How to Overcome Food Addiction

Jay Earley, PhD

When you are addicted to food, it is because you are engaged in what is called emotional eating, where you eat for psychological reasons, and not just for pleasure or nourishment. I will discuss what this means using the concept of parts, which comes from Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), a powerful, user-friendly form of psychotherapy that can be used for self-therapy. IFS recognizes that our psyches are made up of different parts, sometimes called sub-personalities. You can think of them as little people inside us. Each has its own perspective, feelings, memories, goals, and motivations.

I call the part of you that is addicted to food the Indulger. This part may overeat to numb feelings of neediness, fear, shame, or grief. It may eat in order to give you a feeling of being cared for and loved. It might also overeat in order to suppress the feeling of anger or the action of assertiveness because it thinks these are unacceptable or dangerous. There are many possible underlying motivations for this addiction. You can take my Overeating Psychology Quiz to get some understanding of yours.

The Indulger and the Food Controller

An important dynamic around food addiction is the relationship between the Indulger and the part of you that tries to control the addiction, which I call the Food Controller. This part is an Inner Critic, a part that judges you, attacks you, and tries to control your behavior. Almost all of us struggle with Inner Critic parts in some areas of our lives.

The Food Controller is concerned about the real-world consequences of your food addiction (for example, gaining weight, harming your health, being unattractive). It may also be afraid of other people judging or rejecting you. The Food Controller tends to be rigid and punitive. It usually has fixed and precise standards for how you should eat. It tries to enforce these standards by attacking and shaming you when you fail to measure up. As long as you follow the dictates of the Food Controller, it won’t judge you, but if you get out of line, then it will attack.

The Food Controller and Indulger are engaged in a power struggle inside you. They battle it out when food is available—for example, when you’re in front of the fridge at night. Sometimes the Food Controller takes over for a while, and you are very careful with your diet. Then the Indulger takes over, and you go on an eating binge. And afterwards, the Food Controller takes back control and shames you unmercifully for this.

This struggle will be intensified if your Indulger wants to rebel against your Food Controller. It may purposely engage in the food addiction just to prove that it can’t be pushed around by the Food Controller. And all of this activity usually takes place unconsciously. All you know is that you are eating too much.

How to Overcome Food Addiction Using IFS

Most people think that overcoming food addiction means the Food Controller is completely in charge. They figure that if the Indulger can’t act out, everything will be just fine. However, the irony is that often the more stringent the Food Controller is, the stronger the Indulger becomes. So in order to fully resolve this problem, you must heal and transform both the Food Controller and the Indulger. Let’s look at the Indulger first.

Using IFS, you get in touch with the Indulger, make a connection with it and find out its underlying motivations for overeating. Then you access the wounded inner child parts of you (exiles in IFS) that the Indulger is trying to soothe or suppress. IFS has a sequence of steps for healing these exiles of the emotional wounds they carry.

Then the Indulger can relax and let go of its excessive need for food because your eating is no longer driven by unresolved emotional issues. Keep in mind that there is often more than one exile that is being soothed or suppressed by the Indulger, and usually all of them must be healed before it will let go.

If the Indulger is also trying to stop you from being angry or aggressive, you will want to explore what makes the Indulger afraid of these behaviors and work through these fears.

This is the first step in how to overcome food addiction, but you must also work with the Food Controller. The aim of this work is for your Food Controller to let go of its rigid standards and allow you to have healthy sensuality and self-care in your life. The Food Controller is probably also protecting an exile, so this part will also need to be healed for the Food Controller to fully let go. For example, if you were ridiculed by your peers for being fat as a child, your Food Controller will be trying to protect you from the shame that is carried by the exile who took on the ridicule.

If the Food Controller and Indulger are fighting with each other, it can be useful to have a dialogue between them to help resolve their conflict. You can moderate this dialogue and help these parts to listen to each other and work together for your good rather than trying to overcome each other.

Transforming Food Addiction with Self-Therapy Journey

You can see that how to overcome food addiction is complex, but I offer help in doing this work. Self-Therapy Journey is an online interactive tool for psychological healing and personal growth that has a module for both the Indulger and the Food Controller as well as other patterns that are often involved in food addiction. It provides all the tools you need for food addiction help.

Self-Therapy Journey tracks your work with these parts and provides recorded IFS guided meditations to work with them, heal your exiles, and work through the inner conflict between the Food Controller and Indulger. It also helps you to develop the healthy capacities of Conscious Consumption and Pleasure and to create a personalized homework practice for changing how you relate to food. As a result, you will be able to lose weight and take care of yourself and your need for pleasure. Click here to learn more about Self-Therapy Journey and try it out for free.