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Combating the “Addiction” of Emotional Eating
by Jennifer Tewell, MA, LPC

Many people joke about being a “choco-holic” or having a predestined “sweet tooth” but research newly published over the past few years suggests that these catch phrases may not be far from the truth.  Studies have found that high sugar, salt, and fat foods may have an effect on the brain that is similar to other drugs of abuse in the way that they stimulate positive emotional feelings and relief from stress.

Not only that, but many of the behaviors and symptoms reported by individuals struggling with drugs and alcohol have also been reported by individuals struggling with food- loss of control, preoccupation with finding and obtaining the substance, continued use (eating) despite negative consequences, increased bodily tolerance to the food to the point of needing to eat more, and the using (eating) interfering with other areas of your life, for example. 

While no actual diagnosis of “food addiction” or “emotional eater” currently exists, some of the standard treatments for substance addiction may also be helpful in managing an unhealthy relationship with food. Our program has been hgihly successful according to medical standards. We counsel our clients to:

Combating Food Addiction Step #1 - Speak with your physician

First and foremost, it’s necessary to rule out the possibility that a medical reason is to blame for the behavior (i.e. never feeling physically full or when you are eating excessive amounts of food and not gaining weight). 

All of our clients have a full medical evaluation and exam before starting our programs. A well-conducted physical can make sure you’re physically healthy from cranium to calf muscle.

Combating Food Addiction Step #2 - Identify “triggers”

In the addictions world, we often talk about “triggers” to the addictive behavior- a person, place, or situation that prompts the behavior. For an individual struggling with emotional eating, a trigger might be having a fight with a friend or family member, preparing for a test or project at school or work, or attending a celebratory event such as a wedding or holiday event.

Another might be something as simple as driving by your favorite fast-food restaurant or seeing a commercial for junk food on T.V.  Identifying triggers to the behavior is an essential component to preventing the behavior in the first place.

It's important to reduce interactions with things identified as triggers.  Eat before you go to a social gathering, change the channel when a food ad comes on, and keep healthy snacks in the car so that going through the drive-through isn’t an option. 

Of course it’s simply impossible to avoid all stress- it’s part of life’s experiences and, much like the holiday season, can be a positive experience while a negative for others. For instances such as these, it becomes necessary to replace your eating behaviors with other coping skills- ones that don’t involve heading for the fridge.

Combating Food Addiction Step #3 - Replace the behavior

If you’re someone who eats when they’re stressed, angry, or even happy, the act of eating has become soothing. This is a negative coping skill, or a way of managing, enhancing, or alleviating a feeling. The problem is, as you’ve probably already found, there are many negative consequences to coping this way including health concerns, poor self-image, and further negative emotions like shame or guilt. 

Most importantly it’s not an effective way of working through the emotion. Like taking a drug, the positive feeling of eating is only temporary and whatever the desired effect is soon fades.  In order to be most successful at changing an eating behavior, we need to make sure we replace it with something more effective.  Going  for a walk, taking a “time out” from the thing (or person!) that’s causing you discomfort, or talking the problem out to a good friend or loved one are all great strategies for managing emotions.

Try and make choices that not only manage the uncomfortable feeling, but that also make you feel the positive- opposite feeling. Exercise, for example, provides a break from stress but also increases happy mood by increases endorphins, or those “feel good” hormones in the body.

There are a wide variety of healthy coping skills so get creative make sure you choose ones that suit your individual needs. Coping skills should also be easy to use in a variety of settings and situations. Deep breathing, for example, can be practiced virtually anywhere. 

Combating Food Addiction Step #4 - Rally your support system

Taking on any new challenge is hard enough, especially if you feel you have to do it alone or have negative individuals standing in your way. Identify positive people in your life who can build you up when you’re feeling tempted to resort to food to manage your emotions.

Enlist their support and clarify how they can best help you in times of need. Finally, allow those negative relationships fall by the wayside. The only people worth being in your support system are those who have your best interests at heart.

Combating Food Addiction Step #5 - Get Empowered

If you or someone you know is struggling with eating behaviors, you may be familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of being out of control; like nothing you do can change the way you feel. While it’s true we can’t necessarily control a feeling, we can control how we respond to the feeling.  Make the choice to use those healthy coping skills instead of turning to food. 

Recognize strengths and use them to your advantage. Remind yourself of factors that have contributed to your success in other areas of their life (your dedication to a project at work, for example, or your compassion and caring towards your children and family members) and take comfort in knowing that you have developed a plan to manage triggering emotions when they occur. You have surely made significant accomplishments in the past. Allow those skills to translate into success in improving your health and well-being.

Combating Food Addiction Step #6 - Speak to the professionals

While strategies and tips can help you get started, it’s always recommended you seek professional assistance should you notice your behaviors seem out of control or they are significantly impacting your ability to function in one or more areas of your life such as school/work, socially, or at home.

A licensed mental health professional can assist you in getting to the root of your eating behaviors and provide you with guidance as to the most effective treatment options for your individual needs. Similar to other substances of abuse, emotional eating can impact both physical and mental health as well so it’s also important to enlist the help of professionals who can treat both mind and body, such as a counselor and an exercise physiologist.

Are You a Food Addict?

While the jury is still out as to whether an addiction to food actually exists or not, the real question is how much does the behavior interfere with your life. 

  • Do you hide sweets or junk food in your room/desk /purse or backpack?
  • Are you taking time away from socializing to sneak a bite of a food you just can’t resist?
  • Are you continuing to eat excessively salty or sweet foods despite weight gain, high cholesterol /blood pressure, feeling down about your appearance, or other negative consequences? 

If the answer to any of these is yes, it’s time to commit to change and enlist the support of both mental- and physical health professionals who can support you on a journey to overall wellness.

Jennifer Tewell is a Certified Alcohol and Other Drugs Counselor (CADC) and  a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).  Together with a certification in Personal Training from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), Jennifer combines her experiences with behavior modification, addictions counseling, and physical fitness into comprehensive treatment model that assists clients both “on and off the couch”.