By Megan Krause

It turns out that rats, like a lot of people, dig cheesecake.

And bacon. And chocolate.

In fact, given access to a number of yummy and high-fat foods, rats will gorge themselves in the same way that animals hooked on heroin or cocaine do. And they struggle to quit, even when they experience negative consequences as a result of their behavior (in this case, electric shocks).

They also come to depend on higher quantities of junk food to feel good. In other words, they need more and more to get the same effect.

That’s gotta sound familiar, no?

Many of us in recovery struggle with food addiction. Maybe we’ve always had an issue with food, or maybe we “switched addictions” after we got sober. The result is the same, though: Unhealthy eating, a cycle of shame and guilt, and a feeling of powerlessness.

We swear we’re going to do better, but… we often can’t stick with our resolve.

(That definitely sounds familiar.)

The neuroscience of addiction

food addiction

Food acts on the brain in the same way that alcohol and drugs do. Eating (especially foods high in sugar, salt and/or fat) triggers the release of dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical, and food becomes the means by which we get an internal chemical reward. It’s our quick fix.

Next time we don’t feel good, we’re more likely to turn to what worked last time. The more we overeat, the more we alter our brain’s reward circuitry, and the cycle of addiction begins.

Of course, we used to accomplish this quick pleasure fix with substances. But when we sober up, we don’t do that anymore. And food seems fairly innocuous at first—I mean, at least we’re not smoking dope, right?

But for many of us, as we progress in recovery, it becomes less acceptable to indulge in out-of-control behaviors. But here’s the kicker:

You can abstain from drugs and booze, but you can’t abstain from food.

And so the quest to make peace with food begins.

Discussing food addiction

Felicia. “My first addiction was codependency and then food. Then shopping. Then alcohol. Then exercise. Then drugs,” says Felicia Van Deman, a recovered addict from Phoenix. “In my teens, I had bulimia and a poor body image. I still struggle with food. I have to make nutrition a priority, because I have a serious sweet and carb tooth. I am a stress eater. I eat when I’m upset.”

Nathan. “After the process of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction had begun, there were only a few things left that really affected the pleasure center in my brain,” says recovered addict Nathan Cilley. “Unfortunately, food is one of those—and therefore, I abuse it, just like anything else that brings me pleasure. It’s taken quite a few years to get a grip on that. I’m still working on it every day.”

Nora. “After my son died, my overeating was out of control,” says recovered alcoholic Nora Hutchings. “It started with the food my son loved— homemade chocolate chip cookies, Christmas cookies, cream puffs, frybread. I’d eat until I was gorged, and then I wanted to throw up. I saw myself go from 120 to 165 pounds. I felt hopeless.”

Stefani. “In my first few months of sobriety, I became obsessed with the number on the scale,” says Stefani, a recovered addict from Pennsylvania. “I would minimize my food intake and engage in behaviors that I knew would affect my health. It was the only thing I felt I had control over.”

If you identify with any of the above and want to get healthy, we have some tips to get you on your way.

Food addiction

10 tips to overcome food addiction

1. Seek counseling

Have you made several unsuccessful attempts to control your eating? Are you preoccupied with thoughts of food, and do you continue to overeat despite negative consequences? It might be time to get professional help. Call your health care provider to find a qualified counselor who can help.

Stefani attended intensive outpatient treatment to deal with her food addiction. “I learned new coping skills and positive behaviors,” she says. “I learned to love myself and my body, regardless of what my head is telling me, because I know it is part of the disease.”

2. Work the steps on food

“I 12-stepped my food addiction like everything else in my life,” says recovered addict Jeremy McAuley. Jesse Valiente did the same thing: “I was just as powerless over the food as the drugs and alcohol,” Jesse says. “I had to apply that same process and not surprisingly, it’s working.”

There are 12-step fellowships for food addiction, including:

3. Pray & meditate

“When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.” – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 64.

Many addicts seek help from their Higher Powers, in the same way that they sought help for their substance abuse. “I pray and meditate three times a day, at least,” Felicia says. “I aim to have a well-rounded spiritual life.”

4. Make a food plan

Having a written plan of healthy foods you can enjoy in proper portions increases the likelihood that you will stick with it. Use a tool like My Diet Meal Plan for help. Don’t forget to include lots of water on your plan.

5. Journal

This is different from your food plan, but it can be kept in the same notebook, if you wish. Keep a journal to track how stress and other negative moods affect your eating. Write down what you eat and the feelings you had throughout the day.

6. Exercise

Exercise helps you lose weight, of course, but it also reduces stress and food cravings. Plus it just makes you feel better about yourself. Start slow if you have to.

“Exercising, especially in the morning, really makes a difference in my daily strength,” says recovered addict Jules Champion. “It sets the tone for the day. I find I don’t want to mess up if I began my day with exercise.”

7. Surround yourself with supportive people

Get yourself a team of like-minded cheerleaders. “I found a support team full of health-driven people, people who are focused and heading the same direction as I am,” Jules says. “When I find myself getting off track, I reach out and ask for help.”

8. Read

Popular books on overcoming food addiction include:

  • “It Was Me All Along” by Andie Mitchell
  • “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease” by Robert H. Lustig
  • “Shades of Hope: A Program to Stop Dieting and Start Living” by Tennie McCarty
  • “Overcoming Binge Eating” by Christopher G. Fairburn
  • “Why Can’t I Stop Eating: Recognizing, Understanding, and Overcoming Food Addiction” by Debbie Danowski

9. Make a vision board

A vision board is an intention-setting tool that helps you focus on a specific life goal. Christie Inge created her first vision board to help heal her emotional eating issues. She explains how to do it on her site.

10. Find your groove

Nora combined elements of most of the above to help her cope with her food addiction. “For starters, I sought grief counseling,” she says. “And I’m honest with others about my eating problem. I exercise, make a meal plan that includes all the basic food groups and I practice portion control. All I drink is water.”

When Jules hits a rough patch of road, she calls her mentor, who helps her dissect the emotional issue or resentment attached to the unhealthy eating behavior. “Then we brainstorm ideas to help me next time I get in a similar spot.

“It’s just like recovery in the rooms. Same program. Different addiction. And of course,  I hit my knees at the end of the night and thank my Higher Power for the day.”