The Common Thread Between Food Addiction and Codependency

Food is an organizing factor in all human life, from supplying the basic nutrients necessary to sustain physical function, to serving as the centerpiece of cultural celebrations and social gatherings. Occasional overindulgence is a natural and common experience and one for which our bodies are primed; however, people who have healthy relationships with food can recognize when they’ve had enough and stop eating. When you have a food addiction, you don’t stop. Even when faced with significant physical, emotional, and social consequences, you continue eating.

Seeking specialized treatment for this type of process addiction is essential to disrupting the addictive drive and finding psychological and somatic solace as you regain control of your life. And one of the most significant and illuminating discoveries many people make during treatment is that their food addiction is deeply entangled in codependency. While codependency has long been recognized as a driving force behind substance abuse, we are now beginning to acknowledge the critical role of this maladaptive form of relationship building within all forms of addiction, including process addictions.

Codependency Defined

Since its introduction within the substance addiction community in the 1980s, “codependency” has transformed from a specific clinical term to a popular description of virtually any form of relationship in which one person appears to be dependent on another. When a word is used to characterize everything from an annoying girlfriend in a Cosmo quiz to the destructive dynamic that fuels heroin addiction to your relationship with your cat, it is easy to get confused about what exactlycodependency means. Codependency isn’t simply being clingy or preferring to spend time with someone more than being alone, it’s a “psychosocial condition that is manifested through a dysfunctional pattern of relating to others.” As Span and Fischer write, “This pattern is characterized by: extreme focus outside of self, a lack of open expression of feelings, and attempts to drive a sense of purpose through relationships.”

This pattern is typically learned at a young age as a response to early childhood neglect, abuse, or other family dysfunction and includes an extreme dependency on the approval and acceptance of others while simultaneously ignoring or repressing their own needs in favor of attending to the needs of others. In a 2012 study, Denise Bynum and others explain:

Those suffering with codependency have boundary and control issues, low self-worth as well as physical, emotional, and psychological consequences. Individuals suffering with codependency are susceptible to stress-related medical problems as well as psychological problems.

This description of codependency shares much in common with some of the most prevalent shared experiences of those suffering from food addiction. In fact, Bynum points out, “Anxiety, depression, anger, and compulsivity are the psychological problems most frequently noted in the literature associated with overeating and codependency.” As such, many experts believe that food addiction and codependency are connected via common roots and, indeed, a number of studies suggest that the intensity of symptoms in one is proportional to the intensity of symptoms in the other.

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Shame as a Genesis Story

Darlene Lancer, a marriage and family therapist specializing in addiction and codependency, believes that the common thread that runs through codependency and food addiction is shame. Although for most people, shame is a temporary feeling, Lancer says that, “For addicts and codependents it hangs around, often beneath consciousness. You’re ashamed of who you are. You don’t believe you matter or are worthy of love, respect, success, or happiness.” Over time, this chronic sense of unrelenting shame caused by formative experiences accumulates and manifests in low self-esteem, people-pleasing and other maladaptive behaviors, and a profound inability to meet your own needs. “Shame creates many fears and anxieties that make relationships difficult, especially intimate ones.” Lancer explains:

For codependents, shame can lead to control, care-taking, and dysfunctional, nonassertive communication. […] You aren’t assertive when shame causes you to be afraid to speak your mind, take a position, or express who you are. […] Codependents are afraid to get close because they don’t believe they are worthy of love, or that once known, they’ll disappoint the other person.

At the same time, love and approval are what the codependent person craves, and because you have not learned how to nurture or perhaps even recognize your own needs, you are left in a constant state of struggle, unable to move forward in healthy ways. Instead, you turn to eating as a self-destructive means of filling the void and finding comfort. As your codependency and food addiction deepen, they may also serve to feed off of each other, creating triggers that heighten distress, anxiety, codependent behavior, and your addiction.

Towards Holistic Healing

For people like Alexis Marie, who has struggled with codependency and food addiction throughout her life, discovering the nuanced and reciprocal relationship between the two can be like finally solving a puzzle. “During the past two weeks I realize I have looked for meaning in food, in care taking, in people pleasing, in self sacrifice,” she says:

I have spent the better part of my 27 years going to other things to feel good because in the end I don’t let my needs be met, sacrificing them on the altar of serving others. I used to think that taking care of myself was selfish, but I am getting used to the idea that I must fill my own cup first before filling anyone else’s.

Indeed, healing from both food addiction and codependency relies on simultaneous treatment of both to truly remove their roots and create a strong foundation for lasting recovery. As such, it is critical to choose an addiction treatment program that recognizes the complex relationship between process addictions and other unhealthy emotional and behavioral patterns, and offers specialized therapies and workshops designed to address the unique needs of codependents. After all, the goal of food addiction treatment shouldn’t simply be to stop overeating, but creating the inner tranquility and stability to stop wanting to overeat and expanding your ability to honor and meet your own emotional, physical, and spiritual needs in healthy, positive ways.

Alta Mira offers a comprehensive suite of treatment programs for people struggling with substance addictions, process addictions, and co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about our treatment options and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward sustainable recovery.