In recent years, when talking to people about food and eating, it’s become increasingly common to hear the word “addiction.”
“I’m addicted to sugar,” someone might say. Or, “I’m addicted to pizza.”
As a holistic medicine doctor helping people change their eating patterns, I frequently hear about other eating addictions too. You may know these as “eating disorders” (anorexia and bulimia, for instance).
So does sugar addiction belong in the same group as binge eating? And at what point does an unhealthy habit become an addiction or disorder?
Thing is, the term “addiction”—whatever perspective you take and whatever your “drug of choice”—is just a word. For that word to be useful in creating change, we need to look more closely at what, exactly, we’re talking about.
In doing this, I think of addiction as a story of three circles:
One holds Fear of Too Much.
One holds Fear of Not Enough.
One holds True Self.
The first two circles represent addictive states. States of being consumed by something that is part of us but is not us. States of being disconnected from who we really are.
The last circle represents freedom from addiction’s hold. Freedom to connect with and express our authentic self.
Circle 1 – Fear of Too Much is all about feeling overwhelmed, lost, and maybe even under attack. Things seem out of control.
Many times, people trapped in this circle are acting from a place of trauma, abuse, heartbreak or loss. In an effort to establish control—and feel safe—they turn to restriction, elimination and deprivation. They fear “too much” (coming from within or without) and respond with: No, no, no!
In one manifestation, this can take the form of anorexia. But it also shows up in other patterns involving limitation of food as a form of control—and trying to stop sensations of overwhelm, fear or being attacked. Think constant dieting, obsessive calorie counting, orthorexia, and even excessive exercising.
We can also think of it as the “No, No, No” circle: NO—I’M KEEPING THAT OUT.
This circle is not just about saying No to food, of course. It’s also about cutting off, restricting, and saying No to connection and intimacy with self and others. It’s about loss of true, complete expression of ourselves.
Circle 2 – Fear of Not Enough is all about trying to get one’s needs met. There’s some great lack, hole or wound—along with desperate movement toward filling it, usually with a poor substitute for what’s really needed.
Many times, people trapped in this circle are also acting from a place of trauma, abuse, heartbreak or loss. Often they suffer from a great need that wasn’t met in the past or isn’t being met now. They may be suffering from a wound or hole they are desperate to fill but don’t know how.
In this circle, the response is one of being out of control, excessive behavior and compulsion.
One possible manifestation is binging and purging. But it can also show up as overeating, comfort eating, or sugar addiction. Generally, there’s a trying to get a need met and fill some lack with food….along with fear of not having enough—whether food, love, nurturance, or something else that’s missing.
We can also think of it as the “Yes, Yes, Yes” circle: YES—I NEED MORE…AND MORE… AND MORE.
This circle is not just about saying Yes to too much food. It’s also about not getting our true needs met. People trapped here are saying Yes—more…but are filling the wrong hole. Meanwhile, the hole really needing attention remains malnourished.
So there is expression but false expression. As with Circle 1, we’re missing a true, complete becoming of who we are beneath fears and fear-driven patterns.
Circle 3 – True Self is all about giving expression to our authentic self. It’s about creating space between us and our patterns. Sure, we still have fears, needs and wounds…but we don’t exist in addictive relationship to them.
When we inhabit this circle, we find dynamic balance between strength and flexibility. Control and release. Steadiness and ease.
This allows for experiencing, knowing and acting from another place—from our heart rather than from an addictive cycle. It also allows for understanding what we truly need…and taking right, healing action to get needs met. And it allows for authentic connection with others.
When we inhabit this space, eating is for nourishment—and natural enjoyment. It is NOT out of Fear of Too Much…or Fear of Not Enough. We can listen to—and trust—our bodies. We can eat intuitively because we’re not caught in an addictive cycle.
As you might have guessed, these three circles are not mutually exclusive.
The two I’ve labeled “addictive states” rest on either end of a continuum. Most of us humans move between them. This movement is often between the two addictive circles themselves…as well as between those and the circle of True Self.
This latter movement offers hope. It keeps addiction from defining us and our experience.
Each time we connect with True Self, we move away from the repetitive, destructive hold of addiction. We stop causing pain for self or others, and we stop reinforcing the painful pattern. We recover a glimpse of who we really are and who we might become. A glimpse—and an expression—of our authenticity.
By this point, you may be thinking these circles have to do with far more than eating addiction.
You’re right. Any addiction has an impact on: 1) all aspects of a person and 2) all relationships in a person’s life.
That’s why the stakes are so high. And why moving toward an authentic, balanced place is so important.
If you see yourself inside an addictive circle, how do you do this? How do you seek freedom and find true center?
You know, it’s really, really hard. AND it’s absolutely possible.
I find the answer has a lot to do with finding your right balance between surrender and sovereignty.
It also has a lot to do with these 5 healing steps:
1. Ask yourself—with an abundance of compassion and honesty—whether you exist in one of those addictive circles.
- Is your use of a food or eating behavior repetitive and painful? Like a bad cycle on repeat?
- Are you eating from Fear of Too Much—trying to find control or safety through restriction and deprivation?
- Are you eating from Fear of Not Enough—trying to fill a place of lack or soothe some wound through excessive consumption?
- Are your eating patterns “connecting” or “disconnecting” from self and others?
It’s okay if these questions are uncomfortable. As best you can, allow space for that. Meet it with curiosity and gentleness. Answering really honestly—and facing your answers—is where the surrender comes in.
2. After surrendering to the truth of where you are with food and eating, then you get to to decide.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you decide to leave your addiction behind and that’s that. But it does mean you see your sphere of choice, and you declare sovereignty—or responsibility—for everything within that sphere. For your choices.
You’re not expected to make all the “right” choices from that point forward. But just by getting clear where you have choice—and what you’re choosing—things will start to shift…one conscious decision at a time.
Caught in a painful, repetitive, addictive cycle? Well, each time you choose something different, you lessen its hold.
3. Once you decide, then comes the difficult, long game. I like to think of this as “chopping wood, carrying water.” Another way to think of it is “just doing the next right, healing thing.”
Others talk about “willpower” here, but to me that carries a sort of harshness and judgement. Plus, people relying on willpower alone often relapse (makes sense, seeing as willpower is limited and pretty exhausting).
Whatever approach you prefer, after deciding, you’ll have to do the next healing thing. And do it again. And keep doing it. And, for a while at least, this will be really hard.
As best you can: see this, acknowledge your experience with utmost care, and still do the next healing thing. Chop wood. Carry water. The easier part—the integration that replaces struggle—emerges from there. From balancing surrender and sovereignty.
4. Want to make it easier? And more fun? Find something you wholeheartedly love to do.
Addiction, in extinguishing our authentic self, makes us lose track of what we really love. It makes us forget our capacity to love wholeheartedly and to feel fully alive in the way we did as children—without external substances.
Good news is, you were born with that capacity and still have it. This is huge, because it means recovery from an eating addiction doesn’t have to be miserable. It also means that one of your most important jobs is to remember, figure out, or create something you wholeheartedly love to do. And then do it.
No one can tell you what that is. And it’s okay not to know. Just know, thinking back to your child-self, that you do have what it takes. You are fully capable of being in that awake, alive place without your drug of choice.
5. Lastly, consider support.
Stepping out of an eating addiction is really, really hard. Plus, as you might have guessed, working with patterns in the Fear of Too Much circle (anorexia or orthorexia, for instance) can look very different from working with those in the Fear of Not Enough circle (say, bulimia or excess comfort eating).
Even the specifics of “chopping wood, carrying water” or “doing the next healing thing” look different for everyone. When I work with Alchemist Eating clients, I have a host of powerful strategies that I use for different people, depending on the situation.
This has a lot to do with what circle your eating pattern falls into—and you as an individual. But, suffice to say, one person’s medicine can be another’s drug. Some of knowing what you need is intuitive. And sometimes, it really helps to lean into a trained, caring professional.