Understanding and Overcoming Food Addiction

Understanding and Overcoming Food Addiction 6

By Dawn Walton

Guest writer for Wake Up World

It’s getting late. You’ve had a long stressful day at work and you are sitting flicking through the TV channels. You are bored. You go to the kitchen and grab the big bag of snacks you bought earlier. You figure you’ll just eat a few and save the rest. Pretty soon you are scrabbling around for crumbs at the bottom of the packet. You feel a bit sick. You go back through to the kitchen and grab some chocolate. You tell yourself you shouldn’t but you do it anyway. It makes you feel better. It makes you feel less stressed.

Later you beat yourself up. Why didn’t you just grab something healthy? Why didn’t you stop when you’d had enough?

You tell yourself you are only eating because you are bored. You decide that tomorrow you will find something else to do so you don’t get bored.

Tomorrow comes. You haven’t found something else to do. You switch the TV on. You go and fetch a bag of snacks. You’ll find that thing tomorrow. Tonight you are too tired.

Night after night you repeat the same behaviour.

You try diets and they kind of work, for a while, but then it gets too much like hard work and you have a day off. Then a few days. And somehow you can’t motivate yourself to start again.

You feel like you have no willpower. What is wrong with you? All these other people seem to be able to eat whatever they want and they’re skinny. Life isn’t fair.

Subconscious action

Obesity has become such a problem all over the globe that it’s now referred to as an epidemic. Everyone is looking for the magic pill. Not a week goes by where someone doesn’t spout the latest research as evidence that some method or other is the answer to obesity: Weigh kids at school, refuse medical treatment for people with a high BMI, educate on healthy foods, etc.

Most research implies that people choose to be overweight; that they choose to have an unhealthy relationship with food. In my experience, over-eating or keeping weight on, is not a cognitive choice. The behaviours that lead to obesity are driven by the subconscious. We know the subconscious drives our actions for at least 90% of the day, so if it has a reason for doing something, then ultimately you will run out of conscious willpower and concede. The problem is that your ability to reason and exert self-control sits in the other 10% of your brain. The 90% is primitive, emotional, and quite frankly, stupid!

So what drives the subconscious if it isn’t logic and reason? How does it know the right way to react? What is the intent?

The purpose of the subconscious is to keep us safe and well. We are all familiar with how it keeps our heart pumping, fights off viruses etc. What most of us don’t realise is that it is also trying to keep us safe from stuff that is external to us; stuff in our environment that may cause us harm. Think about a tiger cub. It will learn from its mum and dad how to hunt, how to sleep safely and loads of other skills. Then, when it goes out on its own as an adult, it will be well prepared to survive.

We are the same, although for us it’s a bit more complex.

Understanding and Overcoming Food Addiction 5

All through childhood your subconscious is looking for lessons that it can learn to keep you safe as an adult; lessons that will go into a rulebook to be followed in that 90% of the time where it is in charge. The lessons for keeping you safe and well internally are pretty scientific, but the lessons for threats coming from your environment can be a little less clear. As far as the subconscious is concerned, it needs this rule book to truly give you the best chance of survival. The problem is that the brain is due a software upgrade. The rules are written based on the caveman principles of survival, where we needed to avoid sabre-toothed tigers and hunt to stay alive.


As a Cognitive Hypnotherapist, I guide clients to rewrite the rules that their subconscious is following. This frees them up from behaviours and thoughts that are holding them back in life. In my book “The Caveman Rules of survival” I explain in detail how the subconscious works and explore the three caveman rules of survival that our brains follow. Using case studies based on clients, I help you see how stuff in your life might be less about choice and conscious thought than you might believe.

Let’s go back to your behaviour at the end of a hard day at work.

Eating is not purely a physical act. You are not eating for fuel. You are eating to satisfy an emotional need. Maybe the food gives you comfort. That comfort is similar to a feeling that you first associated with being in your kitchen as a 6 year old child, eating dinner with your mother. You remember how your mother used to pile up your plate and tell you that you were a growing boy and needed to “eat up to be big and strong when you grow up”? Because of your caveman rule book it is important to notice those things; that  you associated pleasing your mother with finishing all the food on your plate. The rule says “If I eat all the food I will make my mum happy. If I make my mum happy she will love me more. If she loves me more she will look after me. I will not die”.

Now you are an adult, you are still following the rules in your rule book. When you eat, your subconscious time travels and pattern matches to that rule. The rule kicks in and you feel comforted and happy while you are eating. The survival imperative has been met.


By the time you reach fourteen years old 7,363,260 minutes have passed. Any one of those moments could end up as a rule in your rule book. You can never know because it is your subconscious that makes the choice.

It could be anything that drives the imperative to eat. One of the only things we can actually control when we are young is what we eat, and eating is not always about getting a good feeling. Sometimes we eat to escape a feeling or as an act of rebellion.

Let’s consider a different rule that might be behind your eating.

Maybe your parents split up when you were eight years old, and the only thing you felt you could control, when everything else was falling apart, was food.    By being picky about your food you got attention from your parents. A rule went in your rule book that says “when you make a fuss about food, your parents give you attention. Your parents giving you attention means they love you. If they love you they will look after you. You will not die.”  Now, as an adult, you can’t stop that behaviour, even though your parents are no longer around. It’s in the rule book so your subconscious follows it blindly.

In my experience, people who struggle with weight don’t do so due to lack of willpower. They struggle because their primitive subconscious has attached an emotional meaning to eating or to carrying weight. As the subconscious is in charge at least 90% of the day, there is a certain inevitability that your behaviours will default to what it drives. Conscious choice and self-control rarely get a look in.

Understanding and Overcoming Food Addiction 7

So is that it? Does that mean we are stuck with our behaviours? Not at all. The reality is that having a rule book actually makes it remarkably easy to change. The rules that our subconscious learns are miscalculations. They are formed by a primitive and stupid part of our brain, at an age where we have the limited understanding of a child, based on the rules of survival that come from the caveman days. You might have noticed that there are no sabre-toothed tigers, or in fact any predators, around these days. So those moments that were deemed as significant to survival, were simple miscalculations.

Let’s go back to the late night where you start snacking.  Imagine there was a way to travel back in time and have a conversation with the 6 year old version of you. As you look back on that moment from an adult perspective, what might you tell that child that would allow them to see that the food was merely incidental to that memory? How would you show them that their mother loved them irrespective of whether they ate all their food or not? Maybe you would imagine yourself saying “No thank you” when your mother offered you second helpings. Maybe you would then imagine her saying “Well done. I’m proud of you for knowing when you’ve had enough to eat”. If there was no connection between the food and your mother’s love then there would be no lesson for your subconscious to learn; there would be nothing entered in the rule book.

Now imagine travelling to the future. Imagine being offered food and, after some thought, you decline. After all, what’s the point of eating if you aren’t even hungry? It might feel a bit weird. It might feel too easy. It will be easy when you don’t have any resistance from your subconscious.

The thing it’s hard to understand sometimes is that all behaviour has a positive intention. Your subconscious is trying to protect you. Unfortunately, because it is stupid and primitive, the behaviours you end up with can be very negative and destructive. Moving on from those behaviours is simply a matter of tracking down the rule in the rule book and getting rid of it. This is something I do with almost every client in my Cognitive Hypnotherapy practice; we time travel. We use triggers from current thoughts and behaviours to travel back in time to when the subconscious first made the connection. Then we change it. We re-write time and lose the rules from the rule book, freeing you up to be whoever you want to be.

Recommended reading by Dawn Walton:

About the author:

Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton is the author of The Caveman Rules of Survival, and a practicing cognitive hypnotherapist. She runs sessions in person out of offices in Dundee and Aberdeen in the UK, and internationally via Skype and Facetime; most clients only need two or three sessions to rewrite the rules in their rule book.

You can connect with Dawn via:

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