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Hi, my name is Emily, and I’m a food addict.

Written by Emily Hartmann MD

September 3, 2020

I love food. I’ve loved it for my entire life and it represents all the joyful moments. It probably stems back to the early years, nestled in my mom’s arms feeling so warm and safe. Growing up, food was our entire reason for having family gatherings. We sat around a dinner table, piled high with our traditional favorites. Every vacation we took revolved around the restaurants. Every celebration was all about the food and that’s the magic of it in our culture. Food is the glue that holds our culture together and has so many positive associations with joy and celebration. Nothing signifies the BEST DAY EVER like a trip to the local ice cream shop.
So what do we do when this celebratory act becomes an addiction?
Here’s where my relationship with food strays off the “positive-connotation” path. Looking back since medical school, by age 10 I met criteria for childhood depression. I suffered from frequent “stomach aches” that my pediatrician couldn’t figure out, missed school often, and experienced so much anxiety around my peers. Food was a way to numb whatever pain I was experiencing on the inside and I couldn’t control my hunger.
At a young age I remember most meals leaving me feeling uncomfortably full. That was the only way I knew to stop eating was feeling like my stomach might burst. The beautiful design of my body’s natural fullness signals were suppressed by my need to self-sooth with food. Now in my older years I still struggle to read my own signals and I have to really work on not inhaling my entire meal without tasting it. I’m now a full-fledged sugar and processed foods addict (recovering mostly, but still an addict at the end of the day). It doesn’t matter how hard I try to cut back, if I’m eating them, they are controlling my thoughts entirely. For me it’s an all or nothing relationship. When I’m feeling in control of my food, and avoiding the things that I’m addicted to, I feel free. When I slowly let it creep back into my life I feel chained to those thoughts and weak on the inside. It’s all very self-destructive behavior for sure. Like it or not, I’m an addict. Once I realized this my entire perspective changed.
Oddly enough I have the same relationship with drinking alcohol. Early on I used it to make social events more tolerable and clung to my glass/cup like a lifeline. I have no ability to feel when it’s time to stop drinking. I never had a problem with alcohol (thankfully I’m such a light weight that I pass out before I drink more) but I just really couldn’t get a handle on it. I cannot just sip a glass with dinner. It always turns into 2 or 3 glasses which leads to major trouble for me the next day. The emotional ramifications just aren’t worth it for me.
It’s time to re-invent our relationship with food. For me it’s like being an addict of a substance. No matter how much I think I can have just one bite and be satisfied, it’s not possible. If I had just one little piece of chocolate pretty soon the entire bag would be gone and I’d be driving to the store for another.
Put both feet on the ground and focus on these words:
It’s not your fault
You’re doing the best you can
Food is not evil
You’re inner child needs love, not food
I’ve recently seen the effects of quitting both processed sugar and alcohol (wowza). I sleep better, my mood is more stable (read less crazy), and I lost 20 lbs. One book that I highly suggest for people with a similar sugar addiction is Bright Line Eating by Susan Pierce Thompson PhD. Her principles and scientific approach helped guide my way to recovery. I cannot recommend her book enough to people who struggle with food addiction.
OK so now that I’ve found a life in recovery from my food addiction, how do I strike a balance with reality. I used to be deathly afraid of that awkward moment at the dinner table when you aren’t eating what’s on the table. Whether it’s friends or family…. they cannot help but say something or worry about you. Some are supportive but let’s face it, they’re probably struggling too and misery loves company. It seems that when you are making a stand to change your habits, people inherently feel threatened and judged just simply by you acting in your own best interest. People can be pretty shitty when it comes down to defensiveness around their own demons. DON’T LET THEIR CRAZY IN!!!! Change the narrative. Be your own advocate. Better yet just change the subject and move on! The less of a deal we can make of it the easier it will be to carry through social situations.
My daily principles are just like managing an addiction. Abstinence is the only way for me in terms of sugar and processed foods. I focus on whole nutrition with food that is as close to the way it came out of the ground or off the tree as possible. You may chose to eat meat or daily but find high quality products you trust and are organic. That’s it. No sugar, no processed foods, no flour. It might seem impossible but the more you avoid the less your brain will crave it. It’s all about resetting your taste buds and brain reward system. With each day it will get easier.
Changes I’ve made to find balance:
Dinner with friends –> Walk in the park
Birthday celebration–> Eat fruit instead of cake
Movie theater popcorn and soda –> Bring home made popcorn and canned bubbly water
Random meals during week –> Meal prep on Sundays and bring food every day
Social gathering around food –> Focus on socializing and helping in the kitchen to keep busy
I want you to know that if you struggle with food addiction you are not alone. It’s a mental game and requires daily vigilance. You will have setbacks and triumphs. What is so important is that you listen to your body. When I implemented a morning routine of meditation it allowed me to hear my inner voice. Your body is sending out signals to let you know what it needs we just have to be brave enough to listen. I’m definitely not perfect so please find comfort in knowing perfection is an illusion.
I’m here to tell you your story is what makes you interesting…scars and all. Our scars make us beautiful, as they say, so embrace your imperfections.
My heart is leaping for you to face your struggles head on. My inner child is sending your inner child a huge virtual hug!
Lots of love!
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