Food-Our Collective Drug

Food: Our collective drug

As an Addiction Psychologist, I recognize there are many people who do not identify with having Addiction. Yet, the more I talk to people, the more commonalities I find amongst people who identify having Addiction and those who do not. What exactly do I mean by this? I certainly do not mean that everybody has issues with alcohol, drugs, or other unhealthy substances, but what I have noticed is that many people have a brain that gets easily attached (more easily then they would like) to substances, behaviours, or even feelings (think depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsiveness as examples). In this post, I will be talking about what this means to health.

How can our relationship with food be impacted by the brain’s proclivity towards strong attachment? This may result in overeating, undereating, eating unhealthy foods, which can then impact how people feel about their body and self. For some, this crosses a line into Addiction involving food (also referred to as eating disorders). For others, it may not become this severe but yet is still a concern. The primary difference between someone who has Addiction involving food versus unhealthy behavioural patterns is that, typically, with awareness and action, people with unhealthy behavioural patterns can find balance and boundaries and do not experience many relapses or regressions back into this behaviour. For those with Addiction, because the reward circuitry of the brain is the root of the issue and cannot be fundamentally altered, awareness and action are helpful in promoting more balance, but these individuals will usually still experience relapses and regressions. Obviously this can be frustrating, and this understanding of the nature of the brain and acceptance of this become an important part of the recovery journey. 

The challenging thing about food for everybody is that it naturally is a mood and mind altering substance. For some of you, this will be new information. For others, this is old news. Most of us are aware of foods like turkey having tryptophan which is known to ‘make us sleepy.’ What we may not realize is that every food has an impact on our mind and body, including our neurotransmitters (primarily serotonin and dopamine, but others are impacted as well). For this reason, I talk about food as a ‘drug’ because it has the capacity to influence us from the outside in, which is the definition of a drug.

So what does all of this mean from a practical perspective? Here are some tips to support you in moving towards and/or maintaining a healthy relationship with the ‘drug’ of food:

Have awareness of your triggers. Pay attention to how you feel when you engage with food. Do they make you energized? Sluggish? Euphoric? Depressed? Anxious? Sweaty? Full? Nourished? These are all indicators of the foods that can act as healthy fuel for you compared to the ones that may be having a detrimental impact on your body.

Work towards boundaries, while having acceptance of regressions. The quest for boundaries will be ongoing and will take many twists and turns in the road. It is not going to be perfect and sometimes you will find yourself relapsing. It is tempting to give up and beat yourself up at this point. Try to be self-compassionate and keep going with your changes. They are helpful.

Look for the lessons in regressions rather than the shame. These regressions are actually helpful opportunities to learn about your triggers and personal vulnerabilities. You might recognize that being in a certain environment is what led to a craving that led to unhealthy eating. Or you might realize that a food you thought was neutral or okay for you actually spawns a craving for more.

Look for support. This may be professional, like with a nutritionist, dietician, physician, psychologist, or other health provider, or it might be peer support with others who have a challenged relationship with food and body, and/or people already in your life that you can talk to, and/or self-management tools.

Use tools like writing, body movement, fun hobbies to your advantage. Self-development can be a drag. It’s effortful and it’s emotional, so having ways to unpack this can be helpful. Writing down your feelings, as well as what you are learning about yourself can be helpful for reminders and accountability, as well as having a strong self-care plan that includes fun and moving your body.

Detach from the ‘shoulds.’ Your relationship with food is going to be an ongoing, multiple times daily part of your life so having it filled with rules, rigidity and ‘shoulds’ makes it painful, and actually increases the chance that you’ll act out in an unhealthy way with food because your brain will need a break from all of the pressure. Instead, make small choices based on what you would like to do for yourself and choosing to feel nourished and strong.

There can be lots of obstacles in the quest for a more balanced and healthy relationship with food, but there is a lot of benefit in exploring this side of health. The tools and steps I suggest above work just as well for those who identify having Addiction as well as those who do not because, after all, we all share the commonality of human experience.