Recently I heard someone scoff at the idea of food addiction: all those people really need to do is stop shoving food in their mouths! All they need is discipline and self-control! Of course the person making these remarks is of normal weight and has probably been in the normal range all of her life. It was all I could do not to ‘educate’ her about the facts: if that were true, all drug addicts, smokers and alcoholics would need would be some “self-control and discipline,” and we all know that’s not true. I know that there are chemical dependencies involved with nicotine, drugs, and alcohol, but there is also a dependency with food as well, even if it isn’t exactly the sugar, the chocolate or the carbs. Those do have an effect on the body and brain, but on the most fundamental level, whenever someone is indulging their addiction, be it alcohol, food, meth, or nicotine, the pleasure center of the brain lights up and dopamine is released. While we don’t exactly go into chocolate withdrawal, we do experience a kind of withdrawal. Most of us eat in response to a trigger of some sort, usually anxiety, stress, anger or some other emotion. These are a lot of the same triggers that cause alcoholics to drink and smokers to light up, and the pleasure center lights up in the brain as well. We get our dopamine and whatever other chemical fix we’re indulging in, even if it’s chocolate or potato chips. The emotional trigger is ameliorated and we can relax. Kicking food addiction is just as hard as kicking cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, and some people say it is actually tougher: what other addictive substance do we need to survive? You can avoid drugs, alcohol and cigarettes for the rest of your life; you will always need some kind of food to live unless you plan on being hooked up to an IV forever.
I calmly explained to this person that it’s not exactly the food that people are addicted to: it’s the behavior. For many people, eating is their coping mechanism. Instead of choosing to drink or smoke, they’ve chosen to eat. The situation is the same: trigger goes off and the addict follows the same behavior pattern, either pouring a drink, lighting a cigarette or opening a box of cookies. This is how they deal with something they don’t want to handle. It’s an avoidance behavior: I’m changing my focus to something I like when something bad happens. (FYI: no one criticizes the exercise addict who does the same thing with running or working out because they are perceived as ‘healthy’ until the addiction starts to hurt them as well.) The withdrawal they (we) feel is that if we don’t do this addictive behavior, we are stuck having to deal with emotions we neither want to deal with nor know how to handle: “Aack! What do I do?! What do I do?!” I am not trying to make light of this situation, because this is how it feels. Emotionally, we are panicking because we can’t go to our coping mechanism. When people give up other addictions, they are taught other ways to cope. This is why 12 Step meetings work so well for many addicts; it is their new stress release valve: something happened, I want to drink, I need to find a meeting! It is a healthier alternative to cope with whatever triggers they have.
When people try to control their eating, it can be a lot harder, especially at first, because you still need to eat: you need to keep coming back to your ‘crutch’, and it’s a fine line between eating what you need to live and eating a little bit more because today was such a cruddy day. What a lot of outsiders don’t realize is that it’s not just about having discipline and self-control: it’s about finding another coping mechanism to deal with those triggers. Like any “addiction,” some people have a harder time with it than others. Sometimes a person needs therapy, especially if they are having a difficult time making the connection between the trigger and the addictive behavior. It can also be that the patient needs help coming to terms with some of the root causes of their behavior, as many addicts are using their crutch to fill some kind of void in their life: “If I’m drinking/ smoking/ using, I can forget that I’m alone in life/ my mom abandoned me/ I feel like a failure.” Again, it’s avoidance behavior and eventually, we have to deal with whatever we are trying to avoid, but until we can do that, we need to change our coping mechanisms to something that is not destructive.
One of the other misconceptions about food addiction is that sometimes outsiders in an attempt to be helpful, will try to ‘save’ the addict from themselves by throwing away the ‘bad foods’ or refusing to buy it for the addicts. The idea behind this is laudable, but in reality, all it does is trigger the addict to eat more by causing shame, anger, and stress. This is the same thing as refusing to buy alcohol for the alcoholic or emptying out the liquor cabinet. Until the addict commits to changing to their behavior, their addictive behavior will not change! It does not matter if the food is in front of them, in the kitchen or down at the grocery store, they will find a way to get the food. In fact, with phones, websites and vendors that deliver, the addict does not even have to leave home to get the foods they want. Even a super morbidly obese bedridden food addict can get it delivered to them without ever leaving their bed. Denying the food to the addict is only postponing the inevitable: you can only delay their eating- you cannot stop it. The food addict (like every addict) has to want to change and then commit themselves to the behavioral changes. You or anyone else cannot force a food addict (or any addict) to change. They have to come to that decision on their own and just wanting to change is not enough: there must be a commitment followed up by positive action. Until they figure out why they want or need to change their behavior, the addictive behavior will continue. Generally, once they figure out the Why, they will find a way to make it happen.
As for all addicts, there are various stages of addiction. For some, admitting they have a problem is the hardest part; for others, it’s finding a reason to quit; and for almost all, making the commitment is an ongoing struggle, even once they have started down that path. There are days when not overeating is easy and there are days when it will be very difficult. As an ‘overeater,’ practice and routine make it easier for me. When I am in my comfortable routine, it is easy for me to walk into a convenience store, walk by the candy, chips and soda and get what I came in for without a struggle. Most days I can do the same thing in the grocery store: I can pass the bakery to get to the eggs and milk without wanting the cake, muffins or bagels. And there are days when it’s harder to do. But each time I pass by successfully, I am reinforcing the positive changes I have made and success feeds success. The emotional triggers are more difficult to handle, since I have to make a conscious decision to change my behavior. It may take years for the urge to eat my negative emotions to fade away completely. That is not surprising since it took years for that response to become firmly set in my psyche. But the plain simple fact is that all the ‘bad foods’ in the world are not going away, and every day I have to choose not to eat them, the same way a recovering alcoholic chooses not to drink. It doesn’t even have to be my ‘drug of choice’ (breads): I can overeat broccoli and chicken breast the same as I can scarf ciabatta rolls! I have to reinforce my commitment not to overeat every day, and as difficult as it sounds, it is as hard and as easy as I make it out to be. I can get up every day groaning about how I have to go out and fight the urge to gobble all the chocolate and bear claws, or I can get up every day reminding myself of how great it feels to move and be active without being in pain (my Why). I have to make the decision and no one can make it for me.
Sadly, I think the woman I was talking to about food addiction just wanted to hear that she was right and that obese people are just lazy and weak. This attitude isn’t helpful to any kind of addict. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were all as perfect as others would like us to be? All of us have some kind of crutch to get us past the bad emotional moments, even if it is something as benign as writing a scathing entry in our private journal or posting a scathing comment on social media. For some of us, those crutches end up hurting us more than they help us. What I would have liked to tell this woman is that calling us names and criticizing us is YOUR crutch: it makes YOU feel superior to us.
I know I am as guilty at passing judgment as everyone else is and at times like this I need to remind myself of Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “with malice towards none, with charity for all.” I am also reminded of another expression: “there but for the grace of God go I.” It’s easy to stand in a safe place and pass judgment on those whose faults are readily seen, especially when we are so good at hiding our own, even from ourselves. I know I have quite a list of flaws, and I do my very best to keep them buried as deeply as possible! But they are still there, and they keep surfacing from time to time. I like to think they keep me humble and they keep in touch with other people’s points of view. It is in seeing the world from another’s point of view that I find I learn the most.