ARE YOU A DIET FAILURE OR ARE YOU STRUGGLING WITH FOOD ADDICTION?

There is a specific group of women who repeatedly fail at diets who don't understand why they can’t succeed at this one area in life. These women knew what to eat and have lost weight many times over and again only to regain it back.  They committed to harsh, restrictive diets.  Some asked for “more accountability with their foods” and many planned out their days TO THE GRAM in their My Fitness Pal food journals but could not seem to commit fully.  They often experienced "food failure” at some point throughout their day which were followed with feelings of guilt and shame.

Some women even “closet ate” their foods not allowing their spouses or family members to see them “go off plan”.  Worse, they never really took responsibility for the mini-binges and instead just tried to pretend it their emotional eating didn’t happen because they were going to “start over” tomorrow.  Another words, they likely would not chart these moments in their My Fitness Pal journal.

These women also felt out of control around carbs, sweets and treats.  They were like the moth looking at the bug zapper.  They knew they were trying to resist but they couldn’t.  Rows of OREO cookies were often gone in a flash and dinner sometimes looked like ice cream with potato chips and an apple.

As I would speak to these women and get to know a little about them something sounded so familiar to me.    

They were often perfectionistic, rigid, very serious, loyal, committed, confused and they wanted me to be hard on them because their own rigidity was not working. 

After speaking with them and hearing their struggles around food – I would ask them this:

“Anyone in your family an alcoholic/addict or abuse drugs/alcohol?”

Almost immediately their eyes would widen and say “well, yes, my dad……”  (or it would be their mom or both parents or a brother or at times a spouse.)

These women sounded like just like me.  I knew them well.

They are Adult Children of Alcoholics and they struggled with emotional eating and/or food addiction.

I know because I am an Adult Child of an Alcoholic too.  They sound so familiar to me and I can pick them out like a single red flower in a sea of yellow flowers.  

Here are women who are beating themselves up for their failure at foods, diets and weight loss.  They seek a program or diet that works for them so they can finally get rid of this battle with food.  They hop from Keto to Low Carb to Beachbody to diet pills to actually asking for ADD medication since they heard it cuts their appetite. 

They may see some success but eventually the regimen they are on is unsustainable and they go back to their old ways and habits – regaining more weight than they originally lost.

These women feel like a failure and they wonder “why can’t I just get this right? Why can’t I stick to this?”

Well the good news is it’s not because you suck at this whole diet thing and you are not a food failure.  You may be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) who struggles with food addiction and/or emotional eating or you may not have the connection of being an ACOA but have emotional food issues or addiction issues.

Recent studies explain that there are strong links between the effect of growing up with addiction and sugar/processed carb/food addiction.  There is also a link between the genetic predisposition to alcoholism/substance abuse and sugar/processed carb/food addiction.

According to the late Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D , author of “Adult Children of Alcoholics”, there are 13 characteristics of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic.  Dr. Jan was married to an alcoholic and based on her personal experience with alcoholism and its effect on her children, as well as her clients.  She began to notice many similar characteristics.  She discovered that these traits were common not only in alcoholic families but also in families with other dysfunctional behaviors were present, such as gambling, drug abuse, food addiction, etc.

You may not have all the traits but you may have a good number of them.  

13 Characteristics of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

  1. Guess at what normal behavior is (ex: also have a hard time understanding what normal eating is)
  2. Have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end (saying you are going to lose 20 lbs. and never meeting that goal)
  3. Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth (ex: denying food was eaten; fail to chart foods; hiding foods)
  4. Judge themselves without mercy (ex: harsh on yourself when failing at a diet)
  5. Have difficulty having fun (ex: meal time becomes way too serious)
  6. Take themselves very seriously (ex: slight weight gain on the scale can indicate that they were being “bad” with their food choices)
  7. Have difficulty with intimate relationships
  8. Overreact to changes over which they have no control (ex: day goes unexpectedly bad so you fall off your plan and fall WAY OFF)
  9. Constantly seek approval and affirmation (ex: always looking for feedback on clothes, appearance, etc.)
  10. Feel that they're different from other people (ex: feeling like they just don’t fit in)
  11. Are super responsible or super irresponsible (ex: super ON A DIET or WAY OFF THE PLAN)
  12. Are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved (ex: will stick with a food plan even though it’s not a good fit – like a extremely low cal diet.  Eventually they fail with the plan and beat themselves up not realizing the PLAN was the problem – not them.)
  13. Are impulsive—They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.  (ex: binges, emotional binges, losing their day or weekend in an abyss of the F%%K IT food choices).

The examples in parenthesis are just some ways that the characteristics of being an ACOA can relate to diets, nutrition plans, weight loss goals, etc. 

Understanding that there may be an underlying issue that is contributing to the inability to stay on a plan to help reach a weight loss goal often is an “AHA” moment for many women.  It begins to make sense as to why they have tried many times and failed many times.

WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH MY SUGAR and CARB ADDICTION?

Research is providing links between alcoholism, addiction and also adult children of alcoholics having a strong preference for sweets, especially for those foods with a high sucrose concentration.  Studies show that in some brains sugar-rich foods and drinks produce a release of euphoric endorphins and dopamine in a region in the basal forebrain rostral to an area of the hypothalamus.

It has also been shown that biological children of alcoholic parents are at greater risk for sugar and processed carb preferences.  This may also display in some as an eating disorder.  Certain genes seem to correlate in alcohol and drug dependent people, as well as the child of alcoholics – especially the paternal alcoholic.

Basically what this means is that if you have a family history of alcohol/substance abuse in your family you can carry a genetic predisposition to not only alcohol abuse but also have a stronger propensity to develop a sugar/processed carb addiction.

Also, growing up in an alcoholic home or a family that is affected by an alcoholic and/or addict often creates an environment where we do not develop the ability to regulate our emotions well. This can lead to a perfect scenario to depend on food, sugar, carbs if not also alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, etc. to cope and manage with emotions that are unmanageable.

DO YOU STRUGGLE WITH A FOOD ADDICTION?

The S-UNCOPE quiz is a short assessment developed by Bitten Jonsson, RN, Leg. SSK for use during initial screenings to rapidly identify the possibility of addiction to sugars/food, alcohol or drugs.  Sugars are identified as any processed carb, junk food, pasta, bread, foods containing flour, soda, candy, etc. 

This quiz has been adapted for this site.  Answer YES or NO to the questions below.

1.       U = Unplanned Use:  In the past year have you eaten foods/sweets more than you meant to? Or have you been eating/using sweets more than you intended to? 

YES or NO


2.       N- Neglected: Have you ever neglected some of you usual or daily responsibilities because of overeating or using sugar/sweets? YES or NO


3.       C- Cutdown: Have you felt that you need to cut down eating sweets/sugar in the past year? YES or NO

 

4.       O – Objected:  Has anyone around me (family, friends, spouse, etc.) that I need to eat better or clean up my eating or that they are concerned about my eating habits?  YES or NO


5.       P – Pre-occupied:  Have I found that I am unusually pre-occupied about eating foods/sweets/sugars or have your found yourself thinking about times you just want to sit down and have your foods/sweets/sugars?  YES or NO

 

6.       E – Emotional Discomfort:  Have I ever used foods/sweets/sugars to deal with emotions or relieve emotions such as fatigue, anger, sadness, anxiety, etc.? YES or NO

IF YOU ANSWERED YES TO 0 – 1 QUESTIONS YOUR CHANCES OF FOOD ADDICTION ARE LOW.

If you are trying to lose weight and find it difficult to make progress you may:

  1. Have difficulty staying organized with your foods and struggle with discipline.
  2. May not have your macros set correctly or are eating too little which is leaving you hungry which then leads you to eat foods you know you shouldn’t be eating – but the reason is not due to a food addiction.  It’s likely that you are not nourishing yourself enough. Optimizing protein is vital to guarding against cravings for sugar/processed carbs.
  3. Need a better system to allow you to stay on track with your foods.  A good system is KEY to staying on track.  Often a combination of good food prepping, having foods already made to easily grab and heat combined with enjoyable foods/treats that are also nutritionally beneficial can help many stay on track and not feel deprived.
  4. May need to have certain hormones checked to ensure that they are not interfering with normal weight loss. 
  5. Lastly, be sure to measure and weigh your foods.  People often fail at estimating as studies show that most people underestimate their food intake by 30-45%! That’s an astonishing amount.  Try for 3 days to measure and weigh every little thing you eat.  EVERYTHING!  Many women are often shocked at how much they really are eating after being put to this challenge.

IF YOU ANSWERED YES TO 2-3 QUESTIONS then you may be struggling with a food addiction or emotional eating and it is worth exploring further.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  1. Consider joining a support group such as Overeater’s Anonymous or Compulsive Eater’s Anonymous.  See if what they say in those groups resonate with you.  Talk with the members to see if their stories sound like you.
  2. TRIAL and ERROR APPROACH: Write a list of all the foods that:
  • That you have binged on
  • That you tend to eat when very emotional/upset
  • That you have started eating and couldn’t stop
  • That you feel like you couldn’t live without
  • That you think about or fantasize about eating (ex: when you get home from work, when the kids go to bed, etc.)

The most common foods that wind up on this list contain sugar, flour, certain grains, salty foods and high fat foods.

Take an honest inventory of everything you eat.  Write down the foods that align with the list above.  Try to completely abstain from these foods for at least a week.  Remember, that many sugars are hidden in foods such as BBQ sauce, yogurts, processed foods, sauces, protein bars, salad dressing, etc. 

Observe what happens.   Can you really abstain from these foods?  Do you get any symptoms like irritability, fatigue, brain fog or headaches?

If you are able to CONTINUE TO ABSTAIN from these foods then your food cravings and obsessions should be able to diminish.  This can show that your body was chemically dependent on these foods.

If you are UNABLE to ABSTAIN from these foods despite a strong effort to do so – then it is likely that you are FOOD ADDICTED.  It is best you find sources that are experts in food addiction and how to deal with it.

IF YOU ANSWERED YES to 4 OR MORE QUESTIONS - then it may be HIGHLY LIKELY that you struggle with food addiction and may be a food addict.

  1. At the very least you should find a support group like Overeater’s Anonymous or Compulsive Eater’s Anonymous or
  2. You may want to seek a definitive diagnosis from a healthcare professional that is trained in food addiction and is an expert in this field.
  3. Many people who struggle with food addiction find that a three-prong approach works best.  There is rarely one solution to addiction.  Addressing this from multiple places is very effective in successful treatment.

THREE THINGS YOU CAN DO:

  • Getting the medical care needed to address any nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar issues, hormone/thyroid related issues, etc.  Also eating balanced meals with enough protein which contains amino acids helps neurotransmitter balance in the brain which can lean to sugar cravings.
  • Finding a therapist that is an expert in food addiction and trauma. 
  • Joining a support group that has a spiritual solution like Overeater’s Anonymous or Compulsive Eater’s Anonymous.  

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A SUPPORT GROUP

• Is the group committed to an abstinence-based approach to recovery from Food Addiction?(removing foods that a person has difficulty not bingeing on)

• Are there several people in the group who have been in recovery (been abstinent) for several years.


• Are there some people who are willing to act as a coach (“sponsor”) to someone new to the group?

HOW TO HEAL AND RECOVER

If you are struggling with your food intake and have any of the relations stated above - the solution may not lie in a new "diet" but rather finding help to understand the effects of growing up as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic and food addiction.  

Look for a therapist who specialized in addiction and also one who is an Adult Child of an Alcoholic as well.  Nobody can truly understand the impact without having walked in those shoes.

Suggested Helpful Resources:

If you are NOT an Adult Child of an Alcoholic but believe you are struggling with a food addiction or emotional eating you can still benefit from committing to a 12 Step Program or finding a therapist who specializes in food addiction/emotional eating. 

Don't struggle alone.  Most people who struggle with food addiction/emotional eating benefit from a community of support that can understand their struggles and hold you accountable with kindness and love.  

SOURCES:

Sweet preference, sugar addiction and the familial history of alcohol dependence: shared neural pathways and genes.

Jeffrey L. Fortuna

J Psychoactive Drugs. 2010 Jun; 42(2): 147–151. doi: 10.1080/02791072.2010.10400687

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