I’ve never been underweight, overweight or undertaken a calorie-restricting diet. I’ve certainly never had a diagnosed eating disorder. Ask any of my friends and family and they’d probably tell you that I’m a normal girl with a healthy appetite.
It’s the story the media likes to tell. If you’re thin and starving yourself, you have a problem. If you’re fat and eating too much, you have a problem. But if you’re an average weight and eating in a sporadic, unintuitive and mood-dependent way? Perfect! You’re living your best life by enjoying all the good food the world has to offer. Go eat those cakes, because life is too short!
It’s a convenient narrative for Big Food.
Yet the older I get, and the better I’ve become at doing this thing called ‘eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full’, the more I look at my past eating habits with alarm.
I’d binge on anything and everything when I knew nobody could see me. I’d think about food constantly every day. When I couldn’t be in control of my eating, it caused me a lot of stress. My life revolved around food. I was addicted.
Is Food Addiction a Real Thing?
Some popular studies have shown that sugar could be more addictive than hard drugs for animals, and suggested that the same may well be true for humans. Yet the consensus is far from unanimous.
According to Psychology Today, a case can be made for behavioural addiction but not physiological dependency — this suggests food has more in common with gambling than cocaine. They argue that it can be harmful to use the term ‘addiction’ when it comes to food; it implies we need to restrict ourselves to overcome this addiction, yet the very act of restriction makes matters worse:
“Increased dietary restraint and avoidance of forbidden foods do increase binge incidence — and it is this intermittent gorging that appears to create the addiction like process.”
I’ve seen this vicious cycle play out in my own life.
Another theory is that it all comes down to the gut. 90% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut, so eating what our gut wants us to eat feels really good. If we don’t eat it, toxins which make us unhappy are released. It’s easy to see that this can quickly start to look a lot like an addiction once highly processed and chemically-laden foods destroy our body’s natural equilibrium.
The takeaway? It’s never as simple as willpower.
For Me, it Started when I Gained Some Independence
When I was a child, I ate when and what my mother told me to. This meant three meals a day, snacking on a maximum of three biscuits and enjoying soda only on special occasions.
But then I started having sleepovers with my friends. We’d stay up all night watching films, gossipping and consuming terrifying quantities of sugar. Suddenly there were no rules or limits on what I could eat, and I just couldn’t stop myself. Processed foods started to become an important part of my social life and my life in general.
There’s nothing wrong with eating some unhealthy snacks with your friends from time to time. But in my case, it was one-too-many of these ‘harmless’ sessions that took my gut into a state of imbalance. Before I knew it, I was thinking about food — especially sugary food — all the time.
Then Came the Binging
At first, I associated unhealthy eating sessions solely with socializing. I wouldn’t sit and eat a whole packet of chocolate biscuits when I was at home doing nothing.
I was reluctant to stuff my face with junk food in front of my family due to the implicit ‘rules’ that I’d followed as a child; there was a part of me who would have felt ashamed. Then, one day, I was home alone. I realized that I could just take something from the cupboard and eat it without anybody finding out.
So I did.
This soon became a ritual of mine. As soon as everyone else was out of the house, I’d raid the cupboards. It was never about hunger, just a compulsion to eat.
By convincing myself that it was ‘forbidden’ to snack like this in front of my parents — even though in reality they wouldn’t have batted their eyelids — I was fuelling the addiction-like process.
Moving Out Made me Long For Rules Again
When I went to college, I moved into self-catering halls. That meant I could eat whatever and whenever I wanted; convincing myself that I needed to follow certain rules for the sake of my parents was no longer going to work. Things spiralled out of control; I’d go shopping, buy some snacks, and then eat them all in one sitting until I felt sick.
I felt like a dangerous beast who, left untamed, would never be able to stop eating. I needed boundaries in my life. I needed to eat healthily.
I’d heard of the Paleo way of eating: cutting out all processed foods, grains, and legumes. A friend joined me, and we started the new diet straightaway.
Cutting out multiple food groups overnight is a bad idea; I was hungry all the time and my bowel movements went crazy. I was generally successful in following a Paleo way of eating, and as a result, I was eating healthier. Yet I’d neglected the root causes of my problem: my gut imbalance and dangerous psychological patterns
My obsession with food continued. It was just that, instead of bingeing on cakes and chocolate bars, I binged on 90% dark chocolate and fruit. Lots and lots of fruit. To most people, the idea of eating ‘too much fruit’ sounds ridiculous — but if you’ve ever given up artificial sugar only to find yourself consuming a whole packet of pears and 200g of blueberries in one sitting, you’ll understand that it’s no laughing matter.
My psychological patterns only got worse, because so many categories of food were now ‘forbidden’. I’d never been a big fan of legumes, but once they were banned from my diet, they suddenly became alluring. One day I found myself in the kitchen at midnight eating a can of red kidney beans I’d found in my cupboard.
Over the next year, I found myself going through a series of ‘clean eating’ phases and relapses. Building up habits and routines around healthy eating definitely helped me, but whenever a social occasion arose in which I couldn’t avoid eating forbidden foods, the untamed beast returned. Once I started, I couldn’t stop; I’d finish the day feeling bloated and sad.
One Day I Just Stopped Thinking About Food
I was paleo for about six months; I realized it was unsustainable. Then I gave up sugar; it was unrealistic to do permanently. I also tried intermittent fasting; it was too inconvenient.
From the ages of 18–20, my life was a series of attempts to eat healthily followed by dramatic relapses.
But when I went on my study abroad year to Mexico, I resolved that I would eat whatever I wanted. I wish I could say that, as if by magic, that was that and my problems disappeared — but the reality was that I just seemed to revert to old ways. I was eating out every other day (it was barely more expensive than cooking at home), indulging in sugary snacks most evenings, and cheese and tacos became my staple items. I gained around ten kilograms.
It was when I came home that the magic happened.
In my final few weeks in Mexico, I’d been ‘making the most’ of being able to eat all the food available to me. By the time I’d returned to the UK, I simply couldn’t stomach any more fatty or sugary foods; I just wanted rice and vegetables. So that was all I ate for most of the summer. Not because I was following some new eating regime, not because I was restricting myself, and not even because I wanted to be healthy. I was just tired of eating like rubbish and feeling like rubbish.
These days, I eat whatever and whenever I want without a second thought, and for the most part, I don’t think about food unless I’m hungry. I eat two or three times a day, I don’t tend to snack outside of that and, although I do enjoy indulging in junk food sometimes, I find it hard to eat that kind of thing excessively.
My journey with eating was an extreme one. I could’ve reached the place I’m in now a lot more quickly and easily if I’d just had a little more patience and perspective.
It’s not about punishment, restriction or willpower. It’s about your physiology and psychology.
I wasn’t an untamed beast. I was just a young girl who messed up my natural body signals a bit by eating too much sugar. It’s important to frame the problem in terms of logic and not emotion.
If you feel like you’re addicted to food, the worst thing you can do is restrict the amount or types of foods you’re eating.
You can be like me, and overload your system with the worst types of food until you just can’t stomach to not eat healthily anymore. Or you can just incorporate as many healthy foods as possible into your routine, without depriving yourself of the bad ones, and trust in the process.
If you want to hear more about my attempts to find purpose and tranquillity as I relaunch life abroad, subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll be sure to keep you updated.