Treating a Food Addiction as an Addiction

Differences Exist Between Food Addiction and Binge-eating Disorder

Most of us understand the temptation to eat more chocolate cake than we know is good for us, right?  What is it about chocolate that often results in a total hijacking of the will, an unchecked hand-to-mouth response that usually doesn’t cease until every morsel of said chocolate has been consumed?

It isn’t only chocolate that inspires such a visceral “gotta have” reflex.  Any yummy treat or fat or salt-laden munchie can drive us to compulsion now and then.  For most people these lapses in dietary control are just sprinkled sporadically through our eating histories, but for some the over-whelming urge to eat copious amounts of highly palatable low-nutrition foods has all the trappings of an addiction.

What is a Food Addiction?

A food addiction is just what it says…a person has acquired a dopamine-driven, neural-pathway rerouted addiction to food, the substance-brain response that is the same as in an alcoholic or drug addict.  An important distinction between those addicted to drugs and someone with a food addiction is in the labeling of the person.  You are not a “food addict” if you have a food addiction—why?  Because human beings are ALL food addicts, in that they must indulge in eating food in order to sustain life, unlike a drug addict or alcoholic who absolutely do not require their drug of choice to continue to live.  Quite the contrary.

Food addiction occurs when the food itself elicits such a powerful pull that the person struggling with the addiction feels a compulsive urge to continually over-indulge in whatever food(s) triggers this response.   It is a chemical dependence on food, no different that the drug that triggers the drug addict’s knee-jerk response to use their drug of choice.

Brain imaging in recent years has shown the clear effect that compulsive over-eating has on the pleasure centers of the brain.  The very same reward response is activated in the brain by foods rich in sugar, salt, and fat that is triggered by drugs such as cocaine and heroin.  Once the feel-good chemical, dopamine, is released in the brain’s reward pathway a new response-reward behavior takes root, and the need to eat those specific foods again continues the vicious cycle.

A man or woman addicted to certain foods can build up tolerance, just like someone addicted to drugs.  They may eventually need to eat these highly palatable foods more often and in greater quantity, only to find that eating them satisfies them less as time goes on.  Negative consequences, such as weight gain, poor body image, low self-esteem, avoidance of social situations, begin to pile up, exacerbating the effects of the food addiction.

The criteria for determining a food addiction are remarkably similar to those that define a drug or alcohol addiction.  These symptoms and characteristics include:

  • Eating specific foods to the point of feeling ill
  • Going out of your way to obtain specific foods
  • Continuing to eat certain foods even if no longer hungry
  • Avoiding social interactions and relationships to spend more time eating certain foods
  • Eating in secret
  • Continuing to overeat unhealthy foods despite knowing the negative consequences
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disorders
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty functioning at school or on the job
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Digestive disorders
  • Weight gain
  • Emotional detachment
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feelings of despair and hopelessness

Causes of a Food Addiction

Many factors can contribute to a food addiction, making it difficult to identify a single cause.  Just as in other types of addictions, a food addiction can develop as a result of biological, social, or psychological factors.  Biological factors may include hormone imbalances, abnormal brain structures, family members with food addictions, or side effects from medication.  Some people are simply born with big appetites and no sense of being full, no shut-off mechanism.  Social factors might include dysfunctional family situations or divorce, social anxiety, or stressful life events.  Psychological issues possibly involve emotional or sexual abuse, experiencing trauma or loss, poorly developed coping skills, or chronic low self-esteem.

Over-consumption of the foods that trigger the feel-good response becomes a sort of self-medicating to help alleviate difficult emotional states.  Adding to the problem of self-control is that manufacturers continually tweak the highly palatable foods to produce what they call the “bliss point” by engineering them to stimulate our taste receptors and trigger the reward center in our brains.  Artificial sweeteners, chemicals, and food colorings are shown to have brain-altering effects.

Casa Serena Treats Food Addiction

Once aware that an unhealthy food addiction is negatively impacting your life, seeking professional help for the condition is crucial.  Again, like breaking a drug or alcohol addiction, it is imperative that the problem foods or food types are identified and eliminated from the diet.  This is difficult to undertake alone, as certain foods have been used to soothe emotional pain.  Once chemical dependency has taken root in the brain, removing those foods from the diet can cause distressing emotional symptoms.

The compassionate staff at Casa Serena can help you with the process of weaning off the food addiction while seeking to uncover the biological, social, or psychological factor (s) that lie at the center of the food addiction.  The destructive cycle of a food addiction takes time to resolve, and along the way Casa Serena will provide the help and tools you need in a caring and supportive environment.  Call us today at (925) 682-8252.


Importance of Family Therapy in Treating Eating Disorders

How Family Support and Understanding Aids in E.D. Recovery

No problem exists in a vacuum, a fact that applies to eating disorders as well as any other type of mental health condition. Because as human beings we live within a family structure, it comes as no surprise that, when one member of the family develops disordered eating habits, dysfunction in the family is a likely result.

Why is that? How is it that one family member’s disordered eating causes such disruption in the family dynamic? Because just as it causes deep anguish to witness a loved one suffer from any physical illness, it is just as upsetting to watch a family member battle a serious eating disorder. It is painful for parents and siblings to watch their loved one in the throes of anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.

Family members often feel helpless while they watch their loved one waste away, with no sense of power to stop the process. The fear of losing them can unleash powerful emotions, such as frustration, anxiety, and anger. Without a basic understanding of how and why an eating disorder has made its way into the family unit, confusion, blame, guilt, and shame begin to color familial relationships, causing disharmony.

How Family Therapy Can Help

Once it is understood that a complex mix of factors cause an eating disorder, the family learns it is not in their best interest to lay blame on each other for having “caused” the illness. A therapist in a family group environment helps much more by focusing on educating the family members about how an eating disorder evolves and how it affects the brain of their loved one, rather than by assigning blame. Effective family therapy is centered on improving communication skills between family members, and equipping them with problem-solving skills to use throughout recovery.

Family group therapy can also help families cope with the stress of the eating disorder. Often, the eating disorder has changed their loved one’s personality, making them irritable and angry as they grapple with the powerful illness, and this causes strain and tension in the home. Group therapy gives family members an opportunity to openly communicate how stressful it is to walk on eggshells in the presence of the sufferer. In the case of anorexia, the starvation has a significant impact on their cognitive processes, so they can’t think or reason correctly. Once weight is restored, the moodiness and irritability usually subside, allowing for a more peaceful home environment and healthier interactions between family members.

Teaching the family about what they can expect in the recovery process is a valuable component of family therapy. Knowledge is a powerful tool in establishing an atmosphere that is conducive to loving support and understanding. Gaining specific skills for family members to employ during their loved one’s recovery phase is important, as it empowers the family. Meaningful participation with their loved one on the path of recovery gives families a sense of helpfulness versus the helplessness they felt before.

Casa Serena’s Multi-Family Group

At Casa Serena, our Family Education and Support Group involves a group of multiple families who gather together with our clients, their loved ones. In this large group setting, family members can learn from other families and gain new perspectives. The depth of knowledge and experience provided by our expert clinical therapists gives family members a new frame of reference and helpful tools. Compassion is emphasized, as family members are encouraged to support their loved one while issues around food, weight, or size are resolved in recovery. Contact Casa Serena today at (925) 682-8252.