Food Addiction Recovery and Radical Self-Care

By Olivia Pennelle 11/10/17

Food, drugs, sex, money—they all stimulate the same reward circuit. And there is never enough.

A woman eating pizza holding a glass of wine
Food, meth, and any other potentially addictive substance all cater to our brain's desire for instant gratification in the form of released dopamine.

Last June, psychiatrist Richard Friedman wrote the popular New York Times article, What Cookies and Meth Have in Common. He argued that while no one would choose food or drug addiction—or their consequences—humans have created the perfect environment for addiction.

We all have triggers that lead us to either drink, drug, or eat addictively. Despite a body of scientific evidence that now connects stress to addiction, Friedman highlighted that there remains a disparity between how we view and accept comfort eating, but some still see drug addiction as a moral failing or a poor choice. He suggests that they are both addiction.

For me, it was a combination of stress and inability to cope with life that led to my addictive behaviors. I sought to avoid myself—my underlying depression and my feelings. My solution was to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, and food.

Biologically, we know that drugs, alcohol, and certain foods have the same effect of stimulating the brain’s reward center through the release of dopamine. The brain remembers that reward and seeks it out again by repeating the behavior. 

What’s more, stress can biologically affect the brain in a way that can lead to addiction. Friedman states that we don’t all have the same amount of dopamine receptors (D2) in our brains: “Today, the more D2 receptors you have, the higher your natural level of stimulation and pleasure — and the less likely you are to seek out recreational drugs or comfort food to compensate.” He cites studies that found both stress and the use of addictive substances contribute to lower levels of D2. That deficiency in receptors continues long after you stop using drugs too, with former users being less motivated and discontent. 

I found that when I stopped abusing drugs and alcohol, my disordered relationship with food—particularly binge-eating—only increased. I felt chronically depressed and sought to soothe myself and improve my mood with food. But the relief was temporary and I would hate myself afterwards. I didn’t know that what I was doing was transferring my addiction from one substance to another. I had no idea that my brain was low in dopamine and that is why I was seeking food substances to stimulate dopamine release. And I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t able stop this cycle of binge eating, despite being nearly 150 pounds overweight and feeling miserable.

Friedman isn’t the first to acknowledge the body of evidence which demonstrates that those who suffer with addiction have some sort of impairment in their rational brain—the prefrontal cortex. That area of the brain is responsible for rational thought, the ability to think critically, and where we exercise restraint. He cites a study which proved that that drug (and high-fat sugary food) exposure also contributes to a loss of self-control because fewer dopamine receptors correlate to lower activity in the prefrontal cortex. He later says:

“Contemporary humans did not experience a sudden collapse in self-control. What happened is that cheap, calorie-dense foods that are highly rewarding to your brain are now ubiquitous. Once you’ve had a glass of orange juice, you are not likely to be as satisfied with a healthier and less caloric orange that you have to peel...The processed food industry has transformed our food into a quasi-drug, while the drug industry has synthesized ever more powerful drugs that have been diverted for recreational use.”

The food industry doesn’t help. We live in a world where food has been manipulated to become hyper-palatable – which simply means laden with fat, sugar, and salt to be irresistibly appealing. Scientists have even engineered these foods to trigger emotional cues that signal your brain to eat, even when you are not hungry. Once you take a bite, the food sparks the brain’s reward system, which motivates you to eat more of it. This is why you open a packet of cookies and suddenly realize you have eaten at least half of the packet. Add the influence of food advertising, and factors such as stress, and you have the perfect recipe for a disordered relationship with food.

Once I realized these facts, I was able to stop blaming myself for a lack of willpower. I stopped punishing myself and calling myself names, like glutton. I can’t believe that I had listed this as a defect of character on my 6th step. My brain was deficient in these chemicals – I needed to seek alternative means of producing those chemicals and stop the reward-seeking behavior. I started to get help by eating the right foods to fuel my body, and using exercise to boost my mood and self-esteem, and I sought medical support.

We now know that the substance itself doesn’t matter—food, drugs, sex, money—they all stimulate the same reward circuit. And there is never enough. I needed to break the cycle of using a substance that stimulated my brain in that way. I knew that if I could overcome addiction, I could also overcome this vicious cycle of binge eating. Friedman's article includes research showing that you can change your substance-using reward-seeking behavior; while he acknowledge that genetics play a large part in addiction, we do have the power to rewire the brain through our environment.

My main course of action: I stopped buying foods full of fat, sugar, and salt; instead I bought whole foods that were minimally processed. I practiced asking myself what I really needed when I was tempted to buy the unhealthy foods. I increased my self-care activities—such as yoga, journaling, and exercise—to cope with the life events I struggled with. Those activities released stress naturally.

Ultimately, I have gotten to know who I am—what makes me tick, what I like, and what I don’t like. I have a better understanding of what my body and mind needs. I now understand that I am an introvert; I can get easily overstimulated and I need a quiet space to retreat to. Recently, my home environment was inundated with noisy people that aggravated my senses to such a degree that I thought I would implode. I felt like my space had been invaded and I had no place to retreat to. I became tearful, frustrated, angry, and struggled to focus on my writing. Thankfully, I have some practice at caring for myself and had to implement a radical self-care strategy:

  • I spoke to friends and expressed how I felt
  • I removed myself from the stressful situation
  • I increased my exercise
  • I attended more yoga classes; and
  • I sought solace in other spaces: libraries, parks, a sauna or steam room.

The desire to avoid difficult feelings with substances hasn’t completely gone away, but now I have some practice at choosing an alternative option which gives my brain space to pause, and chose a self-caring activity instead. That is recovery.

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including, Workit Health, Ravishly, Recovery Campus, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE. Find Liv on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Liv also co-hosts a podcast — Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Listen here.