I’d know for years that I was an addict; after years of abusing heroin and other opiates the signs were fairly clear. It just took me a little longer to recognize that I was also addicted to food. Ironically, I was already two years sober from drugs and alcohol when I began to suspect that I had an issue with over-eating. Like most addictions it started small but over time I began to not only snack but eat consistently throughout the day. I would order a pizza at midnight and eat the whole thing by 2 am. If someone offered me a chip I’d eat the whole bag. Addiction can take many forms and sometimes when one vice is taken away, another one takes it’s place. In fact there is evidence to suggest that food can activate the same dopamine centers in the brain as hard drugs.
Yet using the term “addict” for something like eating can be tricky, especially when compared to something as obviously harmful as heroin. So what is food addiction, and how do you know if you might need help? The simplest answer is to look at the behavior and the reasoning. Being a food addict doesn’t just mean you’re overweight. Although studies have shown that as many as 50% of people with obesity have an addiction to food, there are many others who compensate for their extra calories by rigorous exercise. Therefore signs of food addiction are more than just physical, they’re emotional. Many of the same questions that addiction specialists use to see if someone has a drug addiction can be re-purposed for food.
-Do you eat alone so nobody will see you?
-Has overeating ever harmed your job performance or relationships?
-Have you ever tried to stop overeating but been unable to?
-Do you overeat when you are sad or for emotional reasons?
When I first started to realize that I was addicted to overeating, I had to ask myself many of these questions. In the end, everyone has to answer them for themselves. But it is important to realize that even though food is not a drug, there are still ways to get help. Obviously food is not something from which we can abstain completely, but through support and treatment many like me have been able to take back control over the relationship they have to their food. There are even 12-step programs like Over eaters Anonymous which help people create individualized programs. Some people need to only stay away from a particular food. While others need more stringent rules on the times and amounts they eat.
Like any addiction, overeating can be a lonely and terrifying way to live. Like so many, I had to let go of my own shame and realize that the only way I was going to get better is if I asked for help.