Been thinking this week about sobriety when it comes to food addiction. Of all the addictive behaviors to modify, food is the toughest because you can’t abstain from it like an alcoholic can abstain from drinking. The line between sobriety and giving in to the addiction isn’t obvious – sometimes even to the addict. There are skinny food addicts, just as much as there are obese food addicts. There isn’t a set of clear sobriety guidelines to follow, because sobriety will look different for each food addict.
Perhaps you don’t believe that there really is such a thing as food addiction. Well, consider this: The same chemical brain patterns that cause cravings for drug addicts and alcoholics also cause cravings for the food addict. It’s a stimulation of the opioid system in the brain, the same system that drugs and alcohol stimulate. Glucose in the food activates the neurotransmitters in the opioid, causing it to release dopamine, resulting in a sense of relaxation and “feeling good”. Overstimulation of the opioid system causes changes in that system’s balance — resulting in intense cravings if the increased stimulation level isn’t regularly met.
The majority of people who suffer with food addiction are women; and the majority of those women are emotional eaters. The intense physical need to soothe feelings by eating can be overwhelming when the woman is under stress. The logical part of her brain is telling her, “you shouldn’t eat that”. But the craving is so strong that she struggles with resisting the urge. It’s a powerful mental and physical battle going on inside her. The greater the level of stimulation required by her opioid system to release dopamine, the more intense and persistent the craving.
This is why people who have normal opioid systems cannot understand those who are chronically obese. They wonder why overweight people don’t just change their habits, get exercise and eat right. To them, it seems so simple, right?
Unlike alcohol or drug addiction, many people who are food addicted don’t even realize it. They have no idea that there is a chemical component going on in their brain that is fighting tooth and nail to keep them eating the things they know aren’t good for them. Just like a smoker who has tried to quit a hundred times, a food addict will go through the same frustration and sense of defeat when they can’t break the food cycle.
So back to sobriety. Think about this: an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic, whether they are drinking or not. They still have a physical, chemical, and emotional temptation to get their need met by the addiction, to take the shortcut to feeling good. A recovering alcoholic has become convinced that to do so is destructive and that there are other ways to meet their needs. They replaced the alcohol with healthy habits that release “happy hormones” — like regularly working out to release endorphins; creating and reaching healthy goals to release dopamine; developing healthy relationships with healthy boundaries that lead to deep trust to release oxytocin; and getting adequate sleep to build seratonin. Addicts are usually characterized by breakdowns in these four areas, and they are positive things to do that set the foundation for lasting change.
Food addicts often suffer from the same breakdowns in these areas. They don’t exercise, and have an bunch of self-talk excuses as to why. They feel defeated by their addiction and project that defeat to other areas of their lives, so they don’t set healthy goals and actively pursue them. They often have unhealthy interpersonal relationships in their lives, and don’t have the tools to fix those relationships, which result in isolation and a lack of support for their efforts to make positive changes. The combination of all the above results in not making enough time for sleep, insomnia, disturbed dreaming, restless sleep, and not enough REM (deep) sleep.
In order for a food addict to achieve lasting change, they must have support from others who have been where they are. They must develop healthy relationships that build trust, so that they have support when they begin the long road to sobriety.
it’s why I talk so openly about these things. I’ve come to accept the fact that I am addicted to sugar and fats and carbohydrates. That I sometimes fall off the wagon, and that I need help getting back on, that I cannot make lasting change alone. Now that I know I am an addict, I refuse to use that knowledge as an excuse to continue behaving in unhealthy ways. It doesn’t define who I am– it just gives me a handle to know what it is that I struggle with and why I do some of the things I do.