Compulsive over eating may stem from deeper emotional issues such as trauma, chronic stress, or more serious mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

By Joyce Marter, LCPC

Americans clearly have a serious problem with food obsession and body image issues. When we talk about eating disorders, people often think of anorexia and bulimia. Sometimes people forget that compulsive overeating or “food addiction” is also disordered eating. The common thread with all eating disorders is low self-esteem. There is an obsessive-compulsive component to eating disorders—obsessions are intrusive thoughts about food, body, and weight, while compulsions are behaviors that intend to reduce the anxiety around the obsessions such as eating, binging, purging, and exercising. Therefore the recovery process needs to address, not just the eating behaviors, but also the underlying emotional issues.

Food addiction is more than about food. The eating and the weight gain is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem or addiction. This is why we see gastric bypass surgery patients replace their food addiction with other compulsive behaviors such as compulsive shopping, gambling, or drinking. The underlying issue must be addressed through the therapeutic or recovery process.  

Compulsive over eating may also stem from deeper emotional issues such as trauma (neglect or abuse), negative emotions (grief, loss, anger, sadness), or mental health issues (depression, anxiety.) The person turns to food to self-soothe—to feel better or to numb themselves with the feeling of being full. The relief is only temporary and sufferers are then left with overwhelming feelings of shame, inadequacy, guilt, and anxiety.  It is a vicious, destructive cycle that can become a downward spiral for many sufferers.

Food addicts share the common defense mechanisms seen in other forms of addiction. These include denial (about weight, size, food intake) minimization, and rationalization. Food addicts may also be prone to lying and secrecy as a way to preserve their addiction. These are normal psychological byproducts of addiction and can be very damaging to relationships with loved ones. 

As with other addictions such as drugs or alcohol, food addicts may have people in their lives who enable their unhealthy relationship with food. These people may eat or buy unhealthy food with the addict or over function in areas that allow them to under function as a result of obesity or other related health or emotional problems (i.e. tie their shoes for them when they get too big to do that comfortably for themselves.)  An unhealthy relationship with food is sometimes a family issue, and is a learned behavior passed down by generation.  Some couples may also share food addiction and have a codependent relationship where they enable one another’s addiction.

Compulsive overeating can cause other problems in a person’s life. In addition to obvious health problems, obesity can contribute to social isolation (even to the extreme in cases where people are bound to their homes) as well as sexual problems, employment problems, and serious depression or anxiety.      

One of the challenges with food addiction is that people can not just abstain from their “drug of choice.” We all need to eat, so this is different than abstaining from alcohol or drugs. Therefore, people struggling with this addiction need to learn how to have a healthy relationship with food and their body through their recovery process. The process is often a long and challenging road that requires tremendous support from friends, family and professionals.

Americans’ fascination with food addiction is evidenced by the number of reality TV shows that follow food addicts and their recovery process. The individuals profiled in these shows exemplify many of the psychological and relational traits discussed above and can provide additional insights into compulsive overeating. Several of these programs are listed below.

Making a choice to start the recovery process requires a tremendous amount of courage and support. Sometimes families or loved ones may need to plan an intervention to address an individual’s compulsive overeating disorder.  The individual needs to want recovery for themselves and needs to take the first brave step of admitting they have a problem.

The recovery process for food addiction needs to be addressed from multiple angles:

  • Therapy or counseling to address underlying self-esteem, emotional, and addictive issues
  • 12-step support through Overeaters Anonymous to address underlying addiction issues (http://www.oa.org/)
  • Nutritional support
  • Fitness/health support
  • Family/relationship support

Recovery is possible. Food addicts can have their bodies, health and lives back. They can drop the shame along with the pounds and have a renewed capacity to process their feelings and relationships in a whole new way.

UB has therapists on staff who specialize in food addiction, food and body issues and eating disorders. Additionally, UB has wellness partners with whom we collaborate for nutritional, fitness and medical support. For more information or to be connected with a therapist, please contact info@urbanbalance.com or 888-726-7170.

Urban Balance prioritizes the safety of our clients and staff and will provide teletherapy counseling services.
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