Overcoming Food Addiction

By: Jane Birch

Food addiction is as powerful as other forms of addiction. Treat it seriously. Overcoming these addictions can be difficult. This page will focus mainly on practical suggestions, but for an overview and discussion of this topic, see:

The End Goal

Food addiction is the inability to give up (or be satisfied with small portions of) any particular food or food ingredient (like sugar). (If you are not sure you are experiencing food addiction, try this simple test: “Am I a Food Addict?”)

We are each different, and each of us will need to figure out what strategy works best for us, but we all share a common end goal: to eat in such a way that we eliminate (or at least reduce to a manageable level) all powerful cravings that encourage us to eat in unhealthful ways.

Some people are able to eat small quantities of foods that are addicting without triggering overwhelming cravings for more. Even if all of us can do that with certain foods, there are other foods that we may find impossible to enjoy in small quantities. These are the foods it is best to entirely eliminate, at least as long as it takes to totally control these cravings. There are many ways to get there.

Basic Strategies for Everyone

  1. Learn as much as you can about the whole food, plant-based way of eating. The more you understand the power of this diet, the more motivated you’ll be to stay committed. Make a serious topic of study for at least a few months. You can find resources here: WFPB Resources
  2. Prayerfully study the Word of Wisdom in D&C 89. Seek the Lord’s counsel and guidance for you. Rely wholly on the Lord.
  3. Keep a journal to help you reflect on where you are now and where you want to be and ideas you have to get there.
  4. Adopt a new identify as someone who simply “does not eat unhealthy foods,” period. Tell everyone. But remember: it is not that you can’t eat some things, but that you choose not to.
  5. Find a friend or support group to help you. Search for “Find a Buddy” on “Getting Started.”
  6. Don’t rely on will power!
    • Always have a plan. Planning trumps willpower. Don’t rely on willpower or you will fail. Plan your meals and your snacks, especially when you are eating out. Eat before you go. Research the menu at the restaurant. Plan ahead what you will say to your server: “Do you have vegetarian dishes?” “I would like that with no cheese.” “Please bring me just vinegar for my salad.” “Please ask the chef to sauté the vegetables without using oil.” Plan ahead what you will say to your friends or associates when they try to get you to order dessert, “I’m not hungry.” “I’m having some health issues.” “I’m on a sugar fast.”
    • Don’t go hungry! WFPB expert Doug Lisle, tells us, “The power in willpower is glucose.” Research shows that taste doesn’t influence willpower as much as blood glucose does. Eat enough food and have enough healthy food available so that you don’t get so hungry you start reaching for anything.

Strategies for Changing Your Food Environment

As we know from other forms of serious addiction, environmental cues are a major cause of triggering cravings and relapsing. Your food environment is key to your diet. Remember this basic food rule: You can’t eat what doesn’t come close to your mouth! As much as possible eliminate or avoid situations where you will see, smell, or even hear the sound of non-WFPB foods.

  1. Clean out your fridge and cupboards of ALL non-WFPB foods. Give the food to friends and family who want it, or to charity, or just throw it away. You are not “wasting” anything. Better in the trash than in your body temple.
  2. If you live with others not eating this diet, ask them if they would be willing to support you on this diet. Explain why it is important to you, and what you are willing to do to make it easier for them (e.g. cook for them). Ask if they’d be willing, for example, to eat only WFPB foods in the house and save non-WFPB foods for outside of the house.
  3. If people living with you must have non-WFPB foods in the house, arrange with them to place their foods where you can’t see the food unless you make an effort. Best place: in that person’s own bedroom (assuming they don’t share it with you!). You could even buy that person a small fridge so they can keep their food in a separate place. They can also hide dry foods in storage spaces in their bedroom or another designated location. Ask them to hide non-WFPB foods in a bag when they bring it home and eat it out of your sight as much as it possible.
  4. NEVER buy non-WFPB foods.
  5. Try not to shop in stores that specialize in non-WFPB foods and avoid the aisles at the grocery story where these foods are prominent.
  6. Locate a few restaurants or health food stores that have one or more WFPB options so you can stop there as needed or desired.
  7. Let all of your friends and family know you have changed your diet and ask for their support. It is only fair to let them know so they are not caught off guard and also so they can support you. Suggest ways they can help you stay on track. Most people want to help us, and will, if they know how.

Strategies for those who can go cold turkey

  1. Pick a date to go 100%.
  2. Before that date, work hard to learn all you can about WFPB and to find recipes that you like.
  3. Clean up your food environment and notify friends and family.
  4. It may be helpful if you set a goal for going 100% for a limited number of weeks at first, rather than “forever.” “Forever” is psychologically hard. You might, for example, plan to go 100% for 8-12 weeks and then re-evaluate.
  5. Once you begin, don’t look back! You can do this! Adopt a new identity. People who join the Church have a change of identity. In addition to become a disciple of Christ, they become a person who simply does not/will not smoke or drink. We have to do something similar. We have become the type of people who simply do not eat unhealthy foods. Tell yourself, “I’m not the kind of person who eats . . . processed foods, junk foods, sugar, animal foods [or whatever it is that you should give up.”
  6. See also, Strategies for Going Cold Turkey.

Strategies for those with food addictions

Most of us have one or more food addictions. The fact that it is an “addiction” means it is not easy to overcome. It will take sustained effort and commitment. When it comes to food addictions, we have to get away from the “this once won’t hurt” mentality. On the other hand, when we do slip up, we also need to QUICKLY forgive ourselves and move on! Shame is a tool the devil uses to deceive us. God knows we will stumble. It is part of the learning process. The harder the challenge we have to overcome, the stronger we can become, and the more help we can be to others. If you are determined, you can and will succeed. Joseph Smith said, “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not. The devil has no power over us only as we permit him” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 181).

Spiritual Strategies

  1. Pray always! Elder M. Russell Ballard tells us: “If anyone who is addicted has a desire to overcome, then there is a way to spiritual freedom—a way to escape from bondage—a way that is proven. It begins with prayer—sincere, fervent, and constant communication with the Creator of our spirits and bodies, our Heavenly Father. . . . there is hope for the addicted, and this hope comes through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ and by humbling oneself before God, pleading to be freed of the bondage of addiction and offering our whole soul to Him in fervent prayer.”
  2. Study the gospel. Elder Boyd K. Packer wrote, “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.” Study the Word of Wisdom and other scriptures and good books. For example, ponder what it means to you that the Word of Wisdom was given for the “weakest of all Saints” (D&C 89:3).
  3. Read the Book of Mormon. Elder Bednar recommends when we have a serious question that we re-read the entire Book of Mormon with that question in mind. You’ll be amazed at what you find. For example, ponder 1 Nephi 3:7. Make a list of other scriptures you find and review them frequently.
  4. Study the words of LDS Church leaders on addiction. They warn us frequently to avoid addictions OF ALL KINDS, including food addiction. The basic process of addiction is the same, whether it is a substance or a behavior, so most of the advice relevant to one addiction is equally relevant to all addictions. See, “Quotes from LDS Church Leaders on Addiction.”
  5. Fast. It can be a 24-hour fast, skipping one meal, or simply fasting between meals. One of the purposes of fasting is to bring your spirit back into control over your body. Take advantage of that. Study Elder Russell M. Nelson’s excellent October 2013 General Conference address, “Decisions for Eternity.” He says, “A pivotal spiritual attribute is that of self-mastery—the strength to place reason over appetite. Self-mastery builds a strong conscience. And your conscience determines your moral responses in difficult, tempting, and trying situations. Fasting helps your spirit to develop dominance over your physical appetites. Fasting also increases your access to heaven’s help, as it intensifies your prayers.”
  6. Looking for happiness outside of yourself leads to addiction. Identify why you are eating something unhealthy. Are you too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (HALT)? Are you fulfilling an emotional need? Can you turn that over to the Lord and ask Him to fill you? Can you recognize the source of your craving and reaffirm that there is only one Source that will ever completely fulfill that need? (Hint: it’s not food.)

Psychological Strategies

  1. Find the will and desire inside yourself to change. You have to be doing this for yourself and not for someone else or you’ll fail.
  2. “The A-Number-1 rule: Love yourself and be patient with yourself. It is not a mortal sin to occasionally revert back to a SAD meal. If you slip up, be patient and understanding with yourself; don’t make a big deal about it; just resolve to avoid the problem in the future. The harder you are on yourself, the more difficulty you’ll have loving yourself, and the harder it will be for you to stay strong” (Scott Zimmerman). Shame is crippling. Beating up on yourself leads to acting more on the addiction.
  3. Learn to face your feelings. Walk through your feelings. Feelings are valid. Feel them and let them pass through you. Feelings naturally change, and they will pass.
  4. Remember: You are not alone!

Behavioral Strategies

  1. Use a chart to hold yourself accountable. It can be very satisfying to put a checkmark on your chart to indicate you didn’t eat any chips (sugar, cheese, or whatever) that day.
  2. The second law of thermodynamics says that we tend to go from a state of order to disorder. This is true both spiritually and physically. We go to church and read scriptures as a way to keep our spirit from “disorder.” We need to CONSTANTLY remind ourselves of why we make the health choices we make. You can do this by using books, websites, friends, and any other resource that keeps you motivated. Here is one useful site discussing why and how to avoid SOS (Salt, Oil, Sugar), “Why Go SOS-Free?. More WFPB Resources.
  3. Great ideas from Doug Lisle, PhD, “4 Ways to Increase Your Willpower.”  1. Keep your environment clean. 2. Eat something healthy FIRST. Whenever you are tempted, instead of telling yourself you can’t have the off-plan item, simply choose to eat something healthy first, then re-evaluate whether you still want that other thing; 3. Daily Exercise: Lay out your exercise clothes to remind you to exercise—exercise helps you stay on track with healthy eating; 4. Go to bed on time—get enough sleep but not too much. Sleep has an impact on appetite and willpower.
  4. Avoid situations where you’ll be surrounded with temptations. If you know the environment will tempt you (like a Christmas party), don’t go or don’t go alone. Go with someone you can be accountable to.
  5. Find positive ways to use your time and focus your energies instead of eating food. Be sure not to substitute a non-food addiction for your food addiction! Positive activities could include prayer, reading the scriptures, wholesome books, family activities, sports, exercise, comedy, etc.
  6. No matter what strategies you use, remember when it comes to addiction, the easiest way in the long run is to totally give up whatever foods you can’t eat sparingly. Don’t rely on willpower! Willpower is only needed when you have to make a decision. If you totally give up tempting foods, you’ll never have to make a decision about whether or not to eat them again. The decision has already been made. You’ve adopted a new identify as someone who does not eat those foods. Period. By doing this, you’ll literally lose the cravings for those foods within a very short time frame!

Strategies for those with more serious food addictions

Most serious addicts cannot overcome their addictions on their own. They need both the help of the Lord and also of other people. Like other addictions, serious food addictions require tried and true methods for overcoming addictions.

If you have a serious food addiction, consider joining a Twelve-Step Program. The LDS Addiction Recovery Program is wonderful. The program shows you HOW to turn to the Savior for help in becoming free of addiction. They sponsor group meetings for all forms of addiction. They also provide a free guidebook you can download (you do not have to attend meetings—or be addicted to alcohol or pornography—to greatly benefit from the guidebook).

There are many other groups designed with sound principles and people who can support you in overcoming food addiction. Just be aware that not all groups will support your commitment to eat a whole food, plant-based diet. Many are anti-carb (because sugar and refined flour are two top food addictions). Make sure the group or sponsor you work with will fully support a Word of Wisdom-based WFPB diet.

Most of these groups have the same philosophy: “Food Addiction is a biochemical disorder that occurs at a cellular level and therefore cannot be cured by willpower or by therapy alone. We feel that food addiction is not a moral or character issue. This Twelve Step program believes that food addiction can be managed by abstaining from (eliminating) addictive foods, following a program of sound nutrition (a food plan), and working through the Twelve Steps of the program. After we have gone through a process of withdrawal from addictive foods many of us have experienced miraculous life-style changes.”

Other 12 Step Programs

Other Approaches to Overcoming Food Addiction

Why Struggle When This is So Hard?

It is important to struggle to overcome food addiction BECAUSE this is so hard. Someone has to begin the tradition of healthful eating in our families, even though it is hard. If we don’t do it, will our children or our grandchildren? Someone needs to be the pioneer and stop passing the Standard American Diet (SAD) down through the generations. Otherwise, generations of kids will become as addicted to SAD as we are and have as hard a time changing. Where will the change begin if not with us? How many generations will suffer if we don’t take a stand?

Resources for Understanding Food Addictions

Understanding the Food Industry’s Role in Addiction

Dealing with Other Challenges

Last updated: December 23, 2016

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