘Fat Talk' from her recent New York Times op-ed piece.

My Story

Why continue to talk and write about food addiction, especially since I don't have a dramatic, quick-fix success story to tell you? Won't it make you feel disheartened in comparison? Instead, I write for you in hopes that some of what I've learned, noticed, and experienced may become useful and engaging.

Although I've been overweight or obese at various times of my life, my self-image seems to have minimal connection to how much I actually weighed. For example, when I look at early photos of myself, I see I was probably no more than 20 pounds overweight. This may seem like a lot to you, but it's minor in comparison to later weight gain when I reached 205 pounds with a 5'4” frame.

In fact, it was not the number of pounds, rather, the focus on being fat that seemed like it was the problem.

This showed in combined habits of thinking, feeling, and eating that contributed to staying fat ... and becoming fatter. I won't even go into how that self-image affected social and esthetic choices, from choosing clothes to relationships. But you can imagine how it did.

As I've focused on and created a better life for myself, there is no direct relationship between how much I weighed and my level of confidence. While I felt and looked better at lower weights, comfort with myself is more consistently tied to a variety of other factors:

  • accomplishing personal and professional goals for myself and contributing to others' progress
  • improving relationships, including being with people who are stimulating and good-hearted
  • being creative, adventurous, and curious
  • enjoying daily life, including putting myself together well
  • making authentic choices in behavior, work, and other activities

So, with time, I escaped the "when I'm thin, then ..." thinking and made some progress with other important aspects of living a satisfying life. What finally motivated me to let go of using food as an escape and other purposes was my increasing cholesterol and incipient diabetes numbers.

A variety of medicines did not work; I wanted to avoid their lifelong use as much as possible. Then, in what seemed like a flash (but was really fear of increasing ill health), I decided to go vegan about four years ago.

As I started working with the vegan approach, I immediately saw two things: tempting food was no longer available and I had to become more conscious of food and purchasing choices. Within about a month, my eating compulsion weakened. As my palate changed, sweets became too cloying. My stomach shrunk to a size that could take in only normal amounts of food comfortably.

About a year ago, I decided I needed more protein and added fish, becoming a pescatarian. Slowly, and after consulting about my choices with my internist and nutritionist, I continued to lose weight. My body proportions improved even more.

My need to carry much less weight due to physical issues and misuse of my body also helped. This movement forward does not mean that I never overindulge; I just do it infrequently, move on quickly, and avoid berating myself. Sometimes, I attend to the catalysts that relate to the slip to learn and become more alert to them in the future.

Now I'm my lowest size yet, with about 15 more pounds to lose, along with continuing healthy exercise based on guidance from a physical therapist. My cholesterol and blood sugar numbers are out of the danger zone. I enjoy wearing smaller sizes that have been waiting in the closet, as well as giving away the larger ones to people who will benefit.

Multiple Ways to Move Beyond Food Addiction

If the numbers of diet and cookbooks heading best seller lists, fads, gyms, and exercise gurus are indicators, it certainly seems there is a societal fixation on body image and getting thinner. Though diet books are the second-best sellers, cookbooks are the first. Is that message then, “Eat and lose weight”?

The continuing attention, energy, and anxiety devoted to getting and staying lean suggest that this concern may end up life long for many people. Surely there are some ways to make the focus less time-consuming, frustrating, and repetitive ... even pleasant.

Paradoxically, a well-founded hope lies in the very opportunities implicit in psychological and philosophical matters, social pressures, and environmental factors that make the process of maintaining healthy weight so challenging.

To have a healthy body, start where you know you have the most influence in your life—yourself. By attending to any responses you choose to make below, you may not only add to your insight, but you will also find ways to make reasonable, incremental progress in reaching and sustaining an appropriate weight over time.

Psychological and Philosophical Issues:

Body Sense

  • How do you see your body?
  • How absolute or focused on perfection are the standards you use? To what or to whom do you compare yourself? (By the way, the average U.S. women's size is 14.)
  • What criteria do you want to set for yourself that reflect your own nature and situation? (Weight appropriate to height, bone structure, age, proportion of muscle to fat, flexibility, overall health, stamina, and energy)
  • Briefly describe the thoughts and emotions that you associate with food and eating.

Options and Actions

  • Which thoughts and emotions will get in the way of improving your eating and exercise habits? For each one, jot down some simple ideas for limiting their influence. For example, if you find yourself focusing on favorite, but unhealthy, fattening foods, imagine eating them and how you will feel afterwards. How much pleasure time and how much discomfort time? How many seconds or minutes would it take to let go of a current focus on that food? Sometimes, just taking this short time stops a regrettable choice.
  • Who, specifically, can help you improve your eating and exercise habits? Doctors, nutritionists, physical therapists, family, friends, writers, participants in Overeaters Anonymous, psychologists, psychopharmacologists, personal trainers, massage therapists, body-knowledge and improvement experts who use processes such as the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method?
  • What practices do you want to explore, adapt, or use? Consider meditation, spiritual approaches, and a variety of enjoyable exercises, including walking with good company in nature.
  • What one, manageable goal for improvement will you set for yourself? For example, walking briskly for 30 minutes a day four times a week, keeping a food diary, adding two helpings each of vegetables and fruits to daily meals, consulting with a specific expert, joining a support group.

Social Pressures

  • What are the social pressures that influence your eating habits? This may include get-togethers and meetings involving food, where there is little choice about what to eat and drink.
  • Food pushers among friends, family, and others want the pleasure of seeing you eat their scrumptious food. 

Options and Actions

  • What can you do to minimize the negative effects of these social pressures and norms? Consider eating something healthy beforehand; choose what's best for you; graze by eating a variety of small amounts; let people know you want to eat in healthy ways and ask them to help you; bring your own food as appropriate; suggest alternative activities such as taking a walk, seeing an exhibit, or sitting and talking in a park.
  • What social situations seem to stimulate inappropriate eating and/or drinking, before, during, and after? For instance, shift and focus your state of mind to prepare to deal with each situation as well as possible.
  • How can you become aware of the emotions that are catalysts in unhealthy eating and drinking at the time you indulge? What can you do to minimize their influence or work through them?

Environmental Factors

  • What are the influences in your environment that stimulate unhealthy eating and exercise tendencies? Examples include passive or sedentary situations, periodicals that tout perfect bodies, food ads, impulse buying from environmental cues, and overly rigorous exercise models.

Options and Actions

  • What manageable thoughts, plans, and actions will you use to minimize these influences?

Immediate Action Step

After reviewing your responses in the three sections above, write down one action step and schedule what you will do within the next 24 hours. If it's something you won't do alone, who will help you? In turn, how could you assist them?

Action Step Within the Next Week

Write down one action step and schedule what you will do within the next week. If it's something you won't do alone, who will help you? In turn, how could you assist them?

Keep this pattern of daily and weekly actions going, adjusting it to your needs, preferences, and experiences. If you wish, review all of your responses again. On your own or with a partner or expert, develop a more long-term, practical plan with incentives and rewards that work well for you. Make sure there's enough wiggle room to allow for daily realities.

Whatever Happens, Choose Among the Following to Make Progress

  • Avoid focusing on slips and self-criticism. Instead, pick yourself up and start again setting modest, manageable goals.
  • Be alert to unhelpful patterns and people, seeing if you can blunt or stop their influence in a timely way.
  • Acknowledge any progress with incentives and rewards you can provide and enjoy.
  • Find partners for mutual support and assistance.
  • Relish the present and expand other aspects of your life that have meaning.

I realize much of the foregoing is rational and does not necessarily address the strong emotions and realities of daily life that stimulate addictive and other destructive behavior related to food. You may identify with the first part of this quote from author Robert Louis Stevenson: "My body which my dungeon is, and yet my parks and palaces.”

To the extent possible, use your time to focus on other people and matters outside yourself that engage you. That could develop and open new neural pathways to escape automatic pilot responses and self-absorption.

A Final Lead for Now: Deliciousness

For a non-addicted food future, honor the “parks and palaces” of your body. That may mean something as simple as finding the sweet spot where delicious food and good nutrition meet. Freelance writer Mark Schatzker recently captured this in his new book, The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor.

Schatzker shows how our increasingly bland food has been supplanting healthy flavors with artificial ones that don't serve our health. Food that tastes better from natural ingredients and even cravings serve our desires and nutritional needs. He says, “The more you let flavor and pleasure be your guide, the better your eating choices will be.”

Making It Work

In addition to being persistent and patient, please adapt and use the following guidelines to support your quality of life and progress:

  • Be honest with yourself and others.
  • Be kind to yourself and others.
  • Be true to your values and goals.

For additional insight, learning and guidance, choose any among the following of interest. Continue snooping at and elsewhere using key words that reflect your interests:

  • Eat More, Weigh Less: Dr. Dean Ornish's Life Choice Program for Losing Weight Safely While ​Eating Abundantly by Dean Ornish
  • Doctor, What Should I Eat?: Nutrition Prescriptions for Ailments in Which Diet Can Really​ Make a Difference by Isidore Rosenfeld
  • Managing Your Mind and Mood through Food by Judith H. Wurtman
  • Dining Lean: How to Eat Healthy in Your Favorite Restaurants by Joanne V. Lichten
  • Strong Women Eat Well: Nutritional Strategies for a Healthy Body and Mind by Miriam E. Nelson
  • Fat: Fighting the Obesity Epidemic by Robert Pool
  • Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by Jan Chozen Bays
  • Integrative Nutrition: Feed Your Hunger for Health and Happiness by Joshua Rosenthal
  • The Road to Character by David Brooks
  • How to Be Interesting (In 10 Simple Steps) by Jessica Hagy