I can't stop eating, I'm addicted to food!
1st December 2020 | Author: Bianca Skilbeck
Growing up, *Sally got the message loud and clear, that it would be bad if she ever got fat.
No one said this to her directly. Yet she couldn’t help but notice a lot of things; many of them subconscious, many not.
Her mum, aunties and grandmother were always on diets. They were always talking about this or that food, or what they “weren’t allowed to eat”, or “shouldn’t have eaten”.
Sally didn’t understand what the commercials on TV were getting at when they showed photos of people who lost weight. Yet, it was clear that one body was being shown as better than the other.
Strolling past the supermarket registers, quickly scanning her little eyes over the shelves for last-minute goodies she might try to add to the trolley, Sally would see photos of women on the front covers of magazines in their swimwear. Even before she was able to read the words, “How I transformed my bikini body”, the message was creeping in; this was how girls were supposed to look when they got older.
And get older, Sally did.
As her own body began to change, she didn’t know why but she felt uncomfortable. It was like she woke up one day and found that she was bigger than her friends at school. It didn’t feel nice. Sometimes family members would comment, “Oohh, isn’t little Sally getting big now, not so little anymore!” (wink wink, nudge nudge). Kids at school made fun of her that she was the first to start wearing bras, and sometimes the boys, if they got close enough would try to flick her bra strap.
As the years went on, all the other girls caught up, and soon they were swapping dieting tips, borrowing each other’s clothes and passing around magazines (author note: I’m showing my age here.....today, they are scrolling Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok).
She doesn’t remember when, but at some point, Sally heard that if you ate too much sugar you would get fat. She had also heard that sugar was addictive, so she decided to cut sugar out of her diet. At first it was easy enough for a few days, and she felt empowered, superior even, to her peers who continued their sugary ways. It wasn’t long though before someone would bring cake to school, or there would be a party on the weekend, or the teachers would hand out chocolates in class and all her resolve would quickly weaken. Despite her best intentions and all her resolve, Sally would find herself eating whatever she could, as fast as she could. The sugary foods were just so damn delicious, she just couldn’t resist them for one second longer.
She knew sugar was addictive, she thought; she could see it in action right now. So she would resolve again and again, to once and for all stay away from this type of food.
Sally would harden her resolve. She’d avoid sugary foods. Oh, and she also heard that “carbs are bad” and that they would make you gain weight, so it was time to steer clear of those as much as possible too. Perhaps some things were okay, but definitely pasta and pizza were a no-go, she was certain about that. The problem was that her and her friends got pizza on the weekends, or after school sometimes.... but nonetheless, she’d do her best.
Her resolve would be steady for a few days, maybe a week, maybe even a few weeks. She began weighing herself daily and as the needle on the scale began to move, she found herself on the receiving end of more and more compliments.
Yet when the weekend came, there was pizza, chocolate, ice-cream, and OH MY GOD, Sally was just so damn hungry and CRAVING these foods at this stage that she couldn’t take it for a moment longer. Eating way past the point of fullness, Sally gorged herself. After the first bite, it was almost like she couldn’t even taste it anymore, she was in such a euphoric state after missing and craving these foods for all of this time.
Waking up the next morning, Sally would feel bloated, sick, guilty and full of regret. What had she done, how could she disappoint herself like this, she knew how bad these foods were? Yet it was the weekend, what was the point trying to fix it now? Better to just see out the rest of the weekend and start again on Monday.
"I can't stop eating"
The cycle continued like this.
Over the years, Sally and her friends would pledge with each other to do better. They tried everything; soup diets, shake diets, lemon water diets, juice cleanses, you name it. In a way they kind of bonded over this shared experience. Each week they would scrutinise the things that they did and didn’t like about their bodies, encourage each other to keep going and congratulate on weight loss. As they got older and started to meet boys, Sally further felt the pressure to look a certain way. There were a couple of times when boys told her she was fat, and other times when she would hear rumours about the things people were saying. She felt awful, she knew it was her fault. If only she could just control herself.
Sally became an adult. The cycle continued, decade after decade. Sally’s relationship with food and her body deteriorated. Diet after diet, exercise challenge after exercise challenge, Sally’s weight yo-yoed, yet no matter how hard she tried, her weight always seemed to continue in this upwards trajectory. She felt completely out of control and she'd tried everything. She banned all “junk” foods from her house, but then she’d wind up buying these foods on impulse and consuming them all at once because she was too anxious to keep them around. She didn’t want to go out anymore. The food in social settings was too tempting, and anyway, she didn’t feel good in any of her clothes. She was worried that people would judge her for the weight she’d gained.
Sally was utterly convinced by now that she was addicted to food, that there was something wrong with her. Why couldn’t she just stop eating? Why couldn’t she just be normal with food, she would ask herself?
She felt ashamed, lonely, isolated. Every day she’d promise herself that she’d be better, but then most nights, find herself in bed with her favourite comfort foods which were always there for her. Sally tried weight loss drugs, but they never helped in the long-term. She considered surgery. Finally, after scrolling on social media one night, Sally decided to book in to see a therapist.
This was a turning point.
*Sally, is a fictional character. Actually, more accurately, she is an amalgamation of my clients; her story is a story that I have heard over and over from so many folks.
Sally’s story of a decent in to an eating disorder, began with fat-phobia and weight-stigma. It continued with dieting, developing a fear of foods, and progressed in to a life-consuming, energy-consuming, self-worth destroying, mental health damaging, and physical health-damaging rabbit-hole of an eating disorder, which was and is maintained by diet-culture.
That’s a lot of words, so before I go on, let’s get clear on some of them.
Fatphobia: The fear and dislike of fat; your own fat, other people’s fat and fat people in general (think ‘homophobia’, the fear and dislike of homosexual people….yet are you really ‘fearful’ or are you just socially conditioned?)
Weight-stigma: The product of fat-phobia. Weight stigma happens at three levels.
- Intrapersonal weight-stigma is the internalised way that you stigmatise yourself and treat yourself based on your body weight.
- Interpersonal weight stigma is the stigma and discrimination that we lump on each other, from person to person (e.g. bullying, discrimination, denial of opportunities).
- Societal/systemic weight stigma is the stigma that is built in to the fabric of our society, and results in a world that is not made for fat people and actively excludes them (e.g. aeroplane seats that have actually decreased in size in the past decades so as airlines can squish more people in, medical equipment not made to accommodate people above certain weights, seating in universities that cannot accommodate anyone above a certain weight, etc.).
Diet-culture: The culture we live in that supports and propagates fatphobia and weight-stigma by framing dieting as “the norm”, and encouraging folks to be at war with their bodies (often for reasons rooted in capitalism and racism….but that’s another blog post).
So, where was I, back to Sally.
Sally comes to me and tells me; she’s addicted to food and needs my help. I know exactly what she is telling me and I know that for Sally, this feeling of addiction feels VERY real right now. So we start talking.
It will take some time, but I will help Sally to explore exactly what lead to her feeling as she puts it, so “out of control” with food. We will explore the culture she grew up in as well as the beliefs she was surrounded by from a very young age. We will discuss how she coped within this culture; how she adapted, conformed and made herself the problem, rather than “it”. Sally and I will explore how food and body-image have in some ways become ‘stand-in’s’ for coping with a range of emotions and uncomfortable feelings. We may talk about past traumas, grief, or other difficult life circumstances which have impacted Sally’s sense of self-esteem, self-worth and self-efficacy.
Finally, Sally and I will begin to discuss another way of being; another way that Sally may begin to relate to her body, mind and food. Together, in treatment, we will begin to explore what it might look and feel like for Sally, if she were to start to learn how to tune in to her body signals again and figure out what she really wants. We talk about strategies for doing this, and about any old, limiting beliefs that she may have about herself and her body, and how some of this can start to shift and be reprogrammed, by discovering both the “why” of the equation, as well as the “how”.
Throughout all of this, I would reiterate to Sally, that she is not addicted to food, at least, not in the typical way we think of addiction. This may come as a surprise to her, as it may to you reading this right now. Nonetheless, hear me out.
You cannot be addicted to something you actually need in order to survive.
Saying that food is addictive is like saying that breathing oxygen is addictive…well yes, actually, it is if you want to keep living!
“But what about sugar”, I hear you say, “we can live without sugar!”.
Actually, it’s not that simple. Sugars exist in many foods; fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, etc. There are different amounts and types of sugars in different foods, with some foods having higher quantities of sugars. Yet, even these foods if we look a little closer (actually, you don’t have to look that closely), are not just sugar. They also contain fats and proteins; things that your body absolutely still need.
I haven’t convinced you yet? Tell me; when was the last time you couldn’t stop yourself from shovelling in teaspoon after teaspoon of straight sugar?
I didn’t think so.
Sugar is not addictive. Food is not addictive. What makes these things feel addictive, is when we deny ourselves and restrict them. Our bodies are actually designed so as food feels mentally, emotionally and physically rewarding; if it wasn’t this way, we wouldn’t survive as a species.
So when, in our food-rich environment, we go and restrict these types of foods, they become what is known as what is called more “salient” in our awareness. They become more highly valued, regarded and desired. In fact, it is well known in eating disorder treatment circles that those with a history of dieting are more likely to turn to food for comfort, than those without a history of dieting who see food as more neutral.
So, with all of this being said, at the end of the day, food still feels addictive for you. I understand that and I really empathise.
In some ways, I guess it depends on how we’re defining addiction. Drugs can be addictive, yet its interesting that some people can take or leave them, and others’ get hooked? Shopping can be addictive, gambling can be addictive, sex, relationships and porn can be addictive.
In the same way that all of these things can feel addictive or can be used compulsively, food can also be used compulsively. Food can be used as an emotional coping strategy. This, in and of itself is not a problem, in the same way that it’s not a problem if you do some online shopping every now and then to put a smile on your face. It becomes a problem if it is your only coping strategy. Too much of anything is usually not a good thing.
Let's think a bit deeper for a moment though, let’s think back to Sally. Was Sally really addicted to food?
Or was she addicted to dieting? It's worth thinking about further.
I'm going to leave this here. Hopefully, this has all been “food” for thought.
Has something in this article resonated for you? Is it time to heal your relationship with food? You can get in contact HERE or do the free 'How Healthy is Your Relationship with Food' Quiz, to find out just how healthy your relationship with food is.