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Unconscious Hunger

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

“I can’t stop thinking about food.” Ever feel that way? It’s normal to think about food a fair bit, and occasionally overeat. But what about when thoughts of food crowd out almost everything else? When you feel an anxiety that’s only relieved by eating? Or when it seems like you don’t have any control over what, when, and how much you eat?

Food addiction means having emotionally driven, persistent, and uncontrollable urges to eat-even when you’re not physically hungry.

Here are some signs of food addiction:

  • Craving increasingly large amounts of (usually) high calorie processed foods in order to feel pleasure, energy, or excitement, or to relieve negative emotions, physical pain, or fatigue.

  • Spending so much time thinking about and getting food, and recovering from overeating, that it crowds out recreational activities, professional obligations, and relationships.

  • Continuing to overeat despite negative effects like digestive problems, or unwanted weight gain.

  • Experiencing withdrawal-like-effects-irritability, low mood, headaches, or fatigue-when you’re not eating.

Pretty much everyone experiences periods of overeating, and/or instances of binge eating.

It’s only when urges and compulsive behavior around food become severe, frequent, and chronic that a person can be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Continuum of Eating

  • Balanced Eating - You generally eat to match energy expenditure. (Although you may have occasional-often-unintentional-episodes of both overeating and undereating.)

  • Passive Overeating - You often eat more than you need, but you don’t use food to alter or numb your emotions, and you’re not distressed over your habits.

  • Loss of Control Eating - Occasionally, eating feels compulsive, excessive, and out-of-control.

  • Binge Eating - You binge eat at least once a week for at least three months. Eating a large amount-often quickly and in secret.

  • Food Addiction - Compulsively “graze”-eating smaller amounts of food almost constantly, often with a feeling that you can’t stop.

How Food Addiction Happens

Food addiction isn’t caused by one single thing. Factors like the amount of stress in someone’s life, how they respond to that stress, how lonely they feel, where they live, and who they spend time with also make an impact.

Biological Factors

Highly processed foods-especially those with a combination of sugar, fat, and salt-are the most difficult to resist. Much like drugs and alcohol, these foods trigger a range of rewarding, feel-good neurochemicals, including dopamine. Highly processed foods have this effect even when you’re not hungry. In contrast, whole, unprocessed foods aren’t very rewarding when you’re not hungry, and it’s usually easier to moderate your intake of them. These days, highly processed foods are so accessible that you have to rely on your ability to self-regulate, in order to resist them.

People with compulsive overeating may…

  • Struggle with impulse control, possibly because the planning, strategizing center of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is impaired.

  • React more easily and intensely to stressors. They have a higher level of cortisol release than others. And because stress can trigger addictive behaviors, people who are more physically sensitive to stress may be more likely to use food (or drugs or alcohol) to cope.

  • Get more pleasure from food (at first). They may have a bigger dopamine response to highly processed foods, more motivation to seek out that response again, and stronger cravings.

  • Get less pleasure from food over time. When you often overeat highly processed foods, dopamine receptors become less responsive to those foods. This means that a bigger “hit” of food is required to achieve the same pleasurable effect.

The greater the dopamine response, the more pleasure you experience. The more pleasure you feel, the more motivated you are to repeat it. When you experience a dopamine surge, you learn to associate pleasure with the specific activity or substance that caused it. As that learning continues, your prefrontal cortex and your reward system get hijacked. You become focused on getting more of the thing. And you have trouble experiencing pleasure from anything else.

Over time, your brain adapts to these floods of dopamine. This is called tolerance. Tolerance drives you to chase more of the pleasurable things, yet you rarely feel satisfied. This is the addiction cycle.

Psychological factors. Stress, depressed mood, anger, boredom, and irritability are common triggers of binge eating. Binge eating often further triggers feelings of guilt and shame, and these feelings may promote more addictive behaviors. Because binge eating and food addiction are associated with challenges regulating emotions, food can be used as a way to self-medicate and temporarily feel better. Food addiction is also associated with a history of trauma and abuse and is found alongside a number of other mental health disorders. For the person struggling, food is simply a safe place, a comfort to turn to when life feels overwhelming.

Social Factors. In animal research, addictive eating behaviors only happen when they’re given highly processed foods. Some people are exposed to highly processed foods more often than others. If you’ve grown up with friends and family that regularly overeat, or use food to soothe, comfort, or entertain, they might encourage you to do the same.

Despite some progress through movements like body positivity, modern culture still prizes thinness. In order to achieve that thinness, many people diet incessantly. Here’s how that backfire: When you think you can’t have access to something, you end up wanting more of it. This is called the limited access paradigm, and it explains why very restrictive diets not only often fail but may even make people more likely to overeat and binge eat. That’s why recovery from compulsive overeating and food addiction often focuses on body awareness, mindful eating, and developing a positive relationship with food-not dieting.

Instead of nutritional value, focus on how foods make you feel. “When you eat (insert trigger food), how do you feel in your body? And what thoughts come up?” Over time, this can build a more positive, practical relationship with food.

“What was going on before you started to feel the urge to eat? Where were you, who were you with, and how were you feeling?” When you’re aware of your patterns and habits, it’s easier to find opportunities to re-route them.

Collaborate to come up with eating-replacement activities. Stress is a common trigger for overeating, making a list of activities that calm you down, and bring you joy. You can also slowly develop alternative behaviors to eating-which you may learn to prefer over time.

  • Focus on how foods make you feel rather than their caloric value.

  • Develop awareness of your triggers.

  • Create your own personal list of replacement activities.

Want to improve your relationship with food? Schedule a free consult with me HERE

Want to assess your emotional eating patterns? Take the quiz HERE

Keep Moving Forward 😊 Sarah

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