“Now that I don’t binge, I have more time to read.”

Email from a reader:

Food addiction is REAL. Sweet foods are potentially more addictive than heroin or cocaine. It’s going to take more than 50 years to reverse the tide of the global obesity pandemic. How do I know this? Well – years of personal experience as a food addict and sugar junkie apart, over the last few months I have been reading Brownell and Gold’s Book “Food and Addiction”. I sit down and read it for fifteen minutes each day over my delicious abstinent (for me, being abstinent is not eating sugar, grains or starchy foods, eating only three meals a day and I do this every day without exception) breakfast. The book is subtitled “A comprehensive handbook” but it is so much more than that. This book is an extensive academic research compendium laid out as a series of academic papers (two columns per page, Vancouver-style referencing) containing 66 articles in seven parts. 

This may sound off-putting to the casual reader but in reality, this is one of the most compelling and fascinating books I have read for a long time. And it’s one of the few books that I have ever read that – when I had finished reading it – made me want to turn back to page 1 and re-read the whole book again!

The sections take the reader on a journey – starting with the neuro-anatomy, neuro-biology and psychology of addiction, through to clinical approaches to and implications of addiction and obesity via research on food and addiction and ending up with public health approaches and legal and policy implications for the global obesity pandemic.

This book’s great strength is its impartiality. There are so many other books out there about the gut, diet, just about any food group….…. as a food addict  struggling to control my compulsive behaviour around food I have read many of them, and I always feel slightly uneasy that the author is only really representing the research that supports their hypothesis and the inevitable “eating plan that is going to change your life” at the end.

In this book, if there is no research then that is not ignored or padded out with some obscure paper reporting small numbers.  It is just stated.  Where a food addiction research vacuum exists, there is discussion as to how the available research might apply to food addiction and what further research needs to be done.

So – what did I learn in reading this book? Several key themes emerged:

1–There is an awful lot of very elegant research that has been carried out on sugar, addictive behaviour, reward neuro-circuitry, how these interact and what influences them. OK – so much of the research for that was carried out on mice but – bearing in mind we share 60% of our DNA with a banana – mouse behaviour and brain structure ain’t that far away from humans – especially around behaviour as fundamental as reward, addiction and food intake regulation. Where comparisons are possible, the human research is clearly analogous to what they are finding in rats and mice. 

2–The idea that a lot of our reward circuitry is hard wired not only from a young age but also during fetal life made a great deal of sense to me. Hell – if  whale blubber or mammoth is/was the only item on the menu, and that’s all your Mom ate when you were in her womb – then you had better be born with a preference for the major food source in your community. It’s simple survival.

3–The concept of control of weight and body shape through delicate and intricate internal balancing (homeostatic) mechanisms which have evolved over millennia versus loss of control of weight and body shape through hedonistic (pleasure) eating – particularly highly refined carbohydrates and sugar was a new concept for me. Since food is needed for survival, it is likely to have complex and interconnected mechanisms for making sure that we are motivated to find food, remember those sources and to protect them. This all takes place in the parts of our brain associated with reward, emotion, and memory, to say nothing of the feedback via the enormous communication highway that exists between our brain, our gut and our gut bacteria. 

4–We are hard wired to like sweet flavours. Sweet foods are more likely to be energy dense – which is clearly advantageous when life was hard and food was seasonal and scarce – but does not serve us well in our current food environment. Imagine – millennia of evolving higher functions around eating for survival laid waste by just reaching out and putting a single tub of Ben and Jerry’s in my shopping basket!!

5–The food/sugar lobby is more powerful than the tobacco lobby and we have to eat. There is evidence that the food/sugar corporations are using the same tactics that the tobacco lobbies used back in the day so I expect that it will take as long, if not longer, if ever, for per capita obesity levels to show a similar fall to tobacco consumption (Figure 1). 

Figure 1:  Adult per capita cigarette consumption and major smoking and health events – US, 1900 – 2017. Sources: Adapted from Warner 1985 with permission from Massachusetts Medical Society, © 1985; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1989; Creek et al. 1994; U.S. Department of Agriculture 2000; U.S. Census Bureau 2017; U.S. Department of the Treasury 2017.  

So – why did I read this book? As a recovered alcoholic and food addict I wanted to explore more about the dis-ease that I suffer from. Coming from a scientific/academic sort of mindset and being a bit of a nerd, this book appealed to me on many different levels. But even for those that don’t have that  background, this is a great book for just dipping into when the interest takes you.

It helped me to understand my part in my story and also to understand more clearly why this dis-ease wasn’t just going to go away after a few months of eating abstinently. It also helps me to accept myself as a person whose brain just happens to be wired in a different way – a way that makes me prone to addiction and addictive behaviour……. but also a way that qualifies me for a life in addiction recovery and all the benefits and rewards that that brings. 

Susanna R

Oxford University Press, 2012

“Withdrawal occurs once a person stops eating any addictive food. Though abstaining from foods is a contentious subject in the scientific literature, there is no question that it will cause a level of discomfort that often drives addicts back to eating…

Feelings of deprivation, obsessions about food, and anxiety arising from unresolved trauma that was being ‘medicated’ by the addictive foods may appear like spectres that linger, worsening before they get better…” ― Vera Tarman, Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction

Dr Tarman’s book. Available at your Indie Bookstore or Amazon.com

All my life, I was told that I just needed to get a grip, pull my bootstraps up, that discipline was the word when it comes to dieting. That I couldn’t diet or, if I did lose weight on some diet, wasn’t able to keep it off, caused me no end of shame and humiliation. It was reflected in every area of my life. I was known as the girl who could never finish anything. I would be gun-ho about learning to play the guitar and after four lessons, I was ready to give up. In my head, I had determined how much I should know after four sessions. It didn’t happen that way.

After I became a therapist, I started doing research on different drugs. I went to recovery centres, asked a lot of questions and took careful notes. One thing that stood out everywhere was addiction professionals telling me that sugar was harder to kick than heroin. I’ve never tried heroin so I can’t speak from my own experience. These people were speaking from experience of their work, having done brain research and talking to multi-addicted addicts. ‘Why didn’t people tell me this?’ I wailed internally, ‘How could they let me think that getting off sugar was easy or should be easy?’ More research and more talking revealed that the majority of people just plain didn’t know. Neither of my parents had a weight problem. They had nothing to go on except what they were told. Food was food. Why would anything be suspect of a hidden drug with the power of heroin. Alcohol and drugs were different. People my parents age had seen Days of Wine And Roses and Man with the Golden Arm. They were the real mccoy. Take sugar and grains away from a practicing food addict and you will see a similar type of withdrawal as to drugs. It is so uncomfortable and scary that, unless a person has been forwarned to expect a time of de-toxing, the compulsive eater will ran as fast as she or he can to the refridgerator or McDonalds.

If you are jonesing for sugar and flour and going through withdrawal without much support, which of these is going to be calling your name? Do food addicts have a chance?

How do we get educated? How do we help our families, ourselves, our students, our patients? First take an honest look around you. Obesity is on the rise at a deadly speed. Then ask people what diet they tried and how well it worked. 9.9 people out of ten will tell you they lost weight only to gain it all back. The only honest places to really get information is one of the twelve-step programs that deals with food. They make no money, they are just one person trying to help another person. One person who has suffered from weight-related issues, shame, humiliation, unable to work or can’t get a job because of their weight telling another person “I get it. I’ve been there too.

I’ve heard it said that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety/abstinence but is connectedness”. It’s easy for the disease of food addiction to ruin a person’s life. The fatter they get, the more shame they feel, the more they isolate. Reaching out to others who have the same problem, can tell you what to expect as you detox from the foods we are allergic to, brings one back to community. Wise people have known for centuries that a group of people can often do what is impossible for the single person to do alone.

Think about it.

Sara

What is a food addict?

People ask me what I mean when I say I’m a food addict or a compulsive eater. The dictionary defines addiction as “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity: he committed the offence to finance his drug addiction | addiction to crack cocaine is spreading | [count noun] :  an addiction to gambling.” This isn’t exactly helpful since the definition assumes you understand addicted. The way I understand addiction is that one is compelled to keep doing something like eating, drinking alcohol, gambling. Even when one wants to stop, they are unable to. It seems to the person that they have lost all power to control what they are doing. An alcoholic will binge drink until he blacks out, there is no more alcohol to drink or he is in an accident or dies. A food addict is no different. In my case, the ingredients in alcohol are the substance I seem to be addicted to: grains and sugar. Once I put them in my body, I binge until I run out of food, pass out in sleep or have some kind of accident.

In Healthline.com, Kris Gunnars says there are eight common symptoms of food addiction:

Cravings, Eating more than intended, Eating until stuffed, Feelings of guilt, Making up excuses, Setting rules, Hiding food intake, Inability to quit. While food addiction is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it typically involves binge eating behaviors, cravings, and a lack of control around food. http://www.healthline.com  

It is easy to think that if a person consumes a huge amount of food, they will be fat. This isn’t necessarily so. While it’s true that obesity is on the rise in USA and UK, teens, dancers, jockeys etc will learn to throw their food up after a meal. This is physical abuse that one does to oneself. It is as easy to get addicted to the throwing up as the eating and becomes a viscous circle. The movie Judy, that is in theatres right now, shows the result of Judy Garland being told she was too heavy as a child and the studio giving her pills. Then she needed pills to sleep. In the end, she died of all her pills.

The outside world sees a fat person or a horrendously thin person or someone who pushes food around on their plate but never actually eats. What isn’t well known, is what goes on inside the head of a food addict. The self-hatred, the anger, the pain, the panic attacks, the exhaustion that comes with an inability to sleep, feelings of hopelessness and despair are just some of the many mental and emotional symptoms that a food addict lives with and believes are true. Many people in recovery from alcoholism and food addiction believe that this is a disease. That it is a cancer that will eat a person up alive unless they get help. And of all ironies, the addict is just about as stubborn as they come and will reject any suggestions of help though they are screaming inside for someone to help them.

Food addiction is more rampant that one may think. Not all obese people are addicted but ingesting sugar and grains at high warp speed will push them closer to crossing the line. If a body is only fed these substances, it learns to subsist on them and cry out in rebellion if the addict takes them away. In future blogs, I will talk about why dieting doesn’t work. Why food addicts believe in magic and will do absolutely crazy things both to get food and thinking they will be cured. The world really needs more understanding that the food addict is not just some weak person who can’t take care of themselves but under the influence of substances much stronger than their will power.

Do you have a question about food addiction?

Sara