Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Recovering from Eating Disorders

Food addiction consists of two broad but distinct behaviors, compulsive overeating and the pathological complex of bulimia-anorexia. Both of these are driven by an unnatural identification of pleasure with the act of eating beyond the normal impulse to satiate hunger. The physical consequences of compulsive overeating are obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and sleep disorders. The psychological consequences can include depression, guilt, shame, poor self worth, isolation, and even suicidality.

There has been a great deal of scientific study in the field of eating disorders and food addiction, and the reader is advised to peruse them. This blog is a layman’s guide to addictive behaviors, and views addiction from the perspective of a basic understanding of the mind. This post attempts to explain the phenomenon of food addiction in simple and basic terms, largely from the standpoint of those faced with food addiction in themselves or in a loved one, or those dealing with the process of recovery from food addiction, again, either in themselves or in a loved one. It is not a substitute for professional treatment. As a recovering addict myself who has gone through professional treatment at various points in time, I would hesitate to recommend much of what is proffered as professional treatment, but that is another story altogether.

A balanced and adequate diet is a necessity of life, and needs to be viewed as something that sustains our body and our minds. In the case of a food addict, it becomes the object of love and worship, with the gratification that eating brings (through the release of reward neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins) occupying the highest place in the addicts value system. All other relationships take a lower place.

Once the pleasure generated by eating wears off, the food addict faces the reality of his or her situation, and either compensates by behaviors such as purging, or starving, or goes into a spiral of shame and depression that can only be relieved by indulging the eating behavior all over again. 

Therapeutic communities dealing with drugs and alcohol often experience food addiction as the most common substitute addiction that recovering people fall prey to. Given the fact that chronic drug or alcohol use typically leaves the addict in poor health from the lack of nutritional diet habits leads to “eating well” being encouraged. Rapid weight gain is often regarded as a sign of rapid recovery. As a result, most addicts leave such communities with a new and hidden addiction in place. When they realize this in the “mainstream” of the world outside, their unaddressed addictive behavior often leads them back to their drug of choice.

The first step in breaking a food addiction pattern is to place the act of nourishment and eating in perspective. Food is sustenance,as well as a ritual that celebrates transmission of life from one form to another. There is the experiential aspect of food, the pleasure associated with preparing and cooking food, the bonding aspect of eating together, and the spiritual aspect of thanking life for the food that we eat.  Once you are able to see that food is not something to be used to fill the void in your life that arises from low self esteem or misplaced expectations, we can stop abusing it and ourselves. 

For the food addict, beginning to eat in a normal, healthy and balanced manner is like learning a new and difficult language. The one good news is that a huge support system exists in your immediate surroundings that speaks this language. Eating in moderation and in a regulated manner is a habit that has to be acquired by the food addict. As with acquiring any new habit, repetition is the mother of all learning. If you do slip up, don't lose heart, pick yourself up, and start over again. The only thing worse than slipping up is slipping up and not getting back on your feet again.

Set yourself a time schedule and a menu plan, and determine not to eat outside of it. Ask your family and friends to help you by giving them permission to pull you up or point out if you slip up. This is important because it is likely that the food addict might have created very strong boundaries where people may be reluctant to point out their behavior for fear of hostility, emotional outbursts or other negative repercussions. Plan your menu keeping in mind your dietary requirements.

Drink a lot of water. This will help deal with your food cravings as well as restore the balance in your system. 

Start exercising. Begin with a level that you are comfortable with, every alternate day, and then build your regimen up as per your physical condition, age, and body weight.

Include some form of spiritual activity in your daily schedule. If you are a religious person, you may want to consult with your religious leaders to determine how you should develop your religious practice. 

If you are not inclined towards religion or organizational spirituality, set aside about half an hour in the morning after you rise and at night before you go to bed, and use this time to reflect on the lessons you have learned, the gifts you have received, and the changes that you can make to life (both your life and the lives of those around you) going forward using these lessons and gifts. You may want to look up common meditation practices that are not denominational in nature. Yoga and yogic breathing practices have been found to be extremely helpful. 

Keep a journal. Write down what is going on in your mind as you take on each day in your journey. There will be a lot of stuff going on in your mind and in your subconscious as you start changing your life. Keep a record of them. Some day, when your new way of living has become natural to you, looking back on these notes will give you great motivation, strength and encouragement and help you make further positive changes in other areas of your life.


Celebrate and share your victories. Let people who are close to you know about your determinations, your achievements and your landmarks as go forward on the journey of recovery from food addiction. Leave a comment on this blog to let others know about your determination, your struggle, and your progress.

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