“Food Addiction”: A Controversial Concept –
But One That Many People Have Found Very Useful
Many people have reported that the concept of food addiction has played a huge role in their successes in improving and regaining their health.
It does remain a controversial topic – not fully accepted by all. However, what-ever the arguments on the technical definition of “addiction”, the practical reality is that this concept has been profoundly useful to many people.
One part of the story is that, as is so often the case with anything to do with food or nutrition, there is much more at stake in the discussion than simply the factual merits of the medical/health question itself. If the existence of food addiction as a medical condition became acknowledged and recognized, there are major financial, regulatory and societal implications and consequences. As a society, we understand that people with recognized medical conditions require treatment, timely and fair access to treatment, consideration and accommodation, and protection from discriminatory treatment. I have no doubt that these factors play some role in the over-all nature and tone of the debates regarding food addiction. What may appear to be a discussion based on scientific or clinical merits may often be anything but.
I do have a concern that often the term is too loosely applied. I have seen some questionnaires or check-lists put forward that I find very mis-leading. Feeling hungry and cravey and obsessing about food when on a calorie-reduced diet is normal. Re-gaining weight after loosing it by strict dieting is normal and does not mean food addiction is present or not present. Having great difficulty controlling one’s weight is normal given what is considered normal in our eating habits and our food supply. Having your world fall apart after one bite of a rich dessert is not normal.
Very often when people have the sense of a driven or erratic appetite, a major part of the problem lies in misinterpreting or disregarding the normal physical function of their body, not in psychological factors or in an “addiction” response in their brain. I have talked with many people who have been convinced that their unwanted eating behaviour was rooted in emotions (or even in them being incapable or inadequate as a person), when actually it all settled down when they started to eat according to their body’s valid physical needs. Episodes of erratic or driven or “compulsive” over-eating can be simply the natural response of your body to such things as rapid swings in blood sugar or a restrict/rebound eating pattern, among other factors.
However, I do not at all mean that it all comes down to such physiological factors. Especially when such erratic eating or exposure to high or frequent intake of high-reward food has continued over time.
When it comes to what to do about it, there is a huge controversy.
From one side of the discussion – there is the idea that restricting your intake of any given food will only back-fire by causing feelings of deprivation, which then will lead to even more disruption of your eating pattern. The people who hold to this view are passionate about the idea that any advice or attempt to restrict which types of foods are eaten is obviously and blatantly irresponsible. The only path to improved well-being lies in learning to consume all foods “in moderation”.
From the other side of the discussion – restricting the certain specific foods that the individual finds sets off cravings and un-controlled eating is the key to recovering health. To them, the result does not feel burdensome, it feels liberating. After some days or weeks of difficult abstinence, the cravings subside and the relentless mental focus on food resolves. This feels like “a new normal” with many benefits, rather than a state of deprivation.
Another division is between people who (1) see a difference between being an emotional eater and being a food addict and those who (2) see it all as being emotional eating.
Either way, from my perspective I find that pretty much any and all discussion of the topic(s) seriously under-plays the matter of normal physiologic responses of the body. Learning to work with your body’s normal functioning and needs plays a vital role in creating a state of being relatively more resilient to the factors that tend to precipitate uncontrolled or “driven” eating.
On a related topic, the adage “eat only when you are hungry” has become very prominent lately. There is a lot to be said for this in regards to people who can reliably detect and respect and have the knowledge/resources to make a healthy-for-them response when they are hungry.
Of course, it also depends on what interpretation is given to the term “hungry”. And there, surprisingly, is another whole can of worms. There are a whole cadre of people who feel authorized and confident in telling you when you are or are not “really” “hungry”.
I hope you find these resources useful:
1) the work of Dr. Vera Tarman MD of Toronto.
- her web site Addictions Unplugged has extensive resources
- this 18 minute video of the show The Agenda, Dec 15, 2014
2) Dr. Pam Peeke offers many resources via drpeeke.com
Dr. Peeke addresses the David Lynch Foundation Women and Stress Event, April 2012, New York City
Dr. Peeke’s Lecture on Meditation and Food Addiction, University of Maryland School of Medicine, November 2012