Laura can’t stop with a couple of cookies, one piece of cake or a single serving of ice cream. Once she starts eating foods like these, her body calls out for more. She’s sure she has an addiction to sugar, so she tries to never eat it. Trouble is, sugar is all over the place. And so is her eating.
Is Laura really addicted to sugar? Or is something else going on?
In a sense, we’re all addicted to food: We can’t live without it. But foods that contain particular ingredients, like sugar and white flour, seem to be especially alluring, prompting binges and weight gain.
Loss of control and repeated use despite negative outcomes are two symptoms commonly associated with addictive substances such as drugs. There’s no formal definition for a food addiction, however. Indeed, many experts aren’t even sure it truly exists, questioning whether the urge to eat certain foods is the result of unbalanced eating patterns and the belief that some foods are forbidden. But while researchers work to figure out the facts, if you’re struggling with addictive behavior patterns around food, you need help now.
You might think completely avoiding certain foods is the best bet to overcome cravings but that can backfire, setting up feelings of deprivation that drive overeating. Instead, consider these four steps to put you in charge of what and how much you eat.
- Look at the big picture. Many things can trigger overeating. One of the biggest offenders is eating too few calories, which often happens when we diet. When we eat less than our bodies need, we set up out-of-control hunger that can lead to a binge. Cutting out whole categories of foods such as carbohydrates can also create nutritional imbalances that set up cravings. Then there are the “good food/bad food” rules that lead us to feel deprived, and to overdo if we give in—which we usually do.
- Make sure your eating is balanced. That means including protein and/or fat and carbohydrate foods in every meal. Vegetables and/or fruit should make up half of your meal, whole grains/starchy vegetables one quarter of the meal, and lean proteins the other quarter. If you’re really hungry, balance your snacks, too. When our meals aren’t balanced, we don’t feel as satisfied, and find ourselves on the search for more. In that instance, that piece of cake or candy may seem just the thing, but in reality, it can make the situation worse because it’s not a balanced source of nutrition either. When we eat such foods after a balanced meal, we often find we can be satisfied with less.
- Set up a safe environment. While you’re exploring the first two steps, you may find it helpful to minimize your exposure to foods that are especially tempting. Try making your home a “safe place” where you don’t keep such foods available. Ask your family to support you in doing this. Often we assume they “need” such foods around so we don’t ask. But asking can get us what we want. When you really want the foods, enjoy them in the company of a supportive friend or family member in a place where you can order one portion such as an ice cream shop.
- Remember, you’re the expert about your body. As you experiment with eating challenging foods in a safe environment, tune into your body. If you don’t like how the foods make you feel, it’s your choice whether to continue eating them. This is true when you eat any food, not just those you believe you may be addicted to.
Marsha Hudnall, RD, MS, CD, is a nationally known nutritionist with more than 25 years experience as a weight management specialist. She is the owner and program director of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women's healthy weight loss spa, that offers a program for understanding food addiction, designed to help women overcome addictive-type behaviors around food . She serves on several boards and has authored seven books on healthy weight loss.