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Eating: A Manifesto for Recovery from Food Addiction

Ten steps you can take to restore your joy in eating

Source: CarolynRoss/Shutterstock

Eating can serve many purposes that have nothing to do with the food itself. Often, we eat to manage stress. Just about everyone can relate to this scenario: You’ve come home from a terrible day at work. Maybe you had a confrontation with an especially difficult coworker. You start in on a carton of ice cream or a bag of chips, and you feel a little better. Before you know it, you’ve eaten the whole thing.

Many people use food to turn up the volume on pleasant emotions (like pleasure or happiness) or to dampen uncomfortable feelings (like anxiety, anger, or sadness). Someone who’s experienced trauma in the past may eat comforting foods as a way to cope with feelings of fear or to relax even though the world doesn’t seem like a safe place.

Sometimes, this can be quite subtle. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being very focused on food without being aware of why. Obsessive thoughts about food can serve – either consciously or unconsciously – as a distraction from emotions you don’t know how to deal with.

Relationship difficulties, past or present, can also spur emotional eating. If there has been a shortage of love in your life, you may turn to food to fill the gap. Eating can be a source of comfort if you’re in an abusive or unfulfilling relationship.

Essentially, you are using food as a way to cope with feelings. You feel distressed, you believe a certain food will make you feel better, you eat it, and it works: you feel soothed or relieved, if only temporarily. Your brain learns that it can get a quick fix, and the cycle of addiction begins. In fact, foods that are high in sugar, salt, or fat (or all three) trigger the same pleasurable dopamine release in the brain that is involved in addiction to drugs.

The catch, of course, is that you cannot break the cycle by being abstinent from food. Since eating is a necessity, it’s wise to think carefully about the particular ways you may be using food to regulate your emotions. This perspective frees you up to make conscious choices.

Rationally, we know that the hollowness of grief cannot be filled with chocolate cake. We understand that a big plate of macaroni and cheese won’t truly make us safe or loved. But when we’ve spent years eating for the "wrong" reasons, it can be easy to lose track of the proper purpose of food.

So what is food really for? Why eat? To help you build a new, healthy relationship with food, I offer you this manifesto.

  1. Food is meant to nourish my body. I, like every other human in the world, need to eat in order to fuel my body and my brain.
  2. Food is meant to be a source of pleasure. I deserve to eat things that are creamy, crunchy, rich, fresh, juicy, sweet, and salty.
  3. Food is neither good nor bad. Foods that are heavily processed or contain lots of sugar, fat, or salt are simply more likely to trigger my brain’s reward mechanism. They may rightly be considered treats.
  4. Treats aren’t the only foods that are enjoyable. Just about any food that is prepared properly and seasoned well is potentially delicious.
  5. I refuse to let food manufacturers manipulate my taste buds with laboratory concoctions. I reserve the right to enjoy real food, like sweet corn, cherries, homemade soups, and fresh herbs.
  6. I will not diet. My body is an exquisitely tuned organism that knows how to manage its weight. I don’t need to restrict my food intake to make my body work correctly.
  7. I will cultivate other sources of pleasure in life besides food. If food were the only thing I enjoyed, it would take on too much power.
  8. I deserve to enjoy my food bite by bite, moment by moment. I may eat alone or with friends or family, but I choose not to eat while driving or watching TV.
  9. When I am paying attention to what I’m eating and how it makes my body feel, I know when I am hungry, what I am hungry for, and when I’ve eaten all I need.
  10. I no longer need to eat foods for any other reason than that I desire them and that they fuel my body and brighten my mind.

Do these declarations resonate with you now? Chances are you’re already on board with some of them, but not all. When you struggle with an eating addiction, the basic principles of healthy eating can get buried beneath the beliefs, fears, and obsessions associated with emotional eating.

How would you approach food if you accepted these ten principles as true? What would happen if you acted accordingly? And how might your beliefs change over time as you practiced these new thoughts and behaviors? I invite you to try it and see.

When it comes right down to it, eating is about nourishing your body, mind, and spirit. By noticing how different foods make you feel and what foods bring you genuine pleasure, you can free yourself from the burdens of shame and guilt. You can leave emotional eating in the past and enjoy food for all the right reasons.

More from Carolyn C. Ross M.D., M.P.H.
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