Caroline Cranshaw: How to get over an addiction to food

Do you want to stop eating sugar and processed foods? Do you start most Monday’s motivated and determined and by Wednesday, you’re stuffing your face with the exact food you have sworn off? All the while, knowing that you are sabotaging yourself but still unable to stop.

Here’s the thing, you know what to do. Eat whole foods in smaller portions. Stay away from sugar, white flour and fried foods. It’s so simple but most of us are unable to stick to a healthy diet.

To keep your craving for junk food under control, it’s important to get an understanding of what’s causing us to eat them in the first place. A major reason why we binge eat is we are self-medicating with food. Foods are drugs. We get dopamine (a pleasure chemical) from sugar and serotonin (a mood booster) from starchy carbs. Checking these neurotransmitters is the first place I start with my clients when addressing binge eating and addiction issues.

Here are the most common reasons why you are addicted to food:

1. You are low in dopamine

The motivating neurotransmitter that makes you feel focused, energized and excited. When you are low in dopamine, you tend to feel distracted, sluggish, prone to procrastination and find it hard to take pleasure in life.

What you crave when you are low – sugar, caffeine, cigarettes, energy drinks, diet drinks, porn, sex, amphetamines and cocaine.

How to boost dopamine:

Diet – Almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy, eggs, fish, meat and poultry, oats, sesame and pumpkin seeds may all help your body to produce more dopamine.

SupplementsL-Tyrosine is an amino acid that is the building block for dopamine. It‘s also a precursor to thyroid hormones, so therefore useful to increase low energy levels, boost alertness, as an appetite suppressant, thyroid function and to increase sexual desire.

L-Phenylalanine is also a precursor to dopamine as well as many other important neurotransmitters. It’s a natural mood booster and antidepressant, curbs sugar and stimulant cravings, helps in controlling pain, particularly arthritis and is used to help treat Parkinson’s disease. L-Phenylalanine also helps forms another energizing brain chemical called PEA (phenylethylamine), (also found in chocolate) which is believed to be the chemical most responsible for feelings of euphoria.

2. You are low in serotonin

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter largely responsible for regulating moods and emotions. When your serotonin levels are good, you tend to feel confident, positive, and easygoing. If you’re low in serotonin—you’ll tend to become negative, obsessive-compulsive, worried, irritable and have trouble sleeping. Most antidepressants primarily boost serotonin. Over 90% of your serotonin is made in your gut, so a lot of the time a lack of serotonin is a gut health issue. For people with low serotonin levels, they are most likely to crave alcohol, carbs, white flour, sugar and opiates (morphine, painkillers). These substances can mimic serotonin and lead to a brief increase in serotonin levels, making the person feel temporarily better but having nasty crashes when the levels drop again.

How to boost serotonin

Diet – Serotonin is created from tryptophan in our diet and tryptophan is found in foods like beef, chicken, dairy products, eggs, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, pork, turkey and whey protein. While foods high in tryptophan don’t boost serotonin on their own, there is a way around it: eat them with carbs.

Carbs trigger the body to release more insulin, which causes your body to absorb competing nutrients leaving more tryptophan in the blood, which in turn creates higher serotonin levels. If you want to boost serotonin without supplements, eat high tryptophan with a serving of healthy carbohydrates, like root vegetables, oats, or fruit.

Supplements – 5-HTP (5-hydroxy L-tryptophan) is a naturally occurring metabolite of the amino acid tryptophan. 5-HTP is converted in the brain to serotonin (Caution: Not to be used when taking MAO inhibitors, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or other anti-depressant medications.)

B-Complex– All of the B vitamins are vital for energy, the production of serotonin and are used up rapidly in times of stress.

3. Your subconscious believes it’s not safe to lose weight

Whether your subconscious believes it’s safe to lose weight is something I always look at with my clients in regards to weight loss. We know exactly what to do to lose weight, but most of us are sabotaging any chance of losing weight on a daily basis. You consciously want to lose weight, but your subconscious may think it’s helping you by keeping you overweight for a variety of reason.

I find the two most common reasons your subconscious tries to make you fat are: to make you less attractive to the opposite sex or to appear bigger and stronger. For girls and women, we can have negative or even highly traumatic attention from men, and some part of us wants to hide or make ourselves invisible, so that doesn’t happen again. For boys and men, being bullied or abused triggers a primitive part of ourselves to do what it can to look bigger and tougher. Think about animals, if they feel threatened, they puff themselves up as a defence mechanism.

4. You have unhealthy programs about food in your subconscious mind

You consciously know you shouldn’t eat crap food, but your subconscious loves the way they taste and the drug-like effect they have on your body. This is part of why our willpower runs out, our subconscious mind makes 95 per cent of your decisions and likes to stay on autopilot. Your subconscious is like an operating system, recording everything you do, and making programs out of it.

So, we wake up in the morning and tell ourselves that today’s the day we are going to eat super healthy. But the second we get distracted, stressed or are thinking about something else, our subconscious mind takes over, goes on autopilot and repeats the same habits over and over again. So, start with reprogramming your subconscious. The best way to do that is through visualization which is the language of the subconscious.

You can go to a hypnotherapist, you can buy hypnosis MP3s online for very cheap, or you can listen to guided visualizations on weight-loss on YouTube for free. The Virtual Gastric Band is another technique used by hypnotherapists that is very effective in helping people lose weight. The hypnotherapist takes you through imagining you’ve had the gastric band surgery and therefore you feel full faster and are satisfied with smaller portions of food as well as reprogramming your subconscious to be motivated to exercise and make healthy choices with food.

It’s important to focus on eating healthy unprocessed foods. We become addicted to sugar, wheat and processed foods and it takes a bit of time to reset your brain to stop craving those foods. I highly recommend The Whole 30 diet to do a reset to un-addict yourself from food.

When you feel yourself wanting or starting to eat unhealthy food, stop and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, what are you feeling right now? Are you stressed, angry at your spouse, lonely or bored? There may be a part of you that believes that you are safer being overweight.

I also believe every extra kilo you hold on your body may equal a kilo of emotional trauma you’re carrying in your heart (not to mention tummy, thighs and ass). Balancing your neurotransmitters as well as reprogramming your subconscious mind will help you shed the fat that’s protecting you. If you have been on several diets and still find yourself gain back the weight, there may be an underlying issue you’re not dealing with.

Sometimes we are aware of what’s causing us to be unbalanced, other times we know we’re not happy, but don’t know why. The problem is, feeling unhappy is not normal and it doesn’t go away by pretending it’s not happening, so we seek relief with food, alcohol and drugs, etc.

Figuring out why you are self-medicating and giving your brain and body what it needs in a healthy way, will help you release your addictive tendencies, need to overeat, and eat crap food.  

To help get you on track, here is a link to one of my weight loss visualisations you can listen to for free.

Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz. Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.