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Michelle May, M.D. Headshot

Am I Addicted to Food?

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"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 counterproductive. I'm not denying that people experience feelings of powerlessness over food. However, convincing people that 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 paradoxically, most people soon 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 potentially "addictive" ingredients just distracts you from recognizing the underlying drivers for overeating in the first place. Restrictive eating simply replaces overeating.

Part of what appears to be addiction is the belief that a food is "bad" or you are "bad" for wanting it or eating it. If you eat that food, you 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 you like in order to avoid or suppress feelings you don't like. When you eat for reasons other than hunger, the pleasure or distraction 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 you from learning to use food in an enjoyable, moderate way. I know without a doubt that mindful eating can help you relearn to eat what you love and love what you eat -- and deal with your 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, Ph.D. writes about using mindfulness to address addiction. The article quotes Victor 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."

For example, 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. In other words, you now have response-ability. Therein lies your opportunity for growth and freedom.

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

* What is the eat-repent-repeat cycle? Read chapter one of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle.

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