Many Addictions Are Hidden, Eating Disorders Edition

clean foods

The fact that many, many addictions are hidden  including eating disorders – is not a surprise to anyone. For some, even characterizing a habit or propensity as an “addiction” feels shaming and limiting. And yet, people do suffer in silence, and struggle in silence. And, living life fully is hampered by these conditions.

So, that’s a bummer, right? On the other hand, when behaviors are hidden, it is very hard for us to know when we are harming someone, “triggering” them. Sometimes, the person themselves doesn’t know in advance what  triggering word, action, event, or food sent them into a spiral, binge, recurrence. That is part of the uncertainty of life, and on the ultimate level, we are better served through strengthening our body, mind, and resiliency rather than avoiding all possible triggers.

On the other hand, when it comes to Disordered Eating, there are patterns we can be aware of, in the interest of being kind to others who may harbor great shame in how they relate to food. Don’t think for a minute that disordered eating is something you can detect; that everyone who suffers from this is either “obese” or atypically thin. In the case of food relationships, then, it may be helpful to understand some known patterns. We could develop our awareness of “fear foods” and “trigger foods” in order to support our friends who are challenged.

Fear foods” are identified over time, and can become a pattern of deprivation. This involves “the systematic elimination of specific food groups,” which can narrow the dietary range to a dangerous level. Fear foods are highly individualized, and so it is difficult for non-professionals to assist a person who has taken this to extremes.

On the other hand, “Trigger foods” are known and can often “be chocolate, chips, ice cream, sugary sweets” … basically they can be anything that triggers the phenomenon of craving and needing more once the person begins to eat it.” Note that the high sugar levels of these common trigger foods. Dr. James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist at St. Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute, recently published a review of dozens of studies, and stated: “You get this intense release of dopamine upon acute ingestion of sugar. After you chronically consume it, those dopamine receptors start becoming down-regulated — there’s less of them, and they’re less responsive,” he said. “That can lead to … a mild state of depression because we know that dopamine is that reward neurotransmitter.” For those who work with substance use disorders, this sounds very familiar.

What to conclude from this?

  • We don’t necessarily know who is struggling with disordered eating. We think we do, but we do not – could be any gender, age, race, body size, income level, etc. 
  • We can’t know what fear foods any individual has (“I can’t eat any carbs” etc.), and those fears are highly individualized based on belief, personal histories, sensory perceptions.
  • However, we can work with common trigger foods, and work toward harm reduction. What does that mean?
    • Cook, bake, serve, and offer low sugar, healthy options (it doesn’t have to be just carrot sticks!)
    • Just like we can have no-alcohol events and still have a good time, we can also celebrate without high-sugar items as the focus of the event – what about offering art creation, movement, music, testimonials, healthy smoothies, etc.
    • Avoid moralizing about food — you can serve it without talking about it so much. Remember, many people have shame/pride about what and how much or how little they eat.
    • And, a brownie or a cookie once in a while – if these are not trigger foods for you – won’t kill you. At the same time, we can all move in the direction of healthful, balanced eating and caring for others’ well-being.