Avoiding Food Addiction Relapse

by Kay Sheppard, LMHC, CEDS

For those caught in the destructive nature of food addiction and the complications of maintaining long-term recovery, relapse is always a possibility. A woman in relapse recently noted, “My world got narrower and narrower — fewer clothes, fewer food choices, fewer friends, and fewer things to do.” She, who had been so animated in recovery, became incapacitated in relapse. She had returned to the disease of food addiction with all its negative consequences.

The relapse phenomenon is characterized by

  • a history of attempts to recover from food addiction without lasting success
  • a resumption of binge or binge-purge behavior, despite involvement in a recovery program
  • continuing obsession with food, weight and body image
  • a recovery process affected by inability to think clearly, memory problems, frequent emotional reactions, depression, continuing anxiety, sleep disturbances and extreme hypersensitivity to stress and
  • futile attempts to control food consumption and weight.

Professionals in the field of addiction treatment realize that individuals who are relapse-prone will benefit from recovery programs which specifically address relapse patterns. The major goals of relapse recovery for food addicted individuals are to evaluate the pattern of relapse, learn about the relapse process, and develop a personal plan to avoid future relapse.

Because recovering people cannot achieve perfect recovery, those who are in recovery are also in some stage of relapse. The key to continued recovery is to be aware of relapse in order to guard against it in the earliest stages. Most food addicts relapse because they do not know how to prevent it. Relapse, a process of decompensating in recovery, involves increasingly more disease-related behaviors performed along with fewer recovery-related tasks.

Relapse is walking backward through the recovery process toward the disease, discarding recovery tools along the way. The relapse process is complete when the individual returns to the use of the addictive substance, at which time the disease is triggered at the physical level by the substance.

Relapse does not begin with the first bite of addictive substances. It is a spontaneous, usually unconscious, process which ends with binge eating. Recovery is based upon the conscious avoidance of relapse. This is accomplished by “constant vigilance and awareness,” as recommended in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Maintaining awareness of clean abstinence and an effective recovery program will serve to support continuing recovery.