foodAs an addiction counselor, I frequently meet with skepticism when I refer to food addictions. “How can food be an addiction? Don’t we have to eat?” people ask. Well, yes. From our earliest moments of life, we eat and find comfort and nurturing in process the doing of it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get the process all fouled up.

Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., defines addiction as, “The inability to predictably and consistently stop drinking, using drugs, eating, gambling, acting out sexually or other behaviors once started.” She continues with the statement, “Addiction can occur in what ever generates significant mood alteration.”

From our mother’s breast forward, eating fulfills a need and brings satisfaction, nurturing and comfort. As we age, we have the opportunity to explore the pleasures our palate can provide, thus enhancing the pleasure and mood-altering ability of eating.

The problem occurs when we move from self-nurturing to self-indulgence to compulsion. As Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., notes, “We may learn that, as a result of poor food choices or binge eating, we’ve developed diabetes or heart disease.”

Brown points out that the problem begins with with the process psychologists call “conditioning.” By repeatedly feeling relief from difficult feelings through the nurturing effect of food, “an emotional attachment, or relationship, if you will,” is formed, “an emotional bond to … food … that becomes a compulsive attachment.”

When eating becomes compulsive, we really begin to have problems. At this point when difficult feelings present themselves, our urge to eat is stronger than our will to say no. Even if we have decided to “do better,” our decision process is compromised and we are on the self-indulgence side of the equation. We will eat, not because we are hungry or need to, but simply because we feel compelled to.

It is a battle we will not win without making some changes. The emotional bond between difficult feelings and food overpowers us and must be extinguished if we want freedom from the compulsion. Since the bond was created over time and has possibly been practiced for many years, it’s not a simple process — especially if we happen to have some of the addictive personality traits.

The long-term solution is learning to make good food decisions and re-conditioning, but that doesn’t happen instantly, and usually can’t be accomplished without changes and some help.

Reversing the equation is the goal. We look for things that will raise our will and lower our urge so that we can write the equation as: The will to say no is greater than our urge to eat.

Here’s how: Structure is where we begin. Taking the decision out of our hands is a good way to stop making bad food decisions. That can be accomplished with structure. Plan the day’s eating in detail before it happens. If you don’t have a choice, you won’t make a bad one.

This isn’t a life-long commitment; the goal is to learn to make good food decisions. That’s why reworking our urge/will equation is a priority, but a “time-out” from decision making can create a safe haven, a more controlled environment, where that change can occur.

Food planning is a key component of the many weight loss programs on the market; Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers and others all provide easy ways to plan food intake. These types of programs have a lot of benefits. One participant, Terryl, said, “One of the main things I got out of my Weight Watchers involvement was learning portion size: How to feel full and not deprived, and most importantly how to not over eat.”

Reframe you attitude about dieting. So many people spend a lot of emotional capitol lamenting what they are “losing” by going on a diet — the deprivation of it all. That regret or sense of loss stimulates resentment and other difficult feelings that, in turn, fuel our urge to eat. If we can eliminate the difficult feelings, we can diminish the urge substantially.

Focus instead on what you are gaining: a healthy new part of your lifestyle. Improved health, greater energy, improved self-esteem can all be by-products of a switch to healthy eating. There is much to celebrate!

Learn new eating skills. During this decision making “time-out” period, educate yourself about what a healthy eating lifestyle looks like. Learn about nutrition, appropriate potion size or perhaps new cooking skills for eating in a healthier way. Educate yourself so that you can maintain the weight loss you achieve.

Righting the equation: Raising the will and diminishing the urge. There are a number of things that can help us raise our will to say “no” to the inappropriate urge to eat. One is accountability. Joining a program that holds us accountable by weigh-ins can be very helpful. When the urge arises to go off our planned menu for the day, we can dispute that urge with the statement, “I could eat that, but I have a weigh-in tomorrow. I know I am down a couple of pounds and I don’t want to mess that up.”

Helpful support is another way of raising our will. Self help groups like Overeaters Anonymous provide safe, confidential, non-judgmental sources of understanding. They also provide a forum for venting difficult feelings and are a source of encouragement and support that strengthens participants.

Weight loss buddies can also be a great resource. Finding a partner with similar goals can provide a safe haven to vent frustrations and struggles and provide encouragement. Sometimes a telephone call when we are feeling tempted to go off diet can suck the life right out of an urge.

Disputing urges is a great skill for diminishing their power. In addiction recovery, we learn that all urges have a beginning, middle and an end. Sometimes we can out live them by just ignoring them. Other times we can challenge them with good disputations that put them in their place. “Yes, in my old days, I would eat all of that chocolate cake, but I am doing things differently now and I really like the results. That cake isn’t worth giving up how well I am doing.”

Don’t be discouraged by your slips. This is a process, not an event, and it takes time to accomplish. Consistent effort and resilience will see you through to new, healthy eating habits.

Published by Page 2, written by Roger