My food addiction shame – and how I learnt to control it

Jen pictured aged 36 during her struggles with food (left) and aged 59 after she discovered low-carbohydrate diets
Jen pictured aged 36 during her struggles with food (left) and aged 59 after she discovered low-carbohydrate diets

My brightest early memory is of warm cheese scones, slathered in melting butter. I was maybe four years old. When I think back, all my early memories involve food. It was front and centre in our family and I saved all my pocket money to spend on sweets. 

My parents were emotionally “absent” for quite a while following the death of my uncle in a car accident and my father’s life-threatening renal cancer. It put a strain on the family and I turned to food for comfort and amusement. I would sneak food from the kitchen – whatever I could find: rounds and rounds of buttery toast with peanut butter and salad cream; hot milk with loads of sugar; condensed milk; baking chocolate…

By the time I reached 12, I weighed over 12st (76 kilos). An overweight child was a rare thing in the 1970s and I was the only one in my class. I hated it but, in hindsight, I was already addicted to sugar. I got the shakes if I couldn’t eat regularly and food was how I managed my boredom and anxiety.

Jane Unwin 11
Jane in a school photo aged 11

In my teens I embarked on a series of crazy diets with my mum (who I’m pretty sure was also a food addict) – including the egg and grapefruit diet and the cabbage soup diet. Aged 16, I finally managed to lose just over 3st. I was thrilled, but inevitably the weight crept back on. Decades of yo-yo dieting followed – it was a cycle of total misery. I wasn’t ever vastly overweight because of the constant dieting but food was an unhealthy obsession.

Meanwhile every other area of my life was a success. I qualified as a clinical psychologist and embarked on a career within the NHS which I loved. I met David, a GP, in 1995 and we married in 1997.

I didn’t talk about my food struggles with David initially, but they couldn’t stay hidden for long. Although I was a normal weight I was obsessed both with what I ate and with trying not to overeat. I dieted for our wedding but started overeating again on the honeymoon. David already had two children, Katie (aged seven) and Robert (aged two) and we had Edward in 2000. I tried to eat well during the pregnancy but when I was tired and busy after the birth I just relied on KitKats to keep going.

Jen Unwin
Jen: 'After the birth I just relied on KitKats to keep going'

My life was wonderful in every way – apart from my relationship with food. I would kid myself that I could control my eating but even the tiniest taste of cake or chocolate would set off uncontrollable cravings. I dieted for my daughter’s wedding and had a small piece of cake at the reception. I was overtaken by an irresistible urge to keep returning to the dessert table until I felt sick. The next day I felt utterly wretched and hopeless about ever controlling what I ate.

There was simply no middle ground. I was either waiting to be alone in the house so that I could make raw cake mix or drive to the local cinema and get a huge ice cream with chocolate sauce to eat in the car, or I was on some strict low-fat plan. I once fasted for eight days straight. I knew I couldn’t go on like this. My mind was so preoccupied with food and weight that I wasn’t emotionally available for the family that I loved.

My relationship with food was harming me physically and emotionally and I was utterly ashamed that, as a psychologist, I was unable to understand or control my own behaviour. I did the endless round of diet schemes and saw endless diet coaches, but I was too embarrassed to seek help for my eating behaviour from another professional psychologist.

Jen at 40
Jen at Buckingham Palace garden party, aged 40

Finally, when I hit 48, I stumbled across a book by Dr John Briffa called Escape the Diet Trap in the sale section at the supermarket. This was my “fork in the road” moment, the beginning of my freedom from food. The book was about low-carbohydrate or keto diets and why they work. The science made perfect sense – high-sugar diets lead to high insulin (the fat storage hormone) which lowers blood sugar.

About one to two hours after eating a high-carb food insulin causes blood sugar to dip, leading to more hunger and more eating. I dove straight in, going cold turkey from sugar and carbohydrates. I felt absolutely awful – headaches, shakiness, poor sleep, low energy and mood. I struggled through for 10 days before what felt like a miracle awakening. Suddenly my brain was alive; everything was in multi-colour. I felt amazing. I kept rattling on about it to David. As a GP he was initially sceptical but he saw how well I was doing – how I was no longer hungry all the time; how I was eating well and getting healthy.

However, it wasn’t until about eight years ago that I realised the final part of the equation. I heard Bitten Jonsson (a Swedish nurse and expert on food addiction) speak and finally everything made sense. The stark reality clunked into place: “I’m an addict.”

Food addiction has essentially the same symptoms as any other addiction: cravings for certain foods that are hard to resist; needing more and more of those foods; neglecting other aspects of life such as hobbies and socialising; losing control over the amount of certain foods consumed and, most importantly, continuing with the behaviour despite knowing it’s causing you mental and physical harm. Food addicts tend to fixate on certain “drug” foods (usually combinations of sugar, fat and salt).

There is certainly an overlap with binge eating disorder (BED) and some people might experience symptoms of both. However food addiction is characterised by compulsions to eat certain foods whereas BED tends to be overeating whatever is available when a binge is triggered.

A key difference is in treatment – food addiction needs to be handled in a radically different way from binge eating.  I learned that I had to abstain from my drug foods for good – just like a person with alcohol or drug issues. I gave up anything with sugar or flour in it – so cakes, ice cream and biscuits and all starchy food like pasta, potatoes, rice and bread. I still avoid all those and also gave up sweeteners, alcohol and caffeine over the past few years as they worsened my cravings. I have to be really careful with cheese and nuts which can also trigger overeating in me. A nice side effect of all this is fewer migraines.

Jen Unwin
Jen now abstains from her drug foods and has set up a food addiction programme to help other sufferers - Paul Cooper

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