Bulimia & Food Addiction

Food addiction begins with physical craving, evolves into mental obsession, and, ultimately, becomes a whole life of spiritual illness. It is also a physical disease of chemical dependency upon one or more foods or on volumes of food in general.

Bulimia is a psychological illness, a mental-emotional problem usually rooted in unresolved trauma from before the earliest incident of purging.

It is fairly straight forward to know if you are bulimic. Do you binge and purge?

Do you keep doing this after you decided to stop? More specifically, do you physically vomit food that you have eaten when you are not sick? Or do you use pills, ipecac, laxatives or diuretics to try to take off weight? Or do you exercise excessively – sometimes to the point of hurting yourself – to try and control weight? Do you use highly restrictive dieting over and over again? These are the most common physical symptoms of bulimia. If you are not sure if you are bulimic, you can ask a doctor or eating disorder specialist for a diagnosis.

How does a bulimic know if they are food addicted? One simple indication is if they were obsessing about and/or bingeing out of control on commonly addictive foods before they started purging. The “food drug” to which people most often become addicted is sugar in one of its myriad forms. The second most common “food drug” is flour and other refined carbohydrates which metabolize quickly into simple sugars. Further addictive food substances may include: chocolate, excess fat, wheat, artificial sweeteners, salt, caffeine and a large volume of any food.

Sometimes addiction to volume is simply another form of sugar addiction, but there is also a separate process in which people do not have the normal bio-chemical sensation of satiation.

If someone was binge-eating before they became bulimic, it is usually clear that this is a primary mental-emotional complication of bulimia nervosa. But is this binge-eating due to psychological problems? Or is it the beginning of chemical dependency? Or is it both?

This is sometimes less easy to discern. One possible indication of food addiction is that there are symptoms of detoxification when specific binge foods are completely eliminated. If the person has food cravings soon after abstaining and wants to eat to deal with the cravings, this is an even stronger sign of addiction to that particular food.

Not all bulimics are food addicted, but, for the many who are, understanding and treating their chemical dependency on food is essential to long term recovery from bulimia. Abstinence and recovery helps develop better emotional skills and enables healing of primary trauma.

If you do not want to abstain from all binge foods completely, there is another way of seeing if you are food addicted. When you try to eat all foods in moderation and find that you still want to binge even when you work at dealing with underlying feelings, this could be because you are also chemically dependent on food. It will take some time to be sure about this, of course, for it can take months or years of intensive work to develop strong emotional skills and work through all unresolved trauma.

One test: have you been doing therapy for a year or more for your eating disorder and are you still bingeing and purging? If so, it might be useful to look more seriously at food addiction, because you may not just be medicating feelings; you may also be biochemically addicted.

To treat food addiction, it is important to begin by detoxifying from all binge foods and eliminate the physical cravings for them. This means abstaining from all trigger foods completely. You can identify the foods you are addicted to and get support for detoxification exactly like other food addicts, though the bulimic often commits to abstaining from purging as well as specific foods. The Twelve Step fellowships (such as Overeaters Anonymous and Food Addicts Anonymous) are excellent support programs for this process. ACORN workshops are designed to help those who need additional professional help.

We have a number of people working in ACORN who are bulimic and have spent a year – sometimes several years – in therapy for their eating disorders. These bulimics said that although they had been helped in dealing with their feelings, their eating was still out of control. Often their therapist had said that they “should” be able to eat in moderation or that the rigor of committing food to a sponsor every day and weighing and measuring was “too rigid.” However, when they tried treating themselves as if they were addicted, their cravings diminished. They were better able to deal with difficult feelings, and they came to see that they had a food addiction.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about food addiction – even in the medical community. It is not taught at all in many medical schools or graduate programs for dieticians and the differences between bulimia and food addiction are seldom clarified for counselors and therapists.

A question bulimics can ask themselves is: do I ever think of purging without bingeing first? If you always plan on bingeing – especially if the binge is on addictive foods – before you purge, then the primary problem may be the food, and the underlying problem may well be chemical dependency. Food addiction is a primary disease, just like addiction to alcohol or drugs. If someone is drinking out of control and depressed, the alcoholic must begin by putting down the drink and accepting that he or she is an alcoholic. If one is medicating feelings with pot or some prescription medication, the drug addict must first put down the drug. For most, there is usually much more emotional and spiritual work to do, but this is not possible while still self-medicating with an addictive substance. It is the same with food addiction.

One basic question helps you see the difference: would you suggest to an alcoholic or drug addict that they work on underlying therapeutic issues while they are still using alcohol, cocaine, or some other drug of choice? Well, some foods have exactly the same opiates as in these more socially identified addictive drugs.

The best way for you to tell if you are addicted to food is to treat yourself as if you are food addicted for six months to a year. First, look at your own eating experience and identify foods and eating behaviors to which you may be addicted. Second, get the support – from peers and or professionals – to eliminate those foods entirely and to make abstinence the number one priority in your life. Third, continue to work on any difficult feelings, irrational thoughts and deeper spiritual issues that pull you back to the food.

If you are able to stay abstinent – or, if you make substantial improvement in dealing with food – it’s likely that you are food addicted. If you are not, you are still making progress.

© Phil Werdell, M.A.

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