The Basics of Food Addiction

Photo via Visual Hunt

Back when I first started to look at a healthier way of eating, it also happened to be around the time when I transferred to a new department in the hospital and to a different shift.  My new coworkers came to view me as someone who ate liquidy homemade raw goat’s milk yogurt, refused gluten and mainly avoided potlucks: I earned a reputation for being “crunchy granola”.  If they see me grab some junk food, they’re usually the first to comment that I either must be having a rough night or that I’ll regret that tomorrow.

Go back a few years to my coworkers of the prior department: they have no idea that I’m a healthy eater.  They knew that my boys were on a special diet, but definitely not me.  Go even further back: people who knew me as a teenager/young adult (or who are my mother) can testify that I’m a junk food addict.  When I got a car and a job and a busy lifestyle, my lunch usually consisted of an Oreo McFlurry.  My first job was at a bakery.  The samples that I put out for customers also usually happened to be my favorite sweets (I miss you, dear macadamia nut cookies).  When I became an RN and started to eat “healthier”, I usually got a “balanced” lunch consisting of ice cream with a side salad.

This type of diet stemmed from years of preferring carbs, pastas and sweets over any other kind of food.  As a teenager, I tried different diets as did many of my peers.  I remember doing Weight Watcher programs with my mom and counting calories and “points” … but most of my points consisted of junk food.  For a while, I struggled with binging, eating hundreds to thousands of calories of sweets in a sitting.  For a moment while I ate, I felt a sense of calm and a good overall feeling; sad feelings went away.  And then I felt ill, felt the need to get sick or exercise, and very guilty for doing it.  After the sugar crash, I found I craved sweets and the need to do it again, despite knowing deep down that I would feel sick again.

When you are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or another stimulant, the first step to recovery is realizing that you have a problem, that you have an addiction.  Then you can begin taking steps toward recovery.  Recovering from an addiction is a lengthy and difficult process.  Many succeed, but there are also those who relapse or who never recover.

A food addiction has its own unique challenges: one definitive difficulty is that with every other addiction, you can remove the addictive substance from your life completely and avoid it like the plague.  Smoking? Get rid of cigarettes.  Avoid places where people smoke.  Keep your hands busy.  Fill the void where you used to smoke.  Difficult?  You bet.

But with food addiction, the problem is that you can’t completely remove the addictive substance.  That’s called starvation.  You cannot avoid food.  And even when you switch to a healthier way of eating and try to avoid sweets and sugary foods that previously caused cravings, or you avoid caffeine or other stimulants, often you will find that even when eating healthy there will be different “trigger” foods, not wrong in themselves, but that cause cravings to resurface.

My oldest son was the first to start following a special diet.  When he was diagnosed with autism at age 2 1/2, we immediately implemented a gluten and dairy free diet the next day.  This brought HUGE changes for him.  I felt like diet was very important to his healing, but there were still several things that I missed at this stage.  For one, his diet still consisted of a large amount of starchy carbs; also, he ate 8 large bunches of bananas a week.  I used to joke that he was my little monkey (not so funny now!)  Also, I did not change my eating habits.  I was still very much in denial that I had any issues whatsoever, despite being addicted to carbs and sugars and having frequent stomach trouble.

My second son, who had bad eczema and terrible constipation, was the next one for dietary intervention.  When he was about 18 months old, I realized that he drank bottles and bottles of milk a day (we actually had a lot of difficulty weaning him from his bottle) and he had classic signs of food intolerance with bright red cheeks and ears (plus the obvious milk “addiction” and constipation).  After we removed dairy (which was his main intolerance), a myriad of other intolerances surfaced, and he ended up needing to avoid gluten, all nuts and coconut, and several gluten free grains.  Our diet, however, continued to be high carb and high sugar, and at one point, this poor little guy was developing a new food intolerance every 2 weeks.  He was down to a handful of foods that he could tolerate without diarrhea, hives, rash, eczema or stomach pain.  But, as he so sweetly put it, “Mommy, I can still have bananas!”

It was around this time that I finally decided to go gluten and dairy free along with the boys.  I experienced a lot of relief in many symptoms that I had for most of my life, but I also found that I didn’t tolerate the starchy gluten free products very well.  And although eating gluten and dairy free made me feel so much better, I continued to struggle with “cheating” on my diet.  However, now I found that every time I cheated, the symptoms were more intense.  And I began to correlate symptoms of anxiety and depression with dairy and gluten, particularly gluten.

This was surprising for me, because I had never felt that I had any kind of depression or anxiety in the past (besides having severe postpartum depression — this will be the topic of another post).  However, as I look back over my childhood, teen years, and as an adult, I could see a pattern that I hadn’t realized before.  When I felt bad, I used food to make me feel better.  Why do we eat sugar and carbs and legal addictive stimulants (a.k.a. caffeine and chocolate)?  Because they boost endorphins.  They make us feel better.  However, after the boost, we tend to crash afterwards, leading to a cycle of needing that next caffeine pick-me-up or chocolate fix.

At my GAPS Practitioner training, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride explained some of the reasoning behind why persons with gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut flora: too many “bad guys” and not enough “good guys”) tend to have addictive personalities (be it to food or legal/illegal substances).  I will briefly explain that here:

Most people have heard of chemicals in our brain called endorphins; these are what give us the feeling of happiness, of “being on top of the world”.  Exercise releases endorphins.  Laughing, good food, pleasure … all of these release endorphins.  Even a laboring woman’s body releases endorphins to help her cope with the pain of labor.  Also, the body manufactures the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.  These chemicals promote a feeling of well-being and happiness.

When you are depressed and the doctor prescribes an antidepressant, it is usually one that affects serotonin in your body.  Why?  Because medical science realizes that serotonin is responsible for happiness and a feeling of well-being.  What most people don’t realize, though, is that 85-90% of the serotonin in your body is manufactured IN YOUR GUT.  If you don’t have a healthy balance of good flora and opportunistic flora in your gut, you will likely have low levels of serotonin.

Often, adults with gut dysbiosis also had gut dysbiosis as children.  Although they may have seemed to be coping and generally happy, they often did not receive normal amounts of serotonin and other “feel-good” neurotransmitters, chemicals, and hormones.  Hence, when they try an addictive substance for the first time and experience a “high” that they’ve never felt before, they often seek to repeat this.  This may be one of the reasons why children with ADHD/ADD have a higher rate of addictions as adults.  Children with ADHD/ADD often have gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance of intestinal microbes.  Also, individuals with eating disorders who binge frequently are also trying to experience this high and this feeling of well-being that they don’t generally experience otherwise.

When we begin to repair the gut and restore good bacteria, often these cravings begin to dissipate and the mood begins to improve.  I experienced the most healing on the GAPS diet, to where I was able to feel good after having carrot juice in the morning and have much more energy than even my usual 3 to 6 cups of coffee would provide.  Also, I noticed that I didn’t have the usual “highs” and “lows” throughout the day: a big burst of energy followed by a crash.  Following the GAPS diet kept my energy and mood levels even.  I didn’t feel anxious when in a tense situation anymore.  I felt more social, more capable, happier … and did I mention more energy?

So, with all the benefits I’ve experienced from following the GAPS diet, I have finally overcome my addiction to sweets, right?

Herein lies the problem: nothing is that simple.

As I mentioned before, there are certain things that can trigger cravings in a person, despite a healthy diet.  With time, these cravings lessen in frequency and intensity until they happen very rarely.  But when you give in to the cravings, it often resets your body; the “bad bugs” (who are now fewer in number but still have members hiding in your gut, waiting for their opportunity) take quick advantage of the situation, and after a few “cheats” you find that the cravings are back … and they might be stronger than ever.  If you follow the GAPS diet as directed for several months to a couple years, you often find that you can occasionally “cheat” without any side effects, as the gut wall has healed to a considerable degree.  I have yet to reach that stage of healing.

Something that I found that sets me back on my diet is working the night shift.  I can take a week off of work, strictly follow my diet, and I feel GREAT.  I can go several months with no difficulty (or minimal cravings).  However, there will come that stretch, when work is busy and stressful, and I go several days on very little sleep, when my body rebels against me.  You see, food is not the only thing that feeds pathogens.  Stress hormones (like cortisol) also raise sugar levels in the body.  The bad guys like this.

And then, when the gut flora is no longer in balance, your thinking starts to change to: “Who cares anyway?” because you’re tired, you need a pick-me-up, it’s only one, I’ll start again tomorrow, at least it doesn’t contain gluten, hey it’s still organic creamer that I put in my fourth cup of coffee … and one leads to the next, to the next, to the next … until you’ve eaten an entire box of cinnamon pop-tarts (which were organic, by the way!!!), drank a pumpkin spice latte (won’t say where that was from), ate dozens of pieces of chocolate or whatever gummy candy was on the table at work … and you skip meals because you’re not “hungry”, you feel bloated, down, tired, sick, and miserable.   You even get a gallbladder attack.

Oh, but that pumpkin spice latte was heavenly while it lasted.

Or was it?  When we eat things that we know are bad for us, what kind of process is at work?

I’ve talked in previous articles about how there are more microbes in our body than there are “us” cells.  So often, the foods we eat and the foods we crave are directly related to who is talking to our body: the microbes that the food is feeding.  When we eat healthy and crave healthy food, we likely have a good balance and plenty of “good guys” in our gut.  When we crave junk and sugar and caffeine, guess who’s really talking?  And when we feed them, they continue to multiply and demand more, leading to more and more cravings.  As we continue to eat toxic foods and substances, often these toxins (which are usually fat soluble) are stored IN fat.  This can make us fat, affect our brain (which is fat), our hormones (made from fat), our liver (detoxifies the body), and so on.  At the very least, we have toxic byproducts from the metabolism of these foods by the “bad guys” floating around our body, which make us feel ill, lethargic and bloated.

The energy boost that we get from eating well, while it doesn’t come as instantly as the boost we get from eating a candy bar, does come with a pattern of healthy eating.  It is longer lasting and provides a much better overall boost.  You will find that you’ve “felt better than you have in years” and have wonderful mental clarity.

So, when out of habit you want to drive through and get an ice cream cone when you’re out shopping, or you reach for that piece of chocolate sitting on the table in the break room, stop and think: IS IT REALLY WORTH IT?  Is it worth all the energy that you’re going to give up for it, the stomach pain, the bloating, the depression and anxiety, the cycle of food cravings that it will set off?  Because it’s not really as tasty as you think it is.  There are so many healthy foods that have more flavor, and they will nourish your body and your mind.  They will help you to heal so that one day, you can tolerate a little bit of “cheating” here and there.

Don’t just say: I’ll start again tomorrow.  Better to say: Why should I end it today?  Why break the pattern of healthy eating that I’ve established?   Why do I feel like I need to hurt myself?

Instead, realize that you and your health are worth it!  Do something nice for yourself!  Be proud that you resisted … break the cycle of food addiction.



I’ll start again tomorrow :/

~ Alicia 🙂




2 Replies to “The Basics of Food Addiction”

  1. Oh, this hits home. Especially this time of year, when the sun goes away and it gets cold outside. I appreciate your unflinching take on the issues of “eating your feelings” or the binge-loathe-exercise or binge-loathe-vomit cycle that grips so many. Even those of us who know better, don’t always act better. And it is so difficult, because we still need to eat in order to live. 😦
    I’m trying hard to use mindfulness as a tool, so that in the moment, I can take a step back and think about why I need that Pumpkin Spice Chai or mulled wine. And whether I listen to the part of my brain yelling “Seize the day!” or I listen to the part of my brain that says, “This will make you feel terrible tomorrow,” I’m slowly getting a line of communication going between myself and my body. Hopefully, someday the feedback will be consistently positive and healthful.


    1. I think a lot of us (women) struggle with this same issue. And it’s not something that people often talk about or admit. I think the hardest part of it is trying to find something that makes us feel good without hurting our bodies. And a lot of this stems down to how we feel about ourselves and that WE’RE WORTH IT! and we don’t need food to make us feel good about ourselves (even for that brief moment before we feel lousy). It’s all emotional, really 🙂
      P.S. The winter months are hard for me, too. Usually this time of the year is OK, but by February, I’m done. Last year was terrible. I’d like to try essential oils this winter to see if that helps with the low moods at all. I’ve also heard that there are certain oils that can help with sugar cravings and other addictions. I’m excited to see how this winter goes 🙂


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