By Dr Bunmi Aboaba

With modern life making increasing demands on us both physically and mentally, we often find ourselves operating at breakneck speed simply to stay in the same position. That can certainly sometimes be the case in midlife. What can become apparent is our changing relationship with food. When we need a break, or a change of mood, it is food that provides the solution. In extreme cases this can lead to what we now term food addiction.

food addiction

Let’s look at three types of overeating, which can sometimes slip into food addiction, and some ways you can address them.

Overeating – pure and simple

We are inundated with opportunities to overeat; highly palatable, refined or processed foods – pizza, ice-cream, cakes that are too tempting to ignore. All of us have done it at
some point and this is normal and understandable.

We reward ourselves for any number of reasons and the treat might be so delicious and mouth-watering, it has to be finished off at once regardless of the portion size. However,
whilst this might initially satisfy us, what can follow is an uncomfortable feeling often accompanied by less-than-ideal emotions like guilt and sometimes even shame.

This only happens occasionally – it was a treat after all. But what can you do to feel better straight away?

Take a short walk for an hour or so to get the food moving through your digestive tract, it will lift your mood too.

Related: In An Uncertain World, Eat More Vegetables!

Make sure your next meal is a healthy and satisfying one. To avoid the danger zone of feast and famine, don’t skip meals. As soon as you eat after a period of starvation, the body
stores food as fat, in case there is another shortage. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full.

Sipping water after the event will help flush out some of the sodium consumed. Be mindful around when overeating occurs. Most of us will do it on a whim or as a reward. When it
becomes a regular thing, then we have to look at the “what”, the “why”, and the “need”.

Emotional eating

It’s the reason why so many diets fail: we don’t always eat just to satisfy hunger. Eating can become the go-to emotional coping mechanism – when the first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever stressed, upset, angry, lonely, tired, or bored – it’s easy to get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed. Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food.

Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there bubbling under the surface. And we often feel worse than we did before because of the unnecessary foods we’ve just consumed.

Emotional hunger often comes on suddenly. Something triggers the urge to eat and needs instant satisfaction. It craves junk food or sugary snacks to provide an instant rush.

Emotional eating is often mindless, before you know it the whole tub of ice-cream is eaten, the pizza has been demolished, no thought or awareness has gone into it and there is usually no real enjoyment.

The secret to getting back on track to normal healthy eating patterns is to identify emotional triggers.

Make a list of what situations, people, places, or feelings make you comfort eat. Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, and feelings from the past, that are triggered by events in the moment. Numbing yourself with food, can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel. Though positive emotions can, on occasion, trigger it too.

You may eat simply to give yourself something to do, or as a way to fill a void in your life. You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of lack of purpose and dissatisfaction with your life.

Stress is emotional and when chronic, as is common in our fast-paced world, our bodies produce high levels of the hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods – foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure.

To stop emotional eating, you need to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a big step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.

When feeling low, call someone who always lifts your spirits or better still, make a point of getting out as isolation is dangerous. Changing your focus like reading a good book or watching a comedy, is also a powerful way to change how we feel.

Compulsive Eating

People who binge and compulsively overeat feel compelled to eat when they are not hungry and can’t stop eating when they’ve had enough. Binge eating disorder involves regularly eating large portions of food in one go, without thinking and in a short space of time, until the person feels uncomfortably full, and then often upset or guilty and out of control. The definition of bingeing differs for all, making Binge Eating Disorder difficult to identify and diagnose, one person’s idea of bingeing may simply be a hearty meal to another.

People who describe themselves as compulsive eaters feel that they cannot control their eating resulting in eating more than they need, usually struggling to control their weight.

Compulsive over-eaters have cravings they cannot control, and may overeat small or large amounts of food, or just graze some of the time.

Binge Eating Disorder and Compulsive overeating are almost identical. Compulsive overeaters will say that they cannot control their food intake and feel they are lacking “willpower”. They will also say that they are eating for comfort rather than hunger or physical need.

There are always underlying reasons behind this type of behaviour. Perhaps it is the exertion of control, when it seems we are powerless to make effective choices in our lives. Maybe it is to do with negative body image. It can help to see a counselor and discuss these issues.

It is not necessary though to ‘get to the bottom’ of any issue, simply to realise that there are underlying reasons. It is not because you are ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ or ‘have no willpower’. It is because of things that have happened, and you CAN learn to do things differently.

This may involve a trip to the doctor, or hiring a qualified Food Addiction therapist or other specialist. The point is that whatever the problem, there is a way out.

Listen to Vicky Midwood on the Magnificent Midlife podcast (Emotional eating and drinking)

Food addiction – key facts 

Food addiction, draws parallels with drug addiction, as people struggle with compulsive and uncontrollable consumption of certain foods. The Yale Food Addiction Scale, developed by Ashley Gearhardt, assesses addictive-like eating behaviors, considering factors like loss of control, withdrawal symptoms, and continued use despite negative consequences.

Similar to substance use disorders, food addiction involves the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of dopamine. Palatable and highly processed foods, often high in fat and sugar, can act as addictive substances, leading to intense cravings and a lack of control over food consumption. The people who make these foods know how addictive they can be! Certain foods, often the specific foods we like most, like ice cream and fast food, are frequently identified as trigger foods for food addicts. And you don’t have to be an addict to engage in unhealthy eating from time to time!

The signs of food addiction align with symptoms found in substance addictions, including unsuccessful attempts to cut down on consumption, continued use despite knowing about the negative effects on health, and prioritizing consumption of addictive foods over maintaining a healthy weight. Weight gain, chronic conditions like heart disease, and even social consequences can all exacerbate the negative effects of this behavioral addiction.

Treatment options for food addiction vary and may include cognitive-behavioral therapy, support groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, and lifestyle changes. Bariatric surgery is considered for severely obese patients, when health is the most compromised, aiming to alter eating habits and promote weight loss. This can work, but it’s a really radical procedure that will change how you eat forever!

Scientific studies, using animal models and functional magnetic resonance imaging, provide insight into the neurological and psychological factors contributing to food addiction. The medial orbitofrontal cortex, associated with reward centers in the brain, plays an important role in the development and maintenance of this addiction.

Food addiction is not officially diagnosed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but is increasingly recognized as a significant mental health condition like other addictions. 

Dr Bunmi Aboaba is a Recovery Coach specializing 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, dietitians and clinicians to help their clients achieve long-lasting results. Find out more about her on her website, on Facebook or on LinkedIn.

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Last Updated on May 8, 2024 by Editorial Staff

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