What if you can't stop eating? Is there such a thing as 'eating addiction?'
You were going to eat two Girl Scout Cookies. That was the plan. It was reasonable. Instead, the entire box is gone, and a trail of crumbly destruction leads from the couch, where the carnage began, to the bed, where you polished off the box, aching stomach be darned. Now you’re cursing the universe and its bewitching combinations of sugar, salt, and fat. They seem to have a power over you greater than any drug ever could.
Your diet is blown, you feel sick, and your roommate is going to wonder what in the world happened to their cookies. You didn’t want any of this to happen. So what gives? Is this what an eating addiction feels like?
There are the technical definitions, that live in that nearly 1,000 page bible well-known and loved by all mental health professionals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Inside the DSM, you’ll find everything from Anorexia Nervosa (food restriction and fear of gaining weight), to Rumination Disorder (regurgitation of food), to Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (whatever doesn’t fit in the already defined categories). Where would eating addiction fall in there, you ask?
Right now, probably in Binge Eating Disorder, which is classified by eating large amounts of food in a two hour period. But there’s some argument that eating addiction could become its own classification, a behavioral addiction not associated with substances (currently, gambling is the only non-substance related addiction to make the DSM’s cut).
We haven’t always had such a problem with overeating. As a species, our brains are programmed to love salt, sugar, and fat. Early humans didn’t always have access to these high-calorie foods, and from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to gorge on them when they’re available (like in spring, with fruit trees blooming), to prep for the hardship of winter (when snow covers the ground and foraging was rough for our hunter-gatherer ancestors).
But in modern Westernized cultures, we no longer live in periods of feast and famine. We live through the unreal bounty of the grocery aisles, each box and bag crying out to us for attention. Food corporations have tapped into our evolutionary weakness for sugar, fat, and salt, and they know just what flavor combinations get our brain chemicals going.
On the reverse of this, this isn’t all about food. Notice we’re saying ‘eating addiction’ here, and not ‘food addiction.’ Because food isn’t the problem, it’s your relationship to it. This detail seems like a small one, but it’s important. This transfers eating addiction into a behavioral addiction category (along with sex, shopping, and gambling), rather than implying that the food alone is getting you high. Behavioral addiction has an element of compulsion, and can feel just like a drug addiction.
But just because eating stimulates the reward system of your brain, doesn’t mean certain nutrients themselves are creating a physical dependence in your body. It’s the actual process of eating itself, and the brain circuitry that process is stimulating, that creates a behavioral addiction.
There are the technical definitions, sure. But then there are the realities, that live at home alone with you. Like a dark cloud hanging over your head, or an invisible chain around your neck. The stuff you don’t talk about with anyone. Eating brown sugar straight out of the bag when you can’t find anything else to give you a fix. Waiting for friends or family to leave so you can eat, alone, uninterrupted, in peace. This is the real definition of eating addiction: your relationship with certain foods blown up so big it’s taken over, resulting in a life made small. Which may cause you to feel bad, and eat more, seeking relief. And thus, a downward cycle begins.
So how to push up, outwards? When you don’t feel like going out, and you don’t want to talk about what’s going on with anyone? What if you don’t want to turn anything over? What if you don’t even feel like getting out of bed?
We’ve made a program for secrets like this called Workit Eating. Like the one you’re carrying around. It’s private, and painless. It can be done from home, or from work. From a park bench, or from the couch (pre- or post-Girl Scout Cookie binge). There’s no announcing your addiction in front of strangers, although we’re not opposed to that, if that’s your thing too. You’ll have private chats with a coach through a format you are comfortable in. You’ll work through exercises that explore your relationship to food, and how you can change it. We’re ready to help, if you’re ready to begin.
Get 25% off Workit Eating. Use code Workit25 at checkout.
As Workit Health's Community Lead, Kali Lux leans in to the culture gap between addiction, recovery, and medicine. She's interested in finding solutions that work for substance users better than drinking or drugging does, and believes Workit is one of them. She's written extensively on her own experience through addiction into long-term recovery. Connect with her on Twitter @kalireadsbooks.