Food and Sugar Addiction: Is Abstinence Necessary?July 29, 2016
Do you have difficulty controlling your intake of sugary, high fat, or processed foods? Do you go out of your way to obtain certain foods or eat until stuffed? Do you ever avoid social or work obligations due to having overeaten, or fear of overeating? If so, you are not alone.
Food and Sugar Addiction
Brain and behavioral research continue to support the fact that food absolutely can be addictive and can look similar to alcohol or drug addiction. I often work with people who describe themselves as "food addicts" and they are often worried that the only way to control themselves is to give up certain foods or food groups completely. If they were to do an Internet search about how to treat food addiction, they would likely get the message that complete abstinence is the only option for recovery.
If you consider yourself a food addict and the idea of being completely abstinent is overwhelming, then I have some good news for you. Abstinence is not the only option and is very likely unnecessary.
While there are people who swear that abstinence is the only effective cure for food addiction (the organizations that most commonly support the abstinence model include Food Addicts and Overeaters Anonymous), there has been little research to support the idea that “once addicted, always addicted.”
On the contrary, there is quite a bit of evidence that cognitive-behavioral, mindfulness, and acceptance-based therapies effectively treat conditions such as stress eating, binge eating, food addiction, and other forms of disordered eating, and in these approaches, abstinence from certain food groups is not a requirement.
Often, people think that something is “wrong” with the brains of those who struggle with an addiction or psychological problem. I disagree. I believe that in these cases, our brains have learned a way to cope with particular circumstances to provide short-term relief, but this coping method is ultimately not helpful long-term. But like any unhealthy behavior, we can learn to replace it with a new and better behavior.
What Is Possible and What Will Work for Us
The thing is, we all have thinking patterns and beliefs that we hold about ourselves, our relationships, the world, and our relationships with food. Beliefs are something that we hold to be true, without any conclusive evidence. Meaning, we do not know 100% that the belief is true, but we buy into it anyway. We have beliefs about what is possible and what we think will work for us. Sometimes these beliefs can be incredibly helpful, such as the belief, “I am a good person, and I am worthy of love,” or “I can and will make a change,” while other times beliefs can be crippling, for example, “I am not capable,” “I am not good enough,” or “I will never succeed at this.”
With food and any other addiction, it is helpful if we can step back and realize that it is not all that different from the other psychological difficulties that all of us go through.
Once you get through the physical withdrawal symptoms (which vary depending on the addiction), you may be left with the raw emotions that the addiction was covering. It can be hard to believe you can cope with these feelings without using food or substances.
In addition to general beliefs about ourselves, we also have beliefs about what is possible for us, with regards to overcoming food addiction and achieving our goals in general. Let’s take the typical example of someone who wants to reduce their sugar intake. Often they will say that their goal is to “control myself around sugar” or “get rid of my cravings.” Perhaps, they want to go to a family gathering and restrain themselves from standing around the dessert table all night. Behind these goals is the belief that you will always be strongly drawn to the food, and always need to use “willpower” to hold yourself in check. That sounds exhausting!
What if you set a different goal? Perhaps instead of hoping that you can “control yourself” (which implies that you will deep down always have a strong desire for sweets or other food, but will somehow hold yourself back with great effort), the goal was to learn to take better care of yourself with how you eat, move, and behave. Perhaps the goal could be to get to the point where you eventually become less interested in the food and instead are more engaged in the social interactions or other aspects of the gathering. Maybe you strive to learn to feel good in your body while eating moderately and healthfully.
Notice the difference?
Out With The Old Thinking Patterns
Will that involve some self-control and discipline in the short-term? Very likely, because it takes work to make any change. You have to think about your areas of struggle, plan ahead, deal with any physical withdrawal symptoms and deal with the old thinking patterns and often difficult emotions. It isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but if you knew it was possible, that it could get easier over time, and that you could develop new preferences, would you be interested?
What we want to avoid here is going to the extreme of tight rigidity and control, because the message you are sending to yourself and your body is, I do not trust you to do this on your own, you cannot handle this.
Certainly, our brains might tell us we really want the food, but it is important to take a step back and acknowledge how our body will feel if we have it. It’s a small but important shift where you begin to think about how food affects your body (e.g., leaving you to feel drained, sluggish, or energized) versus thinking about food as “good” versus “bad”.
We now know that how we view food actually affects our hormones. In a recent study, people showed less reduction in the hormone ghrelin (a hormone associated with hunger, which normally increases as you get hungry and anticipate eating or drinking, and reduces after a meal) after having a milkshake that was labeled “diet.” When the same people had a nutritionally identical shake labeled “indulgent,” they showed a more typical ghrelin response, suggesting that they were more satisfied with the “indulgent” shake even though it was exactly the same nutritional content (Crum, Corbin, Brownell, and Salovey, 2011). There is evidence that our brain is adaptable and that through behavioral changes, we can mold it such that it works in our favor over time. Studies have shown that we are able to re-train our brains to prefer less sweet and high-fat foods, and truly enjoy healthier foods (Deckersbach et al., 2014). So although the suggestions here are typically not easy and not a quick fix for most people, they are entirely possible with practice.
If you are someone who finds peace and freedom in your relationship with food while remaining abstinent from sugar, white flour, or other foods that can be addictive, then that is wonderful. But for many people, complete avoidance of these foods feels impossible, or at least very burdensome. Even if you are struggling with severe food addiction, know that you can relearn new and more effective behaviors, and feel healthier overall.
6 Tips for Reducing Food and/or Sugar Addiction:
- Improve your food environment. Why make things harder than they need to be? Make sure you have healthy food options at home and minimize the high sugar and high-fat foods you bring into your home. This does not mean these foods are “bad” or “off-limits” but especially since you are at the beginning of your journey with making peace with food, you may find that keeping them out of the home will make the process easier for you, and your brain. If you really want ice cream, make a plan with a loved one to go get it, and truly enjoy it without guilt.
- Gradually wean so your brain can adjust its preferences. Drinking a can of soda pop per day? See if you can drink ½ a can, then perhaps skip a day. If you put sugar in your coffee, wean down slowly. And be careful with artificial sweeteners. They taste equally sweet, sometimes even more so, and can increase your preferences or cravings for sweets. Your taste buds will adjust over time.
- Connect with others who understand. There can be a lot of shame associated with food addiction, and isolation just worsens the problem. You are not alone, and there are many people who can relate, you just have to be open to finding them. The internet is an amazing way to do this, particularly if you can find others who have similar beliefs as you about how you can improve your relationship with food.
- Notice and challenge your beliefs about yourself and food. Do you buy into the notion that you “cannot control yourself around food?” Do you worry you will never be able to control your intake of certain foods? Catch yourself if you fall into these old ways of thinking. Take a deep breath, and remember that change is possible, but it takes time to re-learn new habits. Be patient with yourself, and persistent. Develop challenges for the above thoughts, such as “I can learn to have more peace around food, it just takes practice” or instead of focusing on what you “shouldn’t” have, ask yourself, “What steps can I take today to take better care of myself and my body?”
- Visualize yourself behaving and feeling the way you want to. Do you dream of being that person who easily passes on dessert or just has a few bites because you are full? In an ideal world, if you knew it was possible, how would you act in certain situations around food? When someone brings in donuts, do you want to use willpower to avoid them? Or would you rather say to yourself, “I know I will feel exhausted and sluggish 20 minutes after I eat this and so I choose to take care of myself and be more productive today by not eating them.”
- Get away from depriving yourself psychologically. Want to avoid sweets during the weekdays? Great, but think about why. What do you say to yourself when you try to pass the free cookies on the table? Are you saying “Oh man I want those so badly, but that would be really bad, and I have to control myself.” Or are you saying “I am stressed right now, and I know I’m not going to really be able to enjoy it without guilt. It isn’t in my plan. I can have a donut another time if I really want one, just not impulsively today.”
The tips above are great initial strategies, but if you have a more significant addiction to food, it is highly recommended that you reach out and get professional help. We are social beings, and we can only do so much to self-analyze and figure things out alone. So take tip #3 to the next level and seek out a professional with experience in this area for additional support and guidance.
Crum, A., Corbin, W., Brownell, K., & Salovey, P. (2011). Mind Over Milkshakes: Mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychology, 30, 424-429.
Deckersbach, T., Das, S., Urban, L., Slinardi, T. et al. (2014). Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention. Nutrition & Diabetes, 4, 1-7.
ABOUT THE AUTHORShawn Hondorp, PhD, ABPP, is a board certified clinical health psychologist who works in private practice in Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Hondorp earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Drexel University and completed her fellowship at Rush University Medical Center. Her passion is translating science-based information about eating behavior, weight management, and wellness into actionable steps people can use to improve their life. Her website The Psychology of Wellness is dedicated to this mission. Read more articles by Dr. Hondorp!