How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help Treat Food Addiction

Woman eating a chocolate bar

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If you have difficulty with overeating, you may wonder whether cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you stop your problem behaviors and food addiction. This example puts you in the place of a fictitious person who has characteristics and circumstances often seen in people who come for treatment for food addiction. This can show you what happens in CBT and how it can help people stop overeating.

Overeating and Binge Eating Behaviors

You are a person with a binge eating disorder who binges on candy, cookies, and chocolate several times a day. Your overeating started in childhood when you would eat candy in secret at night. You describe your binges as emotional eating because you eat when you felt upset.

You do everything you can to prevent weight gain, including skipping regular meals, exercising for hours, using laxatives to "clear yourself out," and occasionally, making yourself vomit. Your family doctor became concerned that you were developing problems with incontinence from laxative overuse, and they referred you to CBT to help you stop overeating.

Overeating Due to Emotional Reasoning

Your cognitive-behavioral therapist guides you in recording the thoughts and feelings you experience before, during and after bingeing on sweet food. By analyzing the thoughts and feelings you have around food, you and your therapist come to understand that you are emotional eating and possibly even binge eating in response to negative emotions due to faulty thinking (cognitive distortions).

As your weight has increased, your self-esteem has worsened. Many times a day, you would interpret small chance occurrences as reasons to feel bad about yourself. Once you start keeping track of your thought processes, you realize how often this is happening.

For example, if someone pushed in front of you in line, you would feel that this must mean you are a worthless person, and you would immediately buy a bar of chocolate to eat and make yourself feel better. One day, a colleague didn't respond when you said "Good morning," and you reasoned this was because your colleague disliked you.

At your first opportunity, you made an excuse to slip out and buy a pack of cookies and ate the whole pack. Your performance review at work was rated "good," and you thought that anything less than "excellent" meant you were terrible at your job, so you spent the evening eating cake and ice cream.

Each time a minor disappointment of this sort occurred, which was almost daily, you would go to your secret stash of chocolate or head to the grocery store for a binge. In spite of this well-established pattern of behavior, although you wanted to stop overeating, you just did not know another way to handle your uncomfortable feelings of worthlessness.

Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The CBT therapist explains to you that your binge eating is based on emotional reasoning and, although eating might make you feel temporarily comforted, would not help you feel better about yourself. In fact, overeating was having the opposite effect and was actually making you feel worse about yourself, which would then worsen your overeating.

With your therapist you learn ways to challenge the faulty thinking and also learn alternative coping strategies to deal with the negative emotions. Together, you plan a different approach to handling disappointment. With practice, you are able to interpret people’s responses more realistically, so you are not constantly feeling inadequate. You also practice methods for improving your self-esteem. As your self-esteem improves, you became more able to refrain from snacking and bingeing and began to eat more nutritious food.

A Word From Verywell

If this sounds like you, there is help out there. In addition to taking to trusted friends and loved ones, it's important to seek professional help from someone who specializes in CBT for disordered eating behaviors.

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.