How to Stop Overeating and Lose the Food Obsession
No single remedy works for all, but there may be one that works for you.
Posted November 14, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Recovery from overeating and food obsession is possible.
- There are numerous reasons why people struggle with food and, as a consequence, options for treatment.
- No single approach is a definitive cure-all for people with obesity, binge eating, and/or food addiction.
If your relationship with food is maddening – trust me, you are not alone. I, personally, can relate. But, more impressively, consider the scope of things: 40% of Americans are now obese, and 16% qualify as having food addiction, based on a validated scale.
No one sets out to be overweight. It just happens that eating in a moderate, steady fashion is a challenge for some of us. And for those of us unlucky ones, the behavior can persist, year after year, despite the myriad negative emotional and physical consequences that ensue. We try supplements and diets and self-help book approaches that claim to have the magic solution. We try them all, it seems, and they just don’t stick.
Loss of Control Around Food Has Many Causes
It can be hard to stop overeating and obsessing about food because there is no single root cause that we can fix with treatment. Rather, there are numerous reasons why people may struggle, and a person may have one or several possible underlying vulnerabilities.
Causes and contributors to overeating include (but are not limited to):
- Psychiatric disorders [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression]
- Food restriction leading to rebound binging
- Heightened brain reward responses to high sugar/fat foods
- Emotional eating
- Neurotransmitters and brain circuitry
- Gut microbiome
There Are Also Numerous Potential Solutions
Treatment approaches include (but are not limited to):
- Weight loss medications
- Medications and psychotherapy for psychiatric disorders
- Food tracking
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
- Physical exercise
- Overeaters anonyomous (OA)
- Nutritional approaches (high-protein, low-carb, keto, abstinence-based, etc.)
Research shows they all have the potential to work, but no single approach is a definitive cure-all for people with obesity, binge eating, and/or food addiction.
This list is long! And it’s not even a comprehensive one. We only have so much time in a day – how do we know which basket to put our eggs in?
Your Makeup May Affect What Approaches Will Work Best for You
The truth is, one size does not fit all when it comes to recovering from overeating and food obsession. What might be helpful for one person could be harmful to another.
This can be illustrated by the varied responses people have to dietary interventions, depending on the underlying diagnosis. For many obese people, a program involving simple calorie restriction and physical exercise can work well. An abstinence-based approach, which involves avoiding all foods that tend to overstimulate the addiction circuitry in the brain (high sugar, carb, and fat), would be recommended for a person with food addiction.
By contrast, restricting calories or avoiding particular types of foods might actually make someone with a binge eating disorder binge more and get worse. So, who needs what treatment depends on individual vulnerabilities.
It would be great if medicine were at the place where we could just report our symptoms, genetic information, and psychological profile to a professional who would then tell us what would work best for us, or if there were an app of some kind to do the same. But things don’t work that way yet. Perhaps someday, with a lot more research, it will.
For now, it’s still up to us to try, asses, shift, re-assess, and keep moving forward.
Despite the Obstacles, Recovery Is Possible, and Within Your Grasp
It’s easy to get hopeless in the face of it all and to find yourself steeped in self-blame. “I keep throwing money at self-help books, therapists, and treatment programs, and nothing seems to stick. Why can’t I get it right?” It makes sense why people give up after a while and let the disease just take over.
But, I beg you, don’t lose hope before you can experience the much-deserved magic. The fact is, I see recovery happen, time and time again. So many people do finally get free and find peace by trying it all, mixing and matching various approaches from above, to find the perfect recipe for them. That can be your story, too, if you keep at it.
Some Real-Life Case Examples to Show It’s Possible
Jennifer kept gaining weight, peaking at 250 pounds, despite diet after diet, regular OA participation, and taking medication for depression. The cravings for dessert foods were insatiable. However, when she embraced the concept of food addiction and adopted a diet of no sugar and no flour, her food cravings plummeted after a month of withdrawal symptoms. Her depression resolved, and she lost almost 100 pounds and has kept it off for eight years running.
Sarah had stopped drinking alcohol in her late 20’s and, in its wake, began binge eating on sugary foods, reaching a maximum weight of 180 pounds. Becoming abstinent from sweets and exercise reduced her weight, but the binge symptoms persisted. Every time she tried a “no flour” diet, her binge eating worsened. Finally, she saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed ADHD and prescribed medication, and she began working closely with a dietitian in parallel. The craving and overeating symptoms dissipated, and the extra weight dropped off easily.
And many more cases come to mind, like the man who got his cravings under control with bariatric surgery; the woman who found relief in a CBT-based eating disorder treatment program that taught her about intuitive eating, the “health at any size” movement, and the dangers of food restriction; and the woman who lost 100 pounds and kept it off through a newfound passion for long-distance running and membership in overeaters anonymous, for example.
So what should you do, given all the complexity? First, keep trying. Start with one or several options available, commit to it, do your best to appraise your response, and If it doesn’t work, or if it makes things worse, try something else. If something works a little but not enough, keep it in your toolbox, and then try another option—measure success by levels of happiness and health rather than weight.
How do you not make yourself crazy with the experimenting? Another essential tip: do not, I repeat, do not do it alone. Find people who you trust who can support you and check your thinking. Consult with an experienced dietitian, psychologist, and/or psychiatrist. Consider finding a sponsor if you’re in OA. Work with a coach who embraces an approach you’re interested in testing or join a relevant program.
Above all, shower yourself with compassion. Remember, this is a tough challenge, and if what you’re trying isn’t helping, it’s not because you are a failure. It’s just that you haven’t found the key yet. With time and persistence, though, you will.
You can find more information on this topic in my recently published textbook, referenced below.
Wilcox, C.E. (2021). Food Addiction, Obesity, and Disorders of Overeating: An Evidence Based Assessment and Clinical Guide. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature.