What does it take to lose weight and keep it off when you’re addicted to junk food?
First of all, you might be wondering if you are a food addict, and if food addiction is even a real thing.
A lot of people don’t know that food addiction is a widespread problem because it’s joked about like it isn’t a real thing.
I don’t know about you, but I used to think it was just a myth to justify being a piggy eater.
Food addiction is real…
And it’s a lot more prevalent than most people know.
If you are sensitive to foods like flour and sugar and other refined food products, they can stimulate your pleasure centers in the same way as heroin and cocaine!
The Dopamine Droop when you need a food fix
This leads to feeling horrible when you are not eating these refined food products. And just like drugs, you need larger portions of these foods to get the same high. And after a while, there is no high.
Then you need these foods to feel sort of OK.
Plus they mess with your appetite center and throw off insulin and leptin responses, so some people never feel full no matter how much they eat.
And boy was I surprised when I realized I had all the traits and that I was physically and emotionally addicted to certain foods that triggered overeating. I am one of those people who is especially sensitive and has to stay off of processed foods for life, and I am okay with that. It’s a relief now that I know what is going on.
The food addiction spectrum
There is a spectrum of sensitivity. You can take this simple test to find where you are on the spectrum
Some people are hardly affected at all by processed foods and don’t tend to crave them or overeat. They stay naturally thin and rarely even think about food and sometimes forget to eat.
Not me! I am at least a seven on the addiction spectrum for food on a scale of 1 to 10.
I needed to get a bigger and bigger “fix” of highly palatable foods containing sugar and flour to get the same dopamine kick as time went by. And it was damaging my brain and making me stay depressed, and it contributed to my inflammation and body aches and pains and my chronic fatigue.
The shame of food addiction
People feel that if they overeat on things they don’t want to eat and know they shouldn’t, it just means that they are gluttonous pigs who should be able to control themselves.
At least that was what I always thought…
You might feel ashamed when you binge on something unhealthy again after you said you were going to stop for once and for all.
You promised yourself you were never going to feel this way again, bloated, fuzzy headed, sick and disappointed with yourself
Are you a food addict who doesn’t know you’re a food addict?
You might wonder, “Why can’t I just have one slice of pizza like other people around me?”
I get that because I used to wonder what the hell was wrong with me. Why was I so obsessed with food and dieting?
Why couldn’t I stop overeating on foods I knew were bad for me?
I tried many healthy natural diets only to be thwarted by more cravings. Dieting just seemed to make things worse because I didn’t know I had this addiction. So I missed removing all the food triggers.
This went on for years and years and contributed to depression, chronic fatigue, and malnourishment, which led to more hunger and more binging.
I couldn’t understand why some people did well on these healthy diets while the rest of us did so badly and even got worse and gained more weight after going on them.
How about you? Have you been on a lot of diets that failed you?
Food addiction is a hidden epidemic
You can’t tell someone is a food addict just by looking at them any more than you can tell someone is an alcoholic by the way they look.
Often food addicts are not fat, at least for the first few years of their addiction.
A lot of people don’t know that they are food addicts because they assume you have to be extremely obese to be a food addict.
That was my problem. I was never fat, at first, but I feared getting fat. I thought if I just finally got enough willpower and stuck to a diet, I would finally get over my cravings.
Many food addicts are not fat to start with
A lot of food addicts do become overweight or even morbidly obese after damaging their metabolism with many failed diet attempts. Inevitably the weight begins to accumulate, at least it did for me when I hit the age of 48.
I gained 40 pounds in a few months after I couldn’t stick with a raw foods diet and had trouble taking it off.
But since I didn’t know food addiction was a real thing I didn’t know what foods I needed to avoid to stop overeating so I would be able to lose weight.
The good news is…
Once you know this is a real addiction, you will treat it that way and finally learn what to do to get better and stop bingeing on processed foods you don’t want to be eating. Instead of beating yourself up, or yo-yo dieting endlessly without lasting results, you will have a plan.
Ten keys to successful healthy weight loss when you’re a food addict
Why portion control doesn’t work for food addicts
We need to stay off certain foods altogether for our whole lives, and not just have smaller portions of poison!
Jenny Craig won’t work for us.
You wouldn’t expect an alcoholic to simply cut back and drink fewer drinks. So why should you expect to be able to eat a little bit of white flour or sugar?
What makes food addiction so insidious is that many so-called “normal” foods act just like opioids because they overstimulate the pleasure centers of your brain. Some people can eat these foods; like refined sugar, white bread, pasta, cheese, and many other processed foods but some of us are highly sensitive and become addicted and need more and more of the same foods to get the same “high.”
If you are addicted to junk food, you may find yourself on antidepressants
For food addicts, it gets to the point that when we aren’t eating, we feel terrible all the time and end up on antidepressants because our doctors will never even ask about food and diet.
You begin to need specific foods at specific times of the day to get the dopamine release you are accustomed to.
For instance, I used to have trouble resisting ice cream or cookies every evening at around 9 pm. And like other drugs, you end up needing to eat more and more to get the same “high,” and this is part of what led to my eventual weight gain.
From half a pint of Hagen Daz, I went whole-pint, and I seemed to need treats more often. Some days I wanted something stimulating and sweet every few hours! It was horrible.
And there is a reason these foods are so addictive.
Designed for pleasure, not for nourishment
You see, many foods we eat every day were designed to be addictive by food manufacturers, to sell more products and make more money.
Manufacturers spend millions of dollars on engineering addictive flavorings for processed meals like breakfast cereals, sauces, entrees, lunch meats, pastries, desserts, snacks, bread, and condiments to name a just a few of the many foods that are designed this way.
And specific combinations like wheat and cheese, for instance, seem to make things worse for some people. And the added salt makes appetite grow stronger.
Natural food flavors give our bodies cues on when to stop eating. Processed foods never do.
Common addictive foods
- Flour of any kind including, wheat, rice, coconut, whole grain flours, (eat the whole grain instead of ground up powders)
- Refined Sugar
- High salt foods
- Processed fats, vegetable oils, (alternatively, eat healthy fats in their complete forms like nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, and coconuts)
- Foods that are refined, highly palatable and highly flavored
- Hidden additives, found in most prepared meals, sauces and canned goods
- Diary and sugar combos like ice cream, and cheesecake
- Dairy and wheat combinations like pizza, the number one addictive food
- Gluten and wheat containing products area major problem for some people
- Processed snack foods like crackers, chips, microwave popcorn, even plain air popped
- Fast food meals
Some people can go a long time eating this stuff occasionally without becoming addicted. But I am not one of them, and you may not be either.
The people who can eat this stuff and not get addicted may have had a healthier foundation diet as kids, which gave them better eating habits as adults or have other genetic factors that make these addictive foods less of a problem. They may also have a lower ACE score for childhood trauma, giving them more resilience.
Most people cannot thrive on the standard American diet because it is full of these trigger food ingredients.
Not everyone who is overweight is a food addict, but a lot of people are to one degree or another.
People who are food addicts are constantly being re-stimulated by trigger foods all day long.
Treat it like the addiction is is
Our culture is so full of junk foods that many of us are malnourished from early life and this leads to overeating on processed foods when the body is looking for nutrients that are never forthcoming from the same old addictive processed foods.
You can’t just stop eating food altogether the way a heroin addict stops heroin altogether.
Food addiction is tricky because it’s easy to end up going down that slippery slope back into using food as a drug again.
You have to be willing to treat this as a real addiction because it is one.
If you want to kick the habit for good, you will have to get real about avoiding trigger foods and eating a healthy diet.
Truthfully, it isn’t going to as taste great as processed junk food or sumptuous high-fat meals at first, and you will miss the old dopamine kick that junk food gave you for a few weeks.
It takes time for the brain to heal. But you are probably going to start feeling better around week two or three. Some people with a lot of damage take longer.
Ten keys to successful healthy weight loss when you’re a food addict
What can you eat if you are a food addict?
There isn’t one perfect diet for everyone. But all healthy diets include real food and fresh homemade meals.
You have to plan ahead and learn new recipes. The best structure I have found for amazing results in dealing with food addiction, is the Bright Line Eating Boot Camp, combined with a whole plant-based diet.
It’s going to be slightly different for you, depending on your personal needs. But in general, everyone needs real whole foods, without additives and chemicals, that you prepare at home for the most part, at least at first.
No matter which diet you decide is right; you will want to include whole, unrefined foods, using organic when you can and plan ahead.
Include lots of veggies and probably fruits and possibly some animal products. The ratios of starches to fats and proteins will vary depending on your personal needs.
Avoid all highly palatable trigger foods
- Processed chemical laden refined foods, sugar, and flour
- Pesticides and GMOs which contain roundup/glyphosate
- Most dairy products
- Gluten is also hard on most human systems and some people avoid all grains
- Limit or remove oils. They are not healthy especially anything containing canola oil
- Prepared foods, most canned foods, and fast foods
Now that I finally know I am a food addict, I figured out what works for me. I eat a plant-based diet with tons of leafy greens, and raw salads, beans, potatoes, squash, quinoa, brown rice, and fruit work well for me.
I also and avoid wheat, dairy, and oil. I eat fish or eggs a few times a month though that could change. As I learn more, I am finding that it is possible that I can get enough EFAs from plant foods and take an algae-based supplement.
Lately, I have been leaving out the salt, and real food tastes amazing all by itself! Imagine my surprise. It took a few days to get used to plain old food. I use a little balsamic vinegar on a few things.
- I am in this program, Bright Line Eating Boot Camp works whether you are plant-based or Paleo or something in between.
- I follow this guide by The Center For Nutrition Studies.
- Read Chef AJ’s book The Secret to Successful Weight Loss; she is a recovered food addict.
- Forks over Knives has excellent recipes and meal plans.
More Resources at the end of the article or download them here
There are two main paradigms for healthy diets for food addiction
Camp 1: Whole plant-based food approach
High fiber, high starch mostly vegan, low-fat, and no processed foods. It takes out any guesswork by removing all trigger foods, and it is very satiating because of potatoes, squash, and whole grains.
Chef A.J. is a food addiction specialist with a book and a program. She uses no flour products or salt in her own diet. At first, I thought it was going to be way too restrictive, but I find the food tastes delicious without added salt.
Sometimes I have seaweed in my salads and occasionally a low salt tomato sauce. But so far I don’t miss salt though I never thought I would say that. The way she explains caloric density is very clear. She uses high-fiber, starchy foods that are low in calories to fill you up and keep you satisfied. Here are a few of the plant-based experts:
The Spud fit Challenge is a book and program by another food addict who decided to take a break from food for a year and ate nothing but potatoes. I did this for a couple of weeks, and it helped, but it felt like a diet.
I wanted to learn how to eat food the way I was going to be eating for life. People in his program talk about cheating a lot or gaining weight once they finished his program. It worked for him, and it might work for you.
But I wanted to practice the real final diet I would be eating for life without waiting.
Forks Over Knives works well for a lot of people. They have wonderful recipes and incredible success stories.
Dr. McDougall is not a food addict, so he doesn’t focus on that much. But his approach works wonders for some people. He does allow flour based whole grain pasta and bread. If it turns out they are a trigger for you, you may want to exclude them.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman is similar to Chef A.J. with lots of greens and beans, but without as many starches like sweet potatoes and whole grains, I found it hard to feel satiated. A lot of people do well on his program too.
Camp 2: mainstream meat-based traditional diet
Paleo and Ancestral diets, high in animal foods and veggies with almost no fruit and avoiding all starches including potatoes, yams squash, and whole grains.
Dr. Kelly Brogan is not a food addiction expert, but her ancestral diet might be the right approach if you are mildly addicted to processed foods. She understands blood sugar problems and thyroid problems but has never been a food addict herself you might have to take out some of the trigger foods she recommends.
The Food Addiction Center outlines this type of approach clearly and describes the different levels of addiction and has excellent resources about the distinctions between emotional eating, binge eating, eating disorders, and food addiction. This approach works wonders for some people.
Bright Lines Eating Bootcamp bridges the gap between both these approaches.
Ultimately, you have to decide what approach is right for you. Read up, learn what is happening to your brain, get support, and make a plan.
Free from cravings at last, hallelujah!
When I try to eat a higher fat diet with oils and a lot of nuts and seeds and avocados, it triggers cravings for sugar and flour. But that is just me.
When I first tried leaving out oils and eating a reasonably low-fat diet, of whole grains, sweet potatoes and tons of veggies, the constant cravings for junk foods were just suddenly gone.
It was a revelation!
Instead of having to fight the urge to go out and get something high calorie and low in nutrients every night I was finally free to eat as much healthy high-fiber, nutrient-dense food as I wanted and feel full and satisfied without gaining weight or making myself sick.
I also take some supplements to get enough essential fatty acids, D3, B complex, and b12 to deal with depression and chronic fatigue. You may find supplements help you as well, at least in the beginning.
You might find a mostly plant-based diet works well, or you may want to go with a Paleo-style higher fat diet with organic grass-fed animal products, organic butter, olive oil, and coconut oil.
In the resource section down at the bottom of the article, I have listed some experts on food addiction for recipes and diet details.
The good news is…
This all gets easier as you start to feel better and get more energy and look and feel healthier.
The first few weeks are often the roughest and having support can be the key to success
The reason is that you are going through physical and mental withdrawal from your drug of choice. And withdrawal ain’t pretty!
But it is so worth it for your health and sanity to stop having to worry about food all the time.
It is so worth it to be free of constant cravings for junk foods that cause you to binge,
and feel sick,
and mess with your blood sugar, and your hormones, and make you crazy!
As with any addiction, you must be willing to completely transform just about every aspect of your life to pull this off.
Here are ten keys to success for healthy weight loss when you have a food addiction
1. Be willing to learn what foods work for you and what foods are absolute triggers for you. Eat simple healthy meals even though they don’t taste good yet. Don’t Worry, though! In a few weeks, once withdrawal from the addictive foods is over, you will learn to enjoy real foods and be able to prepare them better.
2. Be willing to learn new recipes, cook new foods, and try new ways of eating that you might never have tried 100 percent before.
3. Be prepared to leave the companionship of your usual friends early so you can go to bed in time to get a full 8 hours every single night 7 days a week, so you can heal your body fully and be ready to do all the things you need to do the next day to stay the on track.
4. Be willing to be the only person not having even a tiny little slice of cake, or pizza or not even one glass of wine if that is one of your triggers. Ignore the A-hole who says; “Hey, why not live a little? One little bite won’t hurt.
5. If your old friends don’t accept the new completely-transformed, you then you have to be willing to say goodbye to these old chums and find new friends who are interested in healthy living and support your decision to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
6. Be willing to get up every morning early enough to get your day going in the right direction every day, weekends included by planning out your food in advance and doing your morning routine whether it includes meditation, exercise, affirmations, or journaling, or whatever else complete your positive routine.
7. Be willing to get help even if it means joining a support group or spending money on a coach or therapist to pull this off because this is the last time you are ever going to have to go off addictive foods again.
8. Be willing to get back on course right away if you slip up, and don’t wallow in old habits that aren’t that helpful anymore.
9. Be willing to face the emotions that are going to bubble up now that food isn’t pressing them down. Refer to number six: get help if you need it.
10. Be willing to stay in it for the long haul and keep going even when it gets hard, and it is taking longer than you would like to lose the weight and get used to eating new foods.
Food Addiction Resources
- Take this quiz from Bright Line Eating to find out if you are a food addict and where you are on the scale.
- The Secret to Ultimate Weight Loss, by Chef AJ, Food Addiction expert, low-fat high-carb vegan.
- The Food Addiction Resource Center
- Breaking the Food Seduction: The Seven Reasons Behind Food Cravings by Neal Barnard MD
- The End of Dieting by Joel Fuhrman Mostly vegan, very encouraging
- Whole plant-based diet guide from T. Collin Campbell’s site
- The Slow Down Diet by Mark David, Institute for the Psychology of Eating
- The Pleasure Trap by Douglas J. Lyle
- A Life of Your Own (my affiliate link) by Kelly Brogan, high fat Paleo/Ancestral diet approach to healing
- Lean and Clean Diet by Hannah Howlett, high carb vegan
- Spud Fit Challenge by Andrew Taylor recovering food addict
- Forks Over Knives, amazing stories of health recoveries and rapid, natural weight loss
- How Not to Die by Michael Gregor, MD of Nutrition Facts
- Lilly Hawaii YouTube channel, excellent description of food addiction from a knowledgeable plant-based expert.