Growing up, Kenzie Flocks struggled mildly with food anxiety, but it didn’t become a problem until she was 14 years old.
Kenzie Flocks found recovery, body in shape, exercising and learned to cope without food rituals.“When I was 14 I didn’t really know what to do about it, and until my mom found out, I continued to live that way,” recalled Flocks, whose mother knew her daughter had a problem when she read her journal, where she logged all her calories and saved nutrition labels.
Her lowest weight was 98 pounds when she was around 15 years old. Her diet consisted of mostly protein bars — usually one a day — and half a cucumber if she needed more food. She also restricted her water intake.
“At age 15 it started out as pretty severe restriction of my calorie intake, and as the years went on, I started to struggle with bulimia,” said Flocks of Simi Valley. “Once I got into middle school, I realized that I had a problem with food, and that my behaviors weren’t normal.”
After she was officially diagnosed with an eating disorder at age 15, her treatment included leaving her home and living in a therapeutic house up to six months at a time.
“Every meal was supervised, and after meals we had to sit with a staff member for an hour,” Flocks remembered. “The bathrooms were always locked and we had to ask to use them. I have been to many programs but I struggled to succeed in them. The program that changed my life was called Remuda Ranch in Arizona.”
While she spent most of her teenage years in and out of treatment to gain the weight that she needed to be healthy, “After treatment I still struggled with accepting my healthy body,” she said. “At age 22 I reached my highest weight of 278 pounds while still engaging in anorexia and bulimia behaviors.”
At age 22, after this weight gain and unhealthy behaviors, Flocks reached out to a health coach to help her manage her meal plan and adopt a healthy lifestyle.
“Today I am the healthiest I’ve ever been, and my relationship with food has changed dramatically,” said Flocks. “Food no longer controls my everyday life. I am no longer obsessed with calories or numbers.”
Today, she enjoys life more than she has in a very long time, “and to live without being consumed by food is truly a relief.”
Her daily food consists of Herbalife products, protein such as lean meats and Greek yogurt, plus tons of veggies and some fruit.
“I now weigh about 175 and I’m continuing to get my body in a healthier place, but the number no longer controls my life anymore,” she said.
Looking back on her experience, Flocks said that the biggest misunderstanding about food addiction is that you have to look a certain way to struggle with food.
“The reality of food addiction is that it doesn’t discriminate in any way whatsoever,” she said.
“My advice that I would give someone who is struggling would be to get help as soon as possible,” Flocks further emphasized. “Food addiction of any kind is a very isolating condition. I would encourage anyone to reach out, and never give up because there is hope.”
Food is everywhere
Food is everywhere, being accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While this bounty provides people with endless choices, for someone with a food addiction, this vast menu can be overwhelming, especially for those who struggle with a sense of loss of control when it comes to food.
Food addiction is a condition in which the brain’s pleasure center is activated and releases hormones that reward the person with feelings of euphoria and pleasure — much the same as the release one gets from drugs or other behaviors that release these chemicals, explained Demi Shugrue, owner of Shugrue Psychotherapy and Consultation Services in Ventura.
“They then become hooked on the feel-good chemicals in response to the foods,” Shugrue said.
Shugrue has been working in health care for more than 30 years, dealing with the medical conditions related to different types of food-related sequelae, as well as obesity, anorexia, electrolyte disturbances, psychological disorders, body image distortions, shame, diabetes, abdominal pains and many other conditions.
“I have also worked the psychological end of addiction for the last five years,” Shugrue noted. “Dealing with clients with food addictions and complications of such has taught me a lot.”
Jenny Taitz, author of End Emotional Eating: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions and Develop a Healthy Relationship to Food, describes a food addiction as an unhealthy relationship where rather than providing nourishment, eating becomes a source of preoccupation, loss of control, and serves an ineffective means to cope with emotions.
“Researchers suggest that problematic obsessing over food, rather than using food to nourish your health, occurs in roughly 10 percent of the population,” said Taitz of Los Angeles, who is board-certified in cognitive behavioral therapy by the American Board of Professional Psychology and a Diplomate in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy.
“Rather than thinking categorically, it’s helpful to think dimensionally. Are there moments where you use food in a way that hurts you, long-term?” Taitz said. “And if so, what are the costs and benefits and how might this behavior compromise your wellness? Almost everyone occasionally uses food for comfort rather than to satisfy physiological needs.”
A food addiction can be correlated to the feeling that comes about when food moves from nourishing to overwhelming.
“Like substance dependence and abuse, cravings and lack of control, and noticing a lot of your thinking is centered around eating, suggests that this is a problem,” Taitz said.
It doesn’t take statistics to see the rise in this addiction, Shugrue said.
“One only has to look around at the increase of obesity in this country to see there is a rise in this issue,” Shugrue said. “It is difficult to have true statistical numbers due to the different types of issues related to food addiction; you don’t see obesity with bulimia or anorexia, though these are also related to food addictions.”
There is about a 30 percent increase in obesity in young people and children, Shugrue noted.
“The issue with food addiction is that one must eat to survive, so learning how to have a healthy lifestyle is really the key,” said Shugrue, further noting that this also includes mental wellness to appreciate one’s self with acceptance and self-care and love.
“The idea is to also deal with the underlying issues such as lower self-esteem and anxiety or depression,” Shugrue said.
What is Emotional Eating?
In her book, Taitz notes that most of us have a general, rational sense of what to eat and when.
“Yet there is often a disconnect between what we know and what we do,” Taitz states. “We may have the facts, but decisions also involve our feelings. Many people who struggle with difficult emotions also struggle with eating problems.”
Emotional eating is a popular term used to describe eating that is influenced by emotions, both positive and negative, Taitz further explains, noting that feelings may affect various aspects of your eating, including your motivation to eat, your food choices, where and with whom you eat and the speed at which you eat.
“Most overeating is prompted by feelings rather than physical hunger,” Taitz notes. “Individuals who struggle with obesity tend to eat in response to emotions. However, people who eat for emotional reasons are not necessarily overweight. People of any size may try to escape an emotional experience by preoccupying themselves with eating or by obsessing over their shape and weight.”
In her book, Taitz notes the following examples of what emotional eating may look like:
- Snacking when you do not feel physically hungry or when you are moderately full
- Experiencing an intense craving for a particular food
- Not feeling satiated after eating adequate amounts of healthy food
- Anxiously gathering more food while your mouth is full
- Feeling emotionally relieved while eating
- Eating during or following a stressful experience
- Numbing feelings with food
- Eating alone to avoid others noticing
“People who eat for emotional reasons often eat in an attempt to self-sooth or to experience momentary relief from difficult feelings,” Taitz explains. “Some people describe purposely eating certain comforting foods as a way to cope with stress. Emotional eating is related to feelings of inadequacy. Emotions may seem so intense that we feel we need to instantly manage them by escaping with food, or we may feel we lack other tools to cope with distress.”
Taitz advises thinking about your own experience and contemplating the following questions:
Do you experience authentic or lasting relief while eating? Or is relief fleeting or partial at best?
“Just as when we compulsively watch television, drink alcohol or shop, we may wish to temporarily escape through eating,” Taitz notes.
Food Addiction Causes
According to Taitz, potential causes of a food addiction include believing that your emotions are overwhelming and that you can’t cope, which can be is linked to using food to manage.
“Similarly, the mental habit of ruminating or getting stuck in your mind, which creates a lot of distress, also links to binge eating,” Taitz said.
Many clients share a history of being comforted by food, she noted.
“Interestingly, overvaluing your shape and weight, or defining your worth by your size, can lead to binge eating, and strict dieting often spirals into a problematic relationship with eating,” Taitz explained.
A food addiction can begin early, she noted; for instance, young adults in middle school can develop an unhealthy focus on food.
“Adult women who are overweight are more at risk for food addiction,” Taitz noted. “That said, I see many men and people of all ages, including geriatric populations, who struggle with eating preoccupation and a sense of loss of control when it comes to food. People of all shapes and sizes can struggle with forgetting how to intuitively eat.”
Having a food addiction can bring about potential dangers.
For instance, there are so many serious health and emotional problems linked to eating, from cardiac issues to cancer and diabetes, Taitz warned.
“On the emotional front, not learning to cope with urges and emotions can really get in the way of living a happy life,” Taitz said.
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) is a program of recovery based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Membership is international, with meetings in the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany and England. In the early 1980s, the FA program began to take form within the context of Overeaters Anonymous, another 12-step program
According to Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, individual recovery is attained and maintained through the following 12 steps:
- We admitted we were powerless over food — that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs.
You Don’t Need to Suffer Alone
People of all shapes and sizes can be preoccupied with food, Taitz emphasized.
“Struggles with eating are treatable and you don’t need to suffer alone,” said Taitz, further noting that in her book, she addresses “urge surfing” and mindful eating.
“When we notice our urges, thoughts and emotions, they don’t need to drive our lives,” she added. “Accepting urges and slowing down can allow us to reconnect with ourselves and our health.”
Psychotherapy can be very useful in the treatment plan to help regulate one’s mental wellness and challenges with disorders or unhealthy habitual practices, Shugrue noted. Other tools include dietary diaries, support groups, education and scheduled activities and meal planning, which can all be great to help with managing addiction.
“When working with addiction, we must understand the reward system of the addiction and also the anxieties that support the behavior,” Shugrue said. “Learning to have healthy choices and empowerment over behavioral choices is also beneficial to one’s healthy living.”