My Painful Struggle With Addiction To Healthy Junk Food

By Amanda Van Slyke

It started when I was a child. My mother would pack the house with sugary and salty snacks — chips, cookies, cakes. After dinner, she would plop down on the couch with a bag of microwave popcorn. Watching my parents sit in front of the television, devoid of emotion, was a running theme throughout my childhood . . . and I learned to follow suit. Lacking emotional intimacy with my distant parents, I turned to treats for fulfillment, which I consumed while spending hours developing relationships with the characters on TV. Food became the comfort I could never receive at home.

As I grew older, I developed severe anxiety and sought comfort in other ways, buying things I didn’t need, overworking on the magazine I started, or drinking and having sex. But through it all, one addiction endured, and proved to be a particular struggle: food.

Food doesn’t often garner the attention of more high-profile vices, like drugs, sex, alcohol, and gambling. But its addictive qualities — and the damage it can do to people’s lives — shouldn’t be overlooked. As with any other addiction, foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat can trigger the pleasure sensors dopamine and serotonin.

The Food Addiction Institute lays out the ways in which a fundamental need for nourishment can become something far more dangerous:

“Food addiction is a disease which causes loss of control over the ability to stop eating certain foods. Scientifically, food addiction is a cluster of chemical dependencies on specific foods or food in general; after the ingestion of high palatable foods such as sugar, excess fat and/or salt, the brains of some people develop a physical craving for these foods. Over time, the progressive eating of these foods distorts their thinking and leads to negative consequences which they do not want but cannot stop.”

As with other addictions, psychological and social forces can also play a role, with eating often used as a coping mechanism to relieve painful emotions often rooted in childhood. With so many factors at play, it’s no wonder this addiction is so pervasive; David Kessler, a professor at UCSF and former commissioner of the FDA, has stated online that there are more than 70 million adults in the United States who are addicted to food.

As I altered my own lifestyle to treat my anxiety and reflect my goal of sobriety, I knew that I would have to address my addiction to the sugary, salty snacks that placated me growing up. So I decided upon a plan that seemed, at the time, like a sound one: I traded my processed diet for a cleaner one with more whole foods. My thinking was simple: If the food was good for you, there couldn’t be a problem.

Right?

***

My transition into a “healthy” lifestyle was relatively easy. Instead of eating a box of chocolates and a bag of chips, I’d eat a box of organic cookies and gluten-free crisps. Where I once scrounged together loose change to buy a chocolate bar because I couldn’t go one day without sugar, I now began adopting inexpensive health-food tricks, pouring maple syrup over porridge instead of eating cookies, making homemade popcorn instead of chips, and squeezing lime over sparkling water instead of drinking soda.

Not to be confused with orthorexia, an illness in which you become obsessed with eating healthy, I used healthy junk food as a substitute for regular junk food in an attempt to fill the void in a more positive way. But soon enough, I found myself unable to stick to my new diet.

As I sought out more fulfillment, I’d slip from eating healthy junk food to cheap, processed junk food. When I got tired of eating goddamn porridge, I’d order a pizza. And just as before, I often found myself prioritizing my need for food over spending money on things I actually needed — which, as someone who lives on disability for dyspraxia and has a strict budget, was a significant problem.

Finally, I was forced to confront a difficult truth: My food addiction wasn’t a problem because of the unhealthiness of what I was eating. It was a problem because I was using it to avoid dealing with underlying issues that needed to be addressed.

As someone with a disability, mental illness, and tight budget, I’ve struggled to do the things required for true recovery — like developing healthy, supportive relationships and enjoying activities I love. But over time, I’ve learned to focus on this form of nourishment, rather than the empty kind my vices so readily provided. I’ve avoided negative influences and triggering places, reduced stressors and taken more time for myself, gone to 12-step meetings and cognitive behavioral therapy, and regularly practiced yoga and meditation. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve cut out my abusive family and learned to love myself.

It’ll be two years this August since I decided to get sober — and it hasn’t always been easy. With food in particular, it’s tough, because unlike with alcohol, it isn’t something you can learn to live without. Instead, I’ve had to work to give myself what I need without using it as an emotional crux. In this way, my addiction to food is not unlike my addiction to shopping, work, and sex. Just as I still shop when I have the money, work on my magazine daily, and have sex regularly — but now make sure that when I’m doing these activities, I’m not trying to escape from reality — I’ve learned how to eat without using it to fill a void.

There are some cravings, I’ve learned, that food can never fulfill.

***

Lead image: flickr/cyclone bill

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