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My food addiction was a cycle of total misery – here’s how I learnt to control it

After I retired from the NHS two years ago, I took a course called Holistic Medicine for Addiction with Bitten Jonsson and my focus has been on spreading understanding of food addiction and helping those with it. At present, food addiction is not recognised, despite plenty of evidence. That’s why we are organising the International Food Addiction Consensus conference in London this month, to be opened by Dr Chris van Tulleken, author of Ultra-Processed People

We will give a consensus statement on the disorder which we have been working on for the last 12 months with international researchers and clinicians in the field. It’s vital that the World Health Organisation recognise the condition so that research can be funded and effective treatments developed. 

Even taking the most conservative estimates, we believe there are 4.3 million adults with food addiction in the UK. What may be surprising is that about 11 per cent of people with food addiction are a normal weight or even underweight. 

I’ve also launched an initiative with my nutritionist colleague Heidi Giaever – a programme based on our research at Combe Grove, the centre for metabolic health near Bath. An initial residential retreat is followed by a year of online support. We ran our first group a couple of months ago and the results are incredibly positive; everyone is doing amazingly well. 

It gives the chance to step outside your normal life, away from the usual temptations, so you can adjust to a different way of eating. The psychological aspect is also huge. We always say that food is only 20 per cent of the story and why we eat is the other 80 per cent. We spend a lot of time looking at how you can manage your emotions without food on the retreat. 

Of course I’ve had wobbles over the years: staying in recovery from sugar addiction isn’t easy. I’m certainly not smug and I have no doubts I will have struggles with food again in the future. But for now, I’m confident that there is always a way. My experience and that of our clients gives me that hope. 

How to conquer food addiction

Jen Unwin suggests the following tips

1. Visualise how your life will be better once you have managed to quit your “drug foods”. This precise positive image will motivate you to keep going when things get difficult.

2. Have an honest conversation with friends and family about the foods you struggle with and why you want to quit them. Enlist their support in helping you resist them. 

3. Go through your cupboards, fridge, freezer and car, removing any foods that you will no longer be eating. Refill your stores with real whole foods. Make lists for what you will eat, at least for the first few days. 

4. Have a plan in place for when you get cravings. For example, go for a walk or message someone who is supporting you. Think about taking up a new hobby or interest that doesn’t involve food. Physical activity of any kind is a big help. 

5. Keep taking small steps in the right direction and learn from any mistakes or slips. See setbacks as an opportunity to do better next time. Get support online or join a residential course at Combe Grove.  

Note: If you are on medication for diabetes or high blood pressure, consult your doctor before reducing the sugar and carbohydrates in your diet as medication dosage may need to be adjusted. 

The International Food Addiction Consensus Conference is being held at the Royal College of General Practitioners, London, on May 17.

The next Combe Grove Food Addiction programme is July 15-21.

As told to Jane Alexander

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