understanding a food addiction

Understanding A Food Addiction

October 24, 2012

Food addictions are real. I know this because I co-lead a food addiction group at the Methodist Hospital with dietician, Jennifer Naples. I work on a specialized team within the Weight Management Center called the Bariatric Center. The bariatric team cares for patients who have had weight loss surgery. These patients go off most of their diabetic and hypertension medicine, relieve their joint pain, and are more active. The one problem that the surgery will not take away is an underlying food addiction. In fact, many of the people who regain their weight one year post-operatively are food addicts. It is difficult to get a good grasp of understanding a food addiction.

Understanding a Food Addiction

Food addiction does not mean these patients are addicted to all food. It simply means they have “trigger foods”. When they eat those foods it stimulates a part of their brains. This causes the patient to eat more of the trigger food. In fact, the only way for them not to eat the food is to not have it near them, not be able to buy it, and/or try and exchange that drive for another behavior or another food. For example, if salty crackers or chips are the triggers we help them replace this with salted baby carrots.

This addiction never goes away. In fact, we have had patients report that they went outside to steal food out of a garbage can. Many tried to put a lock on their pantry door or refrigerator. The only help for a food addiction is to learn to manage it and we do this by guiding the patients through a 12 Step food addiction group. The group focuses on one step each month. Step four is painful, making an inventory of how you may have lied, cheated, or stole to get food. It demands that you see clearly how many people you have hurt to manage your addiction. Step six is difficult because it begins with atonement and step eight goes deeper by peeling away the last bit of denial. The group is set up in a format where outside sponsors are not as involved as the other group members. The group members hold each other accountable. They are the real “healers” in the group. My co-leader and I serve only as facilitators. In psychotherapy, we understand when going deeper, and chipping away some of the denial, is advantageous for a patient and when it is potentially harmful. We watch, listen, and direct.

How do you know if you are a food addict?

  1. You are powerless over controlling your food intake.
  2. You continually eat foods you know are hurtful to your body and cannot stop.
  3. Once you begin to eat a certain trigger food you cannot stop.
  4. You think of a thousand reasons you are overweight and none of them belong to you.
  5. You feel shame or guilt around food especially when you have eaten what you thought would comfort you.
  6. Food has become your best friend, lover, confidant...fill in the blank, anything but fuel.
  7. Food is always on your mind.
  8. If your trigger food is brought into the house you cannot rest until it is completely gone.
  9. Every outing includes food in one form or another.
  10. You will neglect many other areas of your life and comfort yourself with food.

If there is a food addict in your home you are trying to help, the first step is understanding. Imagine their life as a huge ball. The ball is firm, spherical, and full. Now imagine they have the weight loss surgery and they can no longer eat the foods they used to eat. The ball is punctured and all of the air is coming out. What is left of the ball is analogous to how a food addict feels about eight months to a year after weight loss surgery. They have lost their best friend, they feel empty, their comfort is gone, as well as a big part of their life. How can you help? Help them fill the ball back up with activities, meditation, journaling, socializing, traveling, hobbies, laughter, and prayer. This will reduce the space left by the loss of trigger foods.

understanding a food addiction
Mary Jo Rapini


Mary Jo Rapini is a psychotherapist specializing in intimacy, sex and relationships, and bariatrics. She maintains a private practice in Houston, TX. Mary Jo is a frequent expert on national television and in popular magazines. Mary Jo was a regular in 2 seasons of the TLC series Big Medicine which focused on her insight and sensitivity with the bariatric community. She works and counsels patients dealing with morbid obesity. Her involvement in the show Big Medicine focused on her insight and sensitivity with the bariatric community. She is the author of two books: Is God Pink? Dying to Heal and co-author of Start Talking: A Girl’s Guide for You and Your Mom about Health, Sex or Whatever.