By now the scientific verdict is clear: some foods can spark cravings that rival those of any abused drug. Binge eaters have long suspected this. We now know that for many, the brain calls out for more of certain foods—typically sugar or other simple starches—and stopping feels impossible. Food binges may not wreak as much havoc—at first, anyway—as daily drunkenness or party drugging. They do kick-start diabetes, cardiac, and other problems, though. And they trap people in cycles of struggle and shame just as surely as other drugs do.

The overeater may hear “Just don’t eat it, then!” more often than the drug addict. Somehow, we understand that drugs exert a pull. Those who eat without struggle often can’t understand how someone simply can’t “each just one”. These days, understanding and supports have solidified for the binger, though, and clearer paths to freedom can emerge. These paths often include six predictable points along the way.

1. Food Trigger Identification – sometimes the culprits are obvious. You might already know that Haagen-Daz calls your name every night. Trigger foods sometimes escape attention, though. And often, more than one is at work. So a food log starts the process of breaking addictive food habits. Whether or not you want to track your food long-term or not, writing down everything you eat—what, when, how much, and how you’re feeling—highlights trouble spots quickly and clearly.

2. The Sugar Decision – While various foods can kick off urges, sugar tops the list. For many overeaters, eliminating sugar, hard as that is, completely stops binges. It’s not an easy either/or, though. Some can learn to cut down or to resist, others simply can’t. Here food does differ from, say, alcohol or other drugs, which almost always call for complete abstinence once problems begin. You’ll most likely have to confront this decision, and decide what makes sense for you, if you struggle with overeating.

3. Learning to Cope with Emotions – Besides all that compelling brain activity, addictions “take” because they make dealing with emotions easier. This holds for sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, boredom, and even joy. We tend to underestimate how hard it really is to ride the tides of our feelings. They come, they go, they change and then return. They threaten to overwhelm, or at least cause discomfort. Lasting freedom from any addiction calls for learning—or relearning—how to ride these tides without the help of the substance. The food log can help in identifying what tends to spur binges. Knowing where your emotional work lies, whether in anger management or sitting with loneliness, will help you finally leave your troubling habits behind.

4. Allowing Support from Others – One reason 12-step groups help so many is that they’ve always understood the power of people to support one another with difficult life changes. These days, the support of others has proven to boost healthful eating, and weight loss itself. Whether it’s a supportive friend or spouse, a therapy group, or a web-wide circle of like-minded others, social support firms the path to freedom.

5. Healthy Lifestyle Development – You won’t find specific foods and exercises that will help every single addict all the time. However, improving the quality of one’s diet overall, and making sure to exercise, helps a lot, for both physical and psychological reasons. Even small changes in these directions can make a difference.

6. Being Kind to Yourself – Life grows more peaceful and sane without addiction. And health improves with better eating. However, stopping addictive habits is very hard--and important not to underestimate. Ups and downs on the road almost always occur. An attitude of self-forgiveness and reflection not only makes the process easier, but improves the likelihood of success. When you’re not busy tearing yourself down (and saying “why bother”), you have more energy for solving problems, picking yourself up, and keeping on going.

Earlier blogs offer further reading on the above points, plus other links and resources:

On sugar and addiction

On social support

On being kind to yourself


About the Author

Terese Weinstein Katz Ph.D.

Terese Weinstein Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, eating disorder specialist and diet coach. Her website offers tools for lifelong freedom from weight issues.

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