If you’re in a constant struggle with issues around eating – especially overeating – you may be curious about how you can use mindfulness for food addictions.
First, it’s important to understand how food addictions differ from addictions to substances such as alcohol or heroin. The latter creates both a psychological and physiological addiction.
Food addiction does not have a physiological aspect. In other words, it is not the food itself that is addictive. Instead, it’s the behavior around it.
What Is a Food Addiction?
Those with food addictions have lost touch with their eating behavior. They spend an excessive amount of time overeating and thinking about food.
And it’s not just a problem with those who are overweight. Those in the “normal weight” range can also struggle with food addictions. In some cases, thinner overeaters will compensate with excessive exercise to burn off the extra calories.
As mentioned above, it’s not so much about the food as the behavior. Thus, those who work with compulsive overeaters will often swap out the term food addiction for “eating addiction.” This stresses the behavior component and reframes it as an active process rather than a passive one.
Those who struggle with food (or eating) addiction continue to eat when they’re no longer hungry. They may even eat to the point of feeling ill. They feel uneasy about not eating or cutting down on certain foods. And they may go WAY out of their way to obtain a specific food they’re craving.
Eventually, the addictive behavior can cause them to eat food rather than spend time with friends and family, take part in recreational activities, or even work or go to school.
The Science Behind a Food Addiction
Although compulsive overeaters don’t experience the mind-altering high as those using illicit substances, the same pleasure center of their brains is activated when they eat. This is especially the case with foods high in sugar, fat, and/or salt. When they eat these, it triggers a feel-good dopamine rush to the brain and they feel deeply rewarded.
These reward signals often cancel out signals of satiation, or feeling full. So food addicts continue to eat despite potential negative consequences such as damaging a relationship or gaining weight. The desire to gorge themselves outweighs the willpower to make healthy choices. Then they feel guilt or shame around this, and eat even more to soothe.
It’s a vicious cycle.
Food Addiction Vs. Eating Disorders
The distinction between food addictions and eating disorders is not exactly clear-cut. There is an overlap.
For example, anorexia nervosa may not seem like a food addiction. It is, after all, the opposite of overeating in that it involves dangerous and life-threatening self-starvation. But much like an overeater obsesses about eating, an anorexic person narrows their behavior to such an extreme that they focus solely on food restriction along with weight loss and excessive exercise. This interferes with other activities in much the same way that overeating does for food addicts.
Susan McQuillian, author of Breaking the Bonds of Food Addiction explains it as such:
“If you are preoccupied with food, eating, or your body size to the extent that it interferes with your health, happiness, relationships, or normal day-to-day activities, chances are you have a food addiction. That doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder, although eating disorders certainly are food addictions. You might, however, be acting out disordered eating behaviors such as bingeing, purging, eating secretly, compulsive eating, or compulsive dieting that are similar to the behavior of someone with a diagnosable eating disorder…. These behaviors are all symptoms of food addictions…. You might not realize it, but chronic dieting is a form of food addiction. Avoiding or restricting food is a food addiction. A food addict is anyone who is overly preoccupied with food and body size. A food addict is anyone whose relationship with food is getting in the way of his or her physical or emotional well-being.”
So yeah, it’s complicated.
Mindfulness and Food Addictions
It’s important to remember that all food addictions have a psychological basis. Anyone struggling with an addiction to overeating needs to address the issues behind it.
But when working in tandem with a therapist or support group, introducing mindful practices can be tremendously effective.
1. Avoid Distractions
The first recommendation is to eat in silence. Sounds easy enough, right? Yet, think about how often you sit and eat in silence. Then consider how often you eat while watching TV, scrolling on your phone, having a conversation with a friend, or scarfing down something in the car on the go.
Such distracted eating creates a serious lack of awareness. You’re likely not paying attention to what you’re eating or HOW you’re eating it. This brings us to the second part.
2. Question What and HOW You Eat
Mindfulness, on the other hand, asks us not only to avoid distractions, but to pay attention to the foods we’re eating, how much of them we’re eating, and the ways in which we eat.
If you’re shoveling food into your mouth without giving it much thought, you may be filling your mouth before you’ve swallowed the last bite. You’re far more likely not to notice that you’re full when you eat this way. You may also not be making the best choices of healthy foods.
So along with eating in silence and choosing healthy foods, mindfulness suggests that we chew each bite fully before starting the next one. These are eating meditations. When you’re first practicing, you may even place your eating utensil down after each bite and not pick it up again until you’re finished with it.
It may sound a little extreme at first, but like every other practice, you’ll begin to appreciate it over time. You’ll notice fullness so you don’t overeat. Eventually, with an ability to move slowly and in silence, you may even learn how to address unpleasant emotions that arise rather than attempt to smother them with food.
And that’s priceless.
Bring Mindfulness Into Your Life
Revamping your relationship with food through eating meditations will help you to break out of the vicious cycle of an eating addiction. This is the beauty of mindfulness and food addictions.
Regardless of whether you struggle with a food addiction though, moving through life with more mindfulness is always beneficial.
So if you’d like to start exploring mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, don’t hesitate to contact us. We offer classes both virtually and on-site right at your place of work.