Five steps to overcoming a food addiction

February 24, 2012

Alcoholism and Addiction, Food, Health

If you are told that a food is bad for you, it too will not matter, because your associations will override your intellect, and you will eat that food anyway.

by Hedley Turk — 

You know the food you are eating is bad for you, but you just cannot stop eating it. You may have a food addiction. If so, you are not alone. Millions of other people are suffering, as well.

This is an area of health where many of us have the greatest challenge. We want to eat healthier and be healthier, but when it comes to eating right, we just cannot seem to do it.

If we know better, why do we still eat unhealthy food?

What we eat has less to do with our intellect and more to do with the associations we have with food. An association is a link in your mind between an emotion and an experience, person, place or thing.

An example of an association is a fear of dogs. This type of fear is often the result of a person having previously been attacked or severely frightened by a dog. That event creates an association in the person’s mind, linking dogs with fear. Now, every time this person sees a dog, even if it is a friendly one wearing a big smile and wagging its tail, he or she will experience fear.

Food is another area where we create associations. Once upon a time, you ate a food — cake, ice cream, a piece of chocolate — and you liked the way it tasted. At that moment, you created an association in your mind, linking this food to feeling good. And each time you ate this food, it continued to make you feel good, further strengthening the association.

The result is that you now have an extremely strong association to food. This association is just as strong (if not more so) as that of a person who has a fear of dogs. Even if that person is told that the dog approaching is friendly, it will not matter because associations generally override intellect, and that person will still be afraid of the dog.

If you are told that a food is bad for you, it too will not matter, because your associations will override your intellect, and you will eat that food anyway.

This is why it is so hard to give up certain foods. Your intellect is telling you that a food is bad for you, but your emotions, which are actually your associations, are telling you that this food will make you feel good. How can you give up something that makes you feel good? See the conflict?

How do we overcome a food addiction?

The first and most important step to overcoming a food addiction is motivation. You have to want to make the change. Motivation can come from different sources, such as a doctor’s diagnosis of a health condition that will worsen unless you make a change to your diet and lose weight.

It can come from your friends and family and your desire to be healthy enough to participate with them in activities and sports.

Your motivation also can come from the fact that you want to be around to see your children graduate from high school or college, or to see them have families of their own.

Or maybe your motivation comes from the fact that you deserve it. You deserve to feel good, you deserve to feel healthy, and you deserve to live a long and healthy life.

The second step to overcoming a food addiction is identifying your current associations to the foods that you want to eliminate. Answer the following questions: Why do I eat this food? Be honest. Does it make you feel good? Does it give you pleasure? Does it satisfy you? Does it relax you?

The third step is to create new, powerful negative associations to the foods that you want to stop eating. Remember, it is very difficult to give up something that makes you feel good and gives you pleasure. Therefore, you need to change the way you feel about the food from positive to negative.

The fourth step is to create new positive associations when you do not eat certain foods. The goal is that every time you resist the urge to eat the unhealthy food, you will feel good and feel pleasure. Each time thereafter that you resist the urge, you will feel even more pleasure, thereby reinforcing the new association, as well as building up your strength and confidence.

The fifth and final step to overcoming a food addiction is to anchor your new associations. Anchoring an association is a way of reinforcing it, or making the link in your mind stronger. An association is anchored when a strong emotion is involved, as in the case of the fear of dogs, or through repetition, as is often the case with food.

Keep in mind that you may have to go through this process more than once. Overcoming a food addiction is not easy, but if you are motivated and committed to your success, it can be done.


Hedley Turk, a former personal trainer, is the author of Why Intelligent People Are Overweight: A Guide to a Healthier Life. He received his Bachelor of Science from the State University of New York at Albany School of Business and currently lives in Great Neck, NY.

Reprinted from AZNetNews, Volume 30, Number 3, June/July 2011.


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