How to Beat Food Addictions
Post written by Leo Babauta.
Food addictions are a major problem for many people who want to get healthy but can’t seem to overcome their addiction.
How do you conquer this problem?
Beating addictions isn’t easy, and I wouldn’t recommend starting with such a tough task. A better approach is to learn to create small, positive habits, and tackle addictions only after you’ve gained the skills and confidence that come from learning to form habits.
That said, beating addictions isn’t at all impossible. I was addicted to junk food, and regularly ate fast food, chips, sweets, fried food of all kinds. These days I still have some of that kind of food, but much more rarely — I kicked the addiction, but I did it slowly and in stages.
I’ll show you how I did that, but first, let’s look at what an addiction is and how it works.
The Anatomy of an Addiction
What makes something an addiction, rather than something you just like?
An addiction is something you keep doing even though it has destructive effects on you. The habit has tied into your brain’s reward mechanism, through positive reinforcement, so that you feel the need to keep doing the habit even when you know you should stop.
An example might be someone who smokes even though it’s making him sick, or someone who shops even when she’s deeply in debt. Food addictions are common, ranging from a minor addiction to coffee to a major addiction that might cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease and more.
How do we get addicted to food? It starts out simply — you might eat something because it’s tasty and makes you feel good. And then when you are feeling down or stressed out perhaps, you turn to the food to feel better (it’s already proven itself to give you some pleasure). Next time the bad feeling comes up, you do it again, because last time you did feel better after eating the food. Through repetition, each time you get the bad feeling, you start to get a strong urge to eat the food — so strong, you can’t resist, even if you’re on a diet.
This can happen with a bunch of negative feelings — stress, loneliness, boredom, sadness, anger, mourning a loss, the discomfort of travel, the discomfort of awkward social situations, and so on. Each of these might be tied to one type of food, or several.
And so when we try to stick to a healthier diet, it breaks down each time one of these negative emotions comes up and the addiction kicks in. We can’t help ourselves.
Beating an Addiction
The method I’m going to describe here is what has worked for me — it isn’t a fix-all that will work for every single person’s addiction. I’ve seen it work for others, but I don’t offer any guarantees.
- Mindfulness. One of the reasons I created The Mindful Diet is that it starts with what has been a foundation for change for me. You can’t beat an addiction if you don’t know you have it, nor if you’re unaware of the triggers you have. You have to be aware that loneliness is causing you to turn to ice cream, for example, or stress makes you drink Starbucks lattes. The way to get this awareness is through the habit of mindful eating — the first habit of this course.
- Coping with the trigger. Often we justify our addictions by saying that we need them to cope. We need coffee to get us through the day. We need cigarettes because we’re going through a tough time. But it’s not true. There are healthy ways to cope with bad situations and emotions. We can exercise, meditate, talk to a friend, take a bath, get a massage, drink green tea, breathe, go for a walk. So we need to let go of using the trigger as a justification for the habit, and find ways to cope with the trigger in healthier ways.
- Clear out the addiction from your environment. If you’re addicted to sweets, get them out of the house and anywhere else you might eat, at least for now. If you live with others, ask them if they can support you by having it out of the house or office for a little while. Sometimes it’s not possible to clear the sweets (or chips or whatever you’re addicted to) out of your environment, due to other people, but you should try your best as it is much, much better if you can.
- Practice the healthy coping habit instead of the addiction. Be very mindful of when your trigger happens, and when it does, make a very deliberate effort to do your new coping habit every single time, instead of your addiction. Focus not on how hard it is, but on how much you enjoy the new coping habit. Try to look at this as a positive thing instead of a sacrifice.
- Learn to breathe through the urges. This was a really important step for me. The urges to do your addiction will inevitably happen, but the trick is to pause, and realize you don’t need to give in to it. The urge will arise, get stronger, then crest and fade away. This will repeat a number of times each day, but you can breathe, and do something else, and let the urge rise and pass. One urge at a time, and soon the urges will get weaker and weaker.
- Get some social support. It’s possible to beat an addiction by yourself, but it’s much easier with help. Ask your spouse or friend to be your support partner, get people online to keep you accountable, ask for help in an online forum related to your addiction.
These were the steps that worked for me. It took a lot of mindfulness, a lot of positive thinking, a lot of breathing through urges, but in the end, I’ve quit my share of food addictions. You might think you can’t kick the addiction, but so did I, and I did it. So have many others. Give it a shot. You’ll amaze yourself.