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Understanding Your Client’s Addiction to Overeating


This is the fourth in the series on Client Retention – A Psychological Perspective provided by psychologist, Kate Swann. Kate is a co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Training Overweight and Obese Clients (available free for FITREC professionals). Kate has also developed the Psychology of Exercise Adherence Level 1 Certificate for Exercise Professionals.

When we’re working with clients in our psychology practice, we hear over and over again how obsessed with food they feel, how powerless they are to stop a binge, and how much better they feel when they’re eating.

And they tell us their despair over their inability to stop, even though they feel that overeating is ruining their lives.

If our clients were talking this way about alcohol instead of food, we’d probably diagnose them as an alcoholic.

In fact, in our experience, binge eaters and overeaters have a lot in common with addicts. They spend time each day longing for the next ‘fix’, the forbidden substance helps them cope with their life, and they’re causing damage to their health.

Feeling like you’re addicted to food is cruel. It’s not like an alcohol addiction in the sense that if you stop drinking alcohol, your body will start to repair itself, and although you may be dealing with cravings, you’ll feel physically fitter and healthier.

And unlike drinking, food addicts don’t have the luxury of going ‘cold turkey’. Without food, even the most obese person will die. So people who feel addicted to food have to continue a battle with every mouthful, every single time they sit down to eat.

But is there such a thing as food addiction? Researchers are divided.

On the yay side, studies have found that food addicts have the same reward signals and signs of dopamine dysfunction as drug addicts (1), that eating can release feel-good hormones in the brain which then craves more (2) , and there are specific mechanisms that drive addictive behaviour that override willpower (3) .

The nay-sayers, however, say people aren’t addicted to food in the same way as they are addicted to alcohol or drugs, the behaviour is more compulsive than addictive (4).

Whether overeating is addictive or compulsive behaviour, we believe the treatment is the same. Understanding the emotional contributors to overeating is the first step. In our experience, most overweight people haven’t learned how to cope with their emotions, and have turned to food when faced with stress.

Like an alcoholic, overeaters often eat in secret. Sure, they will have socially acceptable amounts of food in public, and when watching them, you might be hard-pressed to understand why they are overweight. But there’ll be a secret stash or a quick stop on the way home to stock up for the night binge.

It’s not fun when food rules your life. Feeling like you’re addicted to food leaves overeaters feeling criticised by others for their ‘weakness’, ashamed, and desperately unhappy.

If you suspect a client is struggling with a food addiction, encourage them to explore the emotional reasons behind why they’re overeating. Understanding why creates the space to make different choices about how to deal with life’s stresses.

If you’d like to connect with Kate, you can reach her at PS Counselling in Hawthorn, VIC.

1. Frascella, Potenza, Brown & Childress, 2010. Shared Brain Vulnerabilities open the way for Nonsubstance Addictions: Carving Addiction at a new Joint Shared brain vulnerabilities open the way for nonsubstance addictions: Carving addiction at a new joint? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1187, 294-315.
2. Kavanagh, D. Professor (Clinical Psychologist; Addiction specialist University of Queensland School of Medicine).
3. Mittiga, R, 2011. Food Addiction Australia: A disease just like Drug Addiction. Addiction Treatment Australia: The GATS Program. May 8, 2011
4. Davis, J. Dr. (Eating Disorder Specialist from the Hobart Clinic).


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