With many kinds of addiction, people think of recovery as ongoing abstinence from the substance or behavior. If you have a problem with alcohol, being in recovery means not drinking anymore. If you’re recovering from a gambling addiction, it’s about giving up the online poker.
But we can’t give up food; we have to eat in order to survive. So what does it mean to recover from food addiction? Do you need to abstain from something—and if so, what? If you have to eat every day, how do you know you’re succeeding in recovery?
The answer lies in the fact that food addiction is never really about food. It’s about using eating (or not eating) as a way to deal with painful feelings. Recovery from food addiction means finding healthier ways to cope with emotions. It also means learning to be authentic to your true self, rather than living your life in response to judgment, whether that’s your own self-critical thoughts or the ways you fear other people are thinking about you.
To truly recover from food addiction, you move through five levels of healing. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what recovery means to you.
1. Stop dieting, and let go of rigid thinking about food.
When you focus on dieting, on food, or on your weight, you are not addressing the feelings that drive your addictive behaviors around food. That is why these things don’t make you feel better!
Recovery from food addiction does require a kind of abstinence, but not from eating. Instead, it means giving up your specific eating-addiction behaviors, such as eating impulsively, obsessing about food, or restricting your food intake.
Some approaches to food addiction recovery require abstinence from certain foods (flour and sugar, for example). This is a kind of restriction, which may not be healthy for everyone. It can be very difficult to maintain, and it can set you up for bingeing. Follow your own wise intuition. Experiment to see what works best for you.
2. Emerging from the emotional soup.
Food addiction behaviors like bingeing or obsessive calorie counting can serve—either consciously or unconsciously—as a distraction from emotions that you don’t know how to deal with. Recovering means coming to a deeper understanding of the issues at the root of those emotions and learning how to respond more effectively.
This level of recovery involves first learning to be more aware of your feelings that trigger overeating, then learning healthier, more effective ways to cope with them. You can do this with a therapist or a good self-help book.
3. Embracing the wisdom of body sensations.
You may feel your body is not your ally, but a stubborn enemy that you’re trying to beat in the game of weight loss. You may think that your body is an embarrassment, or that it is always throwing you a curve ball with random cravings, strange sensations, and baffling needs.
By reclaiming a connection with your body and learning its language, you will be able to use your body’s wisdom, which far supersedes anything your mind tells you, to help you heal. The mind is where your addiction lives; the body is where healing lives. Here again, a good therapist can be helpful. Many people also benefit from a mind-body practice like yoga or qigong.
4. Creating new core beliefs.
Our core beliefs determine how we see ourselves, other people, and the world. They are formed in childhood, or perhaps when you experience a traumatic or distressing event as an adult. Core beliefs usually have to do with primal needs such as safety, attention, love, and approval. “I am not safe” is a common one. So is “I have to be good to be loved.”
Once you form a core belief, you probably won’t be consciously aware of it, but it drive your behaviors –relating not just to food, but to many aspects of your life. With a therapist or an evidence-based self-help book, you can identify your core beliefs. Then you can decide if those beliefs are still useful to you, and if they’re not, you can let them go.
5. Finding soul satisfaction.
The suffering of food addiction comes from the difference between what your cravings and emotions are telling you to do and what you feel in your soul is authentic for you. Recovery from food addiction is very much about satisfying the true needs of your soul.
The key is to forgive yourself.
People find soul satisfaction through practices like meditation, being in nature, going to 12-step meetings, or attending religious services. These practices lift your spirits, give you a sense of awe, or simply make you feel good.
Now that you’ve learned about the five levels of healing, I invite you to write your own personal definition of abstinence and recovery.
What will you abstain from? What behaviors will you let go of?
How will you know when you are successful in your recovery?
Here’s how one woman defined abstinence: “I will eat three meals a day rather than skipping meals. I will no longer eat while distracted TV.” And here’s how she defined recovery: “I will notice my anger before I try to numb it with food. I will pay attention to how different foods make my body feel. I will let go of the belief that people are going to hurt me. I will keep going to 12-step meetings.”
Recovery from food addiction is a lifelong process. We don’t always move smoothly through the five levels, and relapses are normal. The key is to forgive yourself. When your life is driven by your soul’s true desires, not by using food to fill a bottomless void, you’ll know you have arrived. That is the path to true happiness and peace of mind.
Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH, is an internationally known author, speaker, expert, and pioneer in the use of integrative medicine for the treatment of eating disorders, obesity, and addictions. She is the author of The Food Addiction Recovery Workbook.