Break your food addiction and lose weight

Woman eating junk food

This devastating condition leads to obesity, poor health and psychological duress. Caryl Ehrlich, author of Conquer Your Food Addiction and a former compulsive eater herself, explains the dangers of food addiction and how people addicted to food can satisfy their hunger in more healthful, less destructive ways.

Breaking your food addiction

It’s true: Nobody can cajole, trick or provoke you into eating more sensibly or shedding those excess pounds. But if you are genuinely concerned about your health and are ready to take control of your eating habits, Caryl Ehrlich has some advice on how to stop using food as a means of self-abuse or to distract yourself from painful feelings. Ehrlich, who founded the Caryl Ehrlich Program in New York City, promotes a behavioral approach to weight loss that teaches you a healthful approach to eating and weight loss.

Food addiction is a behavior issue

SheKnows: We all need food on a daily basis. Can you clarify the differences between a healthy relationship with food and a food addiction?

“Taking small steps to change your approach and attitude toward food can help you break the overeating cycle.”

Caryl Ehrlich: You might think that to have a food addiction, you need to be addicted to one particular food. But it is a behavioral addiction, and you get in the habit of eating not when you are physically hungry, but when you are emotionally hungry or frustrated, bored, angry, sleepy and grumpy, or possibly when you need distraction from stress, tension or some other upsetting thing. If you build a tolerance to the portion and frequency of food, you’ll find you need it more often to achieve the same result you used to feel from a smaller portion and less frequent uses of your substance.

You may think you are eating something because it tastes good or looks good. In an early edition of the Harvard Medical Health Letter, editor William Ira Benton said, “Pleasure is not a necessary component of addiction. More plausible is the hypothesis that the addictive element of this behavior is not food, but the cycle itself.” The opposite of loving food is not hating food, but being indifferent to it. When you can take it or leave it, you have a healthful relationship with food.

SK: What are the signs of food addiction or compulsive overeating?

CE: You are a compulsive overeater when:

  • You think about eating later while you are eating now.
  • You cannot pass a place where you purchase a particular item of food without thinking about that item and purchasing it.
  • The food purveyor knows your usual or favorite.
  • You eat the dessert, bread or whatever you’ve purchased to eat with your meal as soon as you enter your home.
  • You eat the craved food in the store where you bought it, in the street or in your car.
  • You keep going back again and again to the kitchen until a leftover isn’t left over.

Binge eating, compulsive overeating and food addiction are when the portion and frequency of the item keeps progressing despite negative consequences such as gaining weight. One participant in the Caryl Ehrlich Program talks about being in “bondage” to food. Your brain is thinking, “I shouldn’t be doing this.” But you cannot stop.

Food addiction is damaging

SK: In addition to the high risk of obesity, what are the other dangers of being addicted to food?

CE: A mental health risk is the sense of always feeling out of control around food. And when an addiction hijacks your brain, you can’t be in a conversation without thinking of your next fix. So you’re not present. It affects you physically, mentally, emotionally and in ways too numerous to mention. Addiction costs time, money and energy. In addition to the weight on your knees, ankles, neck and spine, it is also weight on your self-esteem. Other health risks might be high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, shortness of breath and a higher chance of diabetes.

Food fests are everywhere

SK: Many everyday events and celebrations center on food. What can people with a food addiction do to break the overeating cycle?

CE: Many years ago, you most likely celebrated with food for someone’s 50th anniversary or a special birthday, or far fewer special occasions than you do now. Today, you celebrate your birthday, my birthday, our anniversary, the first day of school and the first day of winter, spring, summer and fall. When the smallest of achievements have occurred, someone says, “Let’s eat!” You have more friends and therefore more celebrations. If you’re in an office with 50 people, there are 50 birthday cakes. The problem is that you most likely make every celebration and food fest an exception to the [eat sensibly] rule. This is done so often that there is no rule; there are just exceptions.

The best tip I can offer is not to make every celebration a food-focused event. Instead, change your focus: You can decorate a room, the tables of food and the lighting, and pay attention to the music, seating and ambiance. When you’re with special people, the simplest of meals are special, too.

SK: What is your advice on restaurant meals?

CE: Think of a restaurant setting as an extension of your own home kitchen, except someone else has shopped, peeled, chopped, minced, diced, sauteed and served. They will also wash the dishes. And in your home, you most likely wouldn’t be serving an alcoholic beverage, a basket of bread, an appetizer, a main course with salad, vegetable, starch, dessert, coffee and an after-dinner drink. Why would you partake of all those courses in a restaurant or at a party? More is not better, it’s only more.

SK: How can people with a food addiction prepare for a food-filled party?

CE: If you give thought to what you are going to wear, your hair, makeup and accessories, why not give thought to which food components you want at a party? At a holiday meal, for example, I like turkey, stuffing and whole-cranberry sauce; I’ll pass on the side dishes that I can have all year-round. During several of the courses, I also help the host or hostess, who can always use an extra set of hands.

If you’re at a wedding or other festivity with a football-field-size table of food offerings, walk around the table first without a plate. Think about what it is you’re searching for. Do you want a protein? Another salad? What’s that brown thing? Then when you’ve decided what you want (and need), go back, get a plate and put onto your plate the amounts you’d serve yourself at home. Often, you won’t remember what you ate at a party but rather who you were with and how much you laughed. Also, alcohol causes lack of resolve. Drink water until you sit down to eat. Make sure you have some food before you sip your wine, interspersed with additional sips of water.

Advice for moms

SK: What special tips can you share for moms who are under particular pressure when shopping for, preparing and serving the family meals?

CE: Quite often, people who are food addicts or compulsive overeaters are also perfectionists. If you can’t do something perfectly, you don’t think your efforts count and you might consider all your attempts a failure. There is no perfection; perfection is an illusion. For example, during the holidays, as an already overworked mom, you might set unrealistic goals for the shopping and preparation of meals, gift buying and wrapping, taking care of the kids and being hospitable. You might underestimate the time each lengthy project actually takes to execute.

It is most helpful if, weeks earlier, you start with a plan (and a realistic time frame for each item on your spreadsheet) so you can complete some of the projects well in advance of the actual festivities. By thinking ahead, you may be more realistic about how long each task actually takes and ask for help either with shopping, cooking, decorating or all three.

Several times a year, I send out a mailing to participants of the Caryl Ehrlich Program. I used to write the word “mailing” on my to-do list and would then be disappointed when that word kept getting transferred, sometimes for weeks of to-do lists. Only when I broke it down to counting the names, buying the envelopes, addressing the envelopes, writing the greeting, printing the greeting, purchasing postage stamps, folding, stuffing and sealing envelopes, affixing stamps, and finally taking the envelopes to the post office was I able to move the project forward one step at a time. I also get much more pleasure from crossing off each now-realistic item on my list.

Start the new year with mindful eating

SK: The holidays can make us all feel like food addicts. Now that they’re over, what is the best way to lose weight and to nourish our health for 2013?

CE: The easiest way is to go back to where you were before the holidays (if you are determined to let all structure dissolve by the wayside) to be aware of the things you were doing then. Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you could end up someplace else.”

Ehrlich suggests:

  • Keep a journal: It’s helpful to keep a food and beverage log. If it’s not water, it’s food. Weighing yourself in the morning and evening helps you understand how your body uses food. A little bonus is that the very act of writing down what you eat reduces food consumption by 10 percent (or more). Keeping track of your weight can also help.
  • Review your journal: In reviewing your food log after the holidays (unless you were mindful and didn’t gain any weight), you’ll realize you ate a lot of extra items and the portions were bigger. You were most likely eating because food was there or because everyone else was overeating and drinking, not because you were hungry, which is the only reason to eat. You might realize that most of your overeating is at the dinner meal. In reviewing your food log, you might see that you often eat more items at dinner than you do for breakfast and lunch combined.
  • Eat mindfully: Be mindful and slow down when eating; it’s a meal, not a marathon. Put utensils down between bites of food (make each bite no larger than a nickel), and make sure your mouth is empty before inserting more food. You’ll eat far less than you would have had you remained mindless about how much, how late or how fast you eat. Choosing a wide variety of foods, preparation styles, temperatures (sometimes hot, sometimes cold) and seasonings, and trying foods you’ve never had, will force you to evaluate what you’re eating rather than zoning out by eating.

Breaking a food addiction can seem an impossible feat, especially since you are faced with food every day. However, taking small steps to change your approach and attitude toward food can help you break the overeating cycle.

You can get more information on changing your relationship with food at

More on eating disorders

Anorexia and bulimia: Illnesses or lifestyle choices?
Eating disorders on campus: Why you should talk to your teen
Young girls and healthy body image