Food is glorious. The smell, the taste, the texture. It is vital and necessary to our survival, and a source of great pleasure. So how come so many of us have a problem with it, how can we spot the warning signs, and what can we do about them?
Addictions have many causes; biological, psychological and social. We can be born with a body that stores more or less fat, a metabolism that runs fast or slow. We might come from a background that abhors waste, so all food must be eaten, or be raised in a family where food is always a reward, something that can always be turned to when feeling low. Then there are the social causes.
In the modern world, we are constantly bombarded with messages about what we ‘should’ be. There tends to be two extremes. At one end, we must be skinny at any cost. We must deprive, diet, batter our bodies into submission. We must be so pure that we drink only bottled water and eat a slice of cucumber every other day. At the other end, we deserve everything – we are worth it, wallow in that extra slice of chocolate cake, eat that giant pizza, supersize me now!
On top of this, many of the foods we are presented with are highly engineered to make us want more. Designed and refined to be so tasty that we can’t resist one more, that the packet must be finished. Our bodies are not used to this influx of flavour, and our brains can get overwhelmed.
There are many roads to addiction, and some of them are so gentle that it can be some time before anyone realises that it has gone that far. The good news is that there is always a road back.
If you suspect that a partner, friend or colleague has a problem, what are the main signs to look for?
You may find they continue to eat more than they can tolerate even though they are full and may even complain that they feel ill. This can occur several times a month and even worse several times in a week.
Hiding food and secret eating are common signs. You may find food or empty wrappers in unusual places, where no one would usually place food - under the bed, in the bottom draw of the dressing table, at the back of the wardrobe, behind books on a book shelf, hidden in the garage.
There may be wild mood swings and irritability from being high on sugar and carbs to a huge crash and feeling low until the next food fix. They will often have decreased energy and fatigue and may find it hard to focus on the task at hand. There will certainly be denial and lying about what is going on.
There will probably be a weight gain but in some cases the person may not be overweight, as they may also purge.
Feelings of guilt and shame around their relationship with food may lead to low self-worth, low confidence and even suicidal ideations. Food addiction like any other addiction is really a form of self-harm. Not feeling “enough”.
… So how can we help?
The first thing is to gain some awareness and understanding of what food addiction is so that you are better placed to support your colleague, friend or loved one.
Make sure that the office or home is free from their substances of choice, and be mindful of not eating such foods around them. You can cook or buy healthy foods rich in protein – this staves off cravings for trigger foods.
Eating three healthy, non-processed meals a day helps keep the blood sugars stable so that there are no dips. This leads to better thinking and better choices.
Help them to find ways to unwind and de-stress. Encourage them to discover a regular daily routine. Yoga, meditation, sport, a hobby - anything to take their mind off snacking and cravings. Allow them time to do this. It may take them away from family for an hour or two but it surely improves the quality of life and the sanity of the person involved and their family.
One thing you have to remember is that food addiction is not about poor will power – it’s so much more than that, involving biochemical imbalances, social pressures, and states of mental health. It is not a fault or a weakness. It is a problem that, given the right resources, can be solved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Bunmi Aboaba is a Recovery Coach specialising in Food Addiction, helping clients to achieve a healthy relationship with food to meet long-term health goals. Dr Bunmi’s work covers the full spectrum of disordered eating, including overeating, compulsive eating, emotional eating, addicted eating and other associated patterns. Dr Bunmi is also creator of the first Certified Food Addiction Certification to support nutritionists, personal trainers, dieticians and clinicians to help their clients achieve long-lasting results. Dr Bunmi also runs 7-day self-care retreats for clients suffering from disordered eating.