Addicted to Junk Food
Is emotional eating, reaching for junk food to deal with negative emotions a form of addiction? Can it be compared to using illicit drugs or drinking too much alcohol? You may not be breaking laws or putting other people in danger because of the food you eat, but nutritionists and healthcare professionals agree that eating junk food can lead to health problems and emotional problems that are like any other addiction.
When we eat, we take a signal in the form of “ghrelin”— this is a hormone secreted by the stomach in response to hunger. It lets the brain know that it is time to eat. When we eat and fuel the body, the fat cells release “leptin”— this is the satiety hormone. It lets the brain know that you have eaten enough so you stop eating. People who use junk food as part of an abnormal eating pattern ignore these signals and tend to overeat.
People that are eating a diet of junk food aren’t paying attention to ghrelin and leptin, they are eating for the rush of positive feelings that comes with eating food high in sugar, fat, and salt. Eating these kinds of foods when under stress has the capability of releasing endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the feel-good chemicals that give us a temporary rush or a feeling of well being. The key here is that it is temporary and like any other drug you will eventually need another fix.
Eating to release endorphins, or to feel good, is in essence the same cycle experienced by heroin addicts that use heroin as a mimicker of endorphins in the brain. Just like with illicit drugs which either release endorphins from the brain or act as endorphins themselves, eating junk food creates a temporary release of endorphins from the brain. Doing this when one is emotionally vulnerable makes the relief much more gratifying, because the euphoric feelings are much stronger than they may be for one who is not in distress, this is a standard component of the addictive process.
Certain foods, especially those high in salt, fat, and sugar release endorphins better than others. When you eat these types of foods, you feel temporarily better and you keep eating in order to continue to feel better. This process doesn’t need to be repeated very often to become a sought out coping strategy for relief of negative emotions.
Junk foods especially have a high addiction potential. Junk food can be high salt foods like potato chips, snack crackers, or popcorn. They can also be high sugar foods, such as ice cream, cookies, and pastries. If you find yourself drawn to these types of foods, it is likely that you have more of a food addiction than someone using food as a normal part of fueling your body.
Weight and Food Addiction
Few people are overweight because they have a glandular condition or a low metabolism. Granted many of us sit at our jobs all day and then come home at night and sit in front of the TV, this certainly can lead to weight gain. However, if you are overweight or obese, it could be that you have found food as your drug of choice and are using food to release endorphins in your brain. It will make you feel better in situations where you would otherwise be angry, sad, bored, or depressed. Food becomes a way to feel better that has nothing to do with getting the right nutrients and proper nutrition. The calories in junk food add up fast, this can lead to more fuel than your body needs and becomes stored as fat. Being overweight can certainly add to negative feelings and that can lead to needing a release, which means more food, the cycle just keeps going.
Strategies for Dealing With Food Addiction and Emotional Eating
Coping with negative emotions by eating and just avoiding them is a common strategy. We know it doesn’t solve the underlying problem in our life, but it does give us temporary relief. Like most compulsive behaviors, after we engage in the behavior we still have the negative emotion and likely some additional guilt for engaging in a behavior we know isn’t healthy.
Emotional eating has become a widespread issue and a difficult one to move beyond, in part because we need to eat, we can’t just give up food. It is interesting that there are now 12 step programs like Overeaters Anonymous to support those with food addiction. There are also authors that promote using cognitive therapy and rational thinking to make better food choices. These programs address the emotional reasons why you overeat and why you make poor food choices and can help develop strategies for doing things differently. There are alternative therapies like Emotional Freedom Techniques, and work like Byron Katie to give you tools to look at the reasons behind emotional eating and get some relief from the problems rather than escape them. It is helpful to try several strategies because as with most addictive behaviors there is not a one size fits all method of ending the problem.
Strategies to lower the likelihood of engaging in Compulsive Overeating:
- Do your shopping when you are not under stress, have a list with healthy food choices and don’t bring the junk food home. If you don’t have the food in your home it gives you a chance to stop and think about whether you really want to go and get it. It might not keep you from going through the drive-through every time but it may be enough to stop you some of the time. Ideally when these foods are unavailable to you or hard to get, you are less likely to eat impulsively and may turn to something besides food in order to feel better.
- Identify your emotional eating triggers. Your awareness of these triggers alone can help you avoid high risk situations and can allow you to recognize when you feel “hungry” because of your emotions. Have a repertoire of other things you can do to change your behavior and your feelings that don’t involve food.
- Keeping a food journal or diary can be helpful in identifying triggers. Write down the time of day, the foods you reach for, and your mood. This will help you create awareness around your patterns and stressors. With emotional eating awareness is half the battle. Check in multiple times a day and write down your moods. Write down food craving you have and take the time to understand what the trigger for the craving was in as much as detail as possible. For example, if you had a bad day at work, and instead of having a healthy dinner, you choose to eat potato chips and ice cream, this tells you that stress triggers you to eat junk food. Deal with the emotion or the situation directly instead of stuffing it into your mouth. Look for specific patterns of eating and emotions so they can be circumvented in the future.
- Think about non-food ways to handle your stressors, maybe check out meditation, sign up for a yoga class, listen to a podcast on healthy coping. Think of other rewards you can give yourself when you are happy as well as when you need comforting. Maybe taking a short walk can help put your stressors into perspective without having to resort to food.
- Try to give yourself some time between when the urge or craving comes up and giving in to it. You may find that the urge to eat passes if you distract yourself and just wait a little while. Emotional eating often involves a fast desire to eat with intense cravings. It could be sitting with the emotion to see if there is another way to feel better may help you realize that you can cope without food.
- Accept your feelings for what they are, there are no good or bad feelings. Know that you are emotionally eating because you have no control over your feelings rather than having no control over your eating. Identify and accept how you feel, allow the feeling to just be rather than trying to run away from it, see if you can get curious about your feelings. If you are sad, recognize it, own it, and let it out in a healthy way rather than simply eating to hide the emotion. Even if you can’t help it and you eat anyway, at least you’ll understand why it is happening and may be able avoid the same pattern in the future.
- Practice healthier lifestyle habits. This means taking care that you get enough to sleep at night and that you exercise at least a little bit when you are under stress. Don’t overestimate the value of resting or taking a short nap when you are stressed out.
There are ways you can cope with stress and negative emotions that do not involve food. This involves making a conscious choice to do something different. Several of the above suggestions are a good start but it might be helpful to start to use EFT, PSTEC, or some other healing technique on a daily basis to release old negative emotions that are lingering. Once you have used some of the healing techniques, developed some better coping strategies, then add in some healthier behaviors around food. If you incorporate some of these strategies you will naturally eat less and will notice the connection between emotions and eating start to lessen. It may also be helpful to reach out to a therapist or coach to help you identify some of the underlying emotions and triggers that lead to compulsive overeating.
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