Am I Addicted to Food?
There was a time in my life when I could not stop thinking about food. All-day, every day: at the barre, during center work, and throughout petit allegro. Honestly, it just didn’t make sense… I was eating SUPER “healthy” and “clean.” But with every passing day came overwhelming thoughts of once-loved foods. They taunted me!
Do you feel like you’re always thinking about your next meal? Do thoughts about what you “should” and “shouldn’t” eat play on repeat in your mind? Or, perhaps, it’s your fear of “once I start I’ll never stop!” In this article, we’re not just debunking the idea of food addiction, but we’re also diving into what it actually means to be obsessed with food. We’ll cover why food obsession happens, what food habituation is, and how to FINALLY stop obsessing over the very thing that gives us life: food!
How we define a “healthy” lifestyle varies among individuals and what works for one might not be what works for another. This is why “normal” eating is somewhat impossible to define. When it comes to eating, there’s a fine line between promoting healthy habits and teetering with restrictive habits. This is especially true because diet culture does a fabulous job at masking disordered eating (AKA dieting) with an aura of “wellness.”
Since food is both a necessity in life and a tool for optimizing a dancer’s performance, it can be easy for harmless habits to turn into obsessive behaviors. Add a dancer’s perfectionistic mindset and, eating, as a biologically “normal” process, becomes a cabaret of consuming thoughts. This preoccupation with food and body steers us further away from what can be considered “normal.”
Signs of Food Obsession
Thinking about food and obsessing about food are two very different things. Deciphering between the two is important when assessing whether or not your relationship with food is “healthy” and, well, “normal.” A few signs of food obsession include:
- Inability to concentrate on tasks unrelated to food.
- Overwhelming stress over when and what your next meal will be.
- Anxiety if a meal or snack doesn’t go according to plan.
- Lack of mindful enjoyment while eating.
- An “all-or-nothing” mindset around food.
- Needing to avoid social situations and experiences when access to “allowed” foods is limited.
Throughout my time as a dancer with disordered eating, I always wondered why and how my habits around food went from “normal” to “disordered.” Though my intentions came from a good place (I just wanted to promote health and performance) my delivery quickly grew unsustainable and led me to burnout.
Why Am I Obsessed?
A preoccupation with food can start as early as childhood, especially when parental control around mealtimes is high. Any limitation, restriction, or condition placed upon food will ignite this preoccupation. Social media feeds, such as Instagram, have even been shown to increase one’s chances of developing disordered eating habits like orthorexia. (Quick note: orthorexia describes the obsession with healthy eating).
Food restrictions can be intentional, such as with dieting, or unintentional, such as with a busy schedule. Either way, under-fueling leads to over-thinking. This is also seen when we moralize food into categories like “good” and “bad.” A desire for perceived “bad” foods (which are often more indulgent, high-carb, and high-fat choices) builds from the mere idea that we “shouldn’t” be eating them.
under-fueling leads to over-thinking
Extreme preoccupation with food can also manifest into diagnosable eating disorders, such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, and Avoidance/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. To learn more about each, visit the National Eating Disorder Association’s website.
The bottom line: it’s human nature to want what we *think* we cannot have. Dieting imposes restrictions and impedes upon our ability to fuel intuitively (or, arguably, normally). Since our culture normalizes dieting, one can assume that much of the dance population lies on the spectrum of disordered/restrictive eating.
Gotcha… But What If I’m Addicted to [insert food here]
Addiction is defined as a “compulsive physiological need.” When one feels “addicted” to food, it’s often related to intense cravings around food. These cravings usually come alongside feelings of being out of control or compulsive when eating a specific food.
What Does The Research Say?
Food addiction research is in its infancy and anything done on humans is largely inconclusive. To date, there is no solid evidence that shows food as having a pharmacological effect on the brain, especially one that is comparable to drug use. And whatever research is out there is limited for several reasons:
1) There’s No formal Terminology
There is no formalized definition for the term “food addiction.” And while we can generally describe food addiction as compulsive eating, the lack of a consistent definition makes it difficult to compare the research to draw conclusions. For example, are we talking about a specific nutrient like sucrose (sugar) or perhaps a certain group of foods (like dessert)? This is just one of the many factors that make nutrition research so sticky. Here’s an article that talks more about what you should consider when comprehending nutrition research.
2) It doesn’t reflect human behavior
One popular study drew associations between sugar and addictive behaviors on rats. And while such research can spark interest, a study done on rats cannot draw conclusions in a manner that translates to human experience.
Also, these studies have yet to be replicated in humans and therefore cannot confidently conclude that sugar is “addictive” in humans. Using a blanket statement like “sugar is addictive” is more of a media scare tactic that increases consumer vulnerability to extremely restrictive eating behaviors (more on this below). Bottom line: sugar addiction rhetoric is both misleading and unhelpful.
3) There are Confounding Variables
In research, a confounding variable is an external factor that can influence the results of a study. In the study mentioned above, the researchers fail to acknowledge that the rats’ “addictive-like” behaviors followed intermittent access to sugar. In other words, limited access to a sugary feed resulted in the rats exhibiting binge-like behaviors. On the contrary, the rats that had unlimited access to a sugary feed did not exhibit any addictive-like behaviors.
Now consider this: over 75% of women have some degree of disordered eating or eating disorder. Even a mere history of restrictive eating or diet mentality can skew study results. This is why it’s difficult to study human-like behaviors around food addiction.
4) It disregards the cultural value of food
There is research that demonstrates similar neural pathways between food and drugs. Food promotes the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter associated with addictive behaviors (like drug use).
But food is meant to be rewarding. Eating is meant to induce pleasure. This is biological… it supports the continuation of our species. And in regards to neural pathways, the same goes for other pleasures in life like listening to music, visualizing smiling faces, and laughing. All of these experiences share a common ground: they’re perceived as enjoyable. This doesn’t mean that we’re addicted to them! Nor does it mean that we consider such behaviors to be pathological!
Here’s what we know: restriction and restraint create a heightened desire for food. Binge-like behaviors and overeating are more a product of food restriction, not food addiction. Any research demonstrating food addiction is extremely limited and most often depicts consequences of disordered and restricted eating. Even food addiction screening tools are unreliable and more strongly demonstrate food restriction (not food addiction). The more we prevent ourselves from eating a specific food or foods, the more likely we are to experience the Last Supper mentality or the “I’ve got to get this ALL in because starting tomorrow… I cannot eat it.”
How Do I Overcome Food Obession?
Detangling the research around food addiction and sugar addiction isn’t meant to invalidate any person’s experience around feelings of “over”-eating, food addiction, and/or disordered eating. But in my experience, categorizing food as “good” and “bad” is unhelpful. As mentioned earlier, diet culture utilizes the idea of “food addiction” as fear-based rhetoric to pray upon the most vulnerable populations. We are trained to believe that feeling addicted to food (or sugar) is a testament to failed willpower. But actually, these feelings are a direct result of the very diets we choose when striving for the unrealistic body- and performance- promises of diet culture. This is what fuels the cycle of restrictive and compulsive eating. And while this can truly feel like we’re addicted to food, realize that these feelings are less related to you or the food, and more related to food scarcity.
Food scarcity, or the lack of access to food (whether intentional or unintentional), creates an instance when it’s very valid to feel out-of-control around food. These feelings shouldn’t be diminished even as we dismantle the very idea of food addiction. But knowing that intermittent or limited access to food causes more addictive-like behaviors can help us better identify urges of compulsive eating.
Despite what diet culture wants you to believe, the problem isn’t you. It’s the guilt, shame, and burden of feeling limited around your food choices. With so many dancers struggling with disordered eating, it’s important to repair your relationship with food in order to stop the obsessive thoughts around them. The goal is to build body trust, end feelings of deprivation, and begin to feel liberated at mealtimes. Here’s how to start:
Step 1: Eat Enough Food Throughout The Day
Eating too few calories throughout the day will negatively impact your body’s metabolism and throw your hunger cues out of balance. First, you’ll want to know the signs of undereating in order to get a better sense of where you’re at with your calorie needs. This doesn’t mean I want you counting calories. Rather, I want you to learn how to regain your sense of intuitive energy balance. To do this, refer to the following articles:
Step 2: Practice Food Neutrality
Different foods hold different nutritional values. If comparing a brownie to a stalk of broccoli, the broccoli will be more nutritionally dense than the brownie. Broccoli contains a higher percentage of various vitamins and minerals.
But this doesn’t mean we are “bad” for choosing the brownie or “good” for choosing the broccoli. Food neutrality involves removing the judgment from food and removing the judgment around oneself for eating that food. Also, food holds MORE value than just nutrition. Taste, flavor, experience, and nostalgic memories also play a role in one’s food choices. To learn more about food neutrality, check out these articles:
Step 3: Eat With Unconditional Permission
This is a direct principle from Intuitive Eating. Eating with unconditional permission removes restrictive food rules from one’s life. When we break food rules, we create abundance with food, both physically and mentally. We adjust the rhetoric around our food choices (removing the “good” and “bad” talk) and begin to learn about our feelings of fullness and satisfaction. Slowly but surely, we step away from the diet mentality and loosen the reigns of diet culture.
Having access to food and giving oneself permission to eat said foods allows us to practice food habituation. From a general perspective, habituation is the adaptation to a repeated experience. When repeatedly exposed to a specific food, the desire to eat it diminishes. The food becomes less novel and even less satisfying over time. Let’s talk about cookies, as an example. Removing the “no way!” attitude around cookies doesn’t mean we’re opening the flood gates and encouraging you to eat all of them in one sitting. Rather, while eating cookies, build a mindful and positive experience that leaves you feeling good, not sick. Technically, you’re more than welcome to eat loads of cookies in one sitting, but your tummy is likely going to hurt afterward… that’s not a positive experience!
Food habituation is also not meant to take happiness away from a specific food. It’s just meant to reduce the heightened reward around any one type of food. And with that said, studies on food habituation show that it doesn’t work as well alongside distractions. Therefore, when reintroducing those “no way!” foods, try to do so using a mindful eating experience. I talk more about this process here.
Step 4: Build Body Confidence
While body acceptance might sound far-fetched, learning how to appreciate your body for its many capacities is sometimes enough. Refer to the following articles to dive into this work.
Step 5: Journal the Journey
Reflection breeds retention. Jot down your wins and your challenges. Take some time from your day (even if just 2 minutes!) to reflect upon any (or all!) of the steps mentioned in this article. Remember, you’re not alone. Comment below and get the conversation started!