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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 01/18/2011

Is food addiction real?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

There's been lots of talk about food addiction lately. A recent study suggesting that alcoholism and obesity may share an underlying predisposition to addiction got plenty of press. USA Weekend ran a short piece this weekend about how to work around a food addiction. Mehmet Oz is in the midst of a three-part series about food addiction. And I write about it in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column.

But for all the fanfare surrounding food addiction, the condition isn't fully embraced as legitimate in medical and psychological circles. Some argue that our complex relationship with food can't be easily boiled down to an addiction, as so many factors are in play. Others maintain that allowing for "food addiction" ends up absolving people of the personal responsibility to manage their food consumption. And some experts say the science to support the notion of food addiction remains incomplete.

Still, scientific evidence that food addiction is a real phenomenon is mounting. Brain scans, for instance, have shown that eating certain foods (salty, sweet and fatty foods seem particularly "addictive") activates the same receptors in the brain that addictive drugs do.

Even if there is such a thing as food addiction, it's not likely that all or even most of the people in the U.S. who are obese or overweight suffer from such an affliction. While some people may have genetic or other forms of predisposition to addiction, others of us just plain overindulge, and we can't blame our neurochemistry for our decisions to eat more than we should.

But for some overweight people -- including Michael Prager, author of the book "Fat Boy, Thin Man" -- viewing one's troubled relationship with food as an addiction is the first and necessary step toward improving that relationship. Prager, who once weighed 365 pounds and for the past 20 years has weighed 210, was reluctant to accept the idea that he was addicted to food, but once he did so, he found that treating his addiction as an addiction led to his finally shedding those extra pounds and keeping them off for the long term.

As I write in my column, I was among the skeptics who felt food addiction was a copout. But after meeting Prager and reading his book, my view has shifted. Being addicted to food doesn't mean enjoying big quantities of delicious treats. It's more like being a slave to food, adjusting your schedule and compromising relationships with other people to accommodate your cravings, needing more and more of certain foods to achieve the satisfaction you seek, and not even particularly enjoying the food you cram into your mouth. Those all sound like addictive behaviors to me.

In the end, it almost doesn't matter whether science ends up demonstrating that food addiction's a bona fide malady; If people like Prager are finally able to take control of an unhealthy relationship with food by labeling it an addiction and treating it as such, more power to them.

But if research does determine that food addiction is real, that could lead to more and better treatments. And that would be a good thing for scores of individuals and, I think, for the nation as a whole.

Today's poll:

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | January 18, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alcohol and Drugs, Drug Abuse, Eating disorders, Neurological disorders, Nutrition and Fitness, Obesity, Psychology, Weight loss  
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I know that food addiction is real because I am a recovering food addict. Back in April, 2000, I was given a plan of eating that eliminated flour and sugar products from my daily diet, and I lost over 100 lbs. I have maintained a 113 lb weight loss since that time. I no longer have the crippling cravings to eat non-stop like I used to when I ate those ingredients. I am free! Many others I know have had the same experience. If you don't believe it, try it. My horrible cravings were GONE overnight. Just to give you an example, I'd start out with a box of cookies, go on to chips and dip, then a pint of ice cream, then some cake, then a pound or so of assorted chocolates, etc. until I passed out at night. Today, I eat 3 nutritious meals with one healthy snack. I have lots of wonderful food in my plate, and am never hungry. My quality of life has dramatically increased. My thinking has cleared up, and I'm living a wonderful life now. All the sugar and flour was drugging me, and I lived as if I was "drunk." After I cleared up, I went to college, went on for my masters degree, and switched careers. My life is happy, joyous, and free today, all as a result of changing my way of eating. Its the truth!

Posted by: andrea20 | January 18, 2011 9:53 AM | Report abuse

I am also a recovering food addict.
I was never obese, but I felt deeply entitled to fill myself with food, especially when I was emotionally upset (which was quite frequent).

One's emotional development is stunted once food becomes the default reaction to an emotional upset, and the cumulative effects of that behavior is quite profound.

I found a 12-step program for my food issues, and learning to accept my condition without judgment, and take incremental steps to change my thinking has been very empowering.

I have been in recovery for over 14 years and have not having eaten spontaneously, willfully, rebelliously, or emotionally in all that time.

I have had to becoming conscious of my destructive relationship with food and stay mindful whenever I am in a situation where I might relapse....but I am grateful to have a way to arrest the problem.

Once the addiction was in a healthier place, I found that not only was I a happier and more serene person, but I was able to be open to see the events in my life as opportunities for growth rather than punishments for being a bad person.

If more people could see their obesity and destructive eating in the face of life-shortening health isses as an addiction, the positive effect in terms of increased productivity and longevity would be astounding.

Posted by: NYerInBalto | January 18, 2011 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I grow tired of the "personal responsibility" argument against addiction. An addiction does not remove person responsibility. It shifts it from self control to self action. From just refraining from a substance or behavior to asking for and accepting help. Personal responsibility remains.

Posted by: misterimpatient | January 18, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Thinking of addiction only as a biological or chemical reaction is not useful. Of course brain chemistry and physical response to certain substances can be part of addiction, but as any addict can tell you, the real problem is in our minds, not our brains.

The physical response can make it harder to deal with the underlying issues, but if it were only a matter of physical addiction, then alcoholics could simply stop drinking; drug users would simply put down their drugs; and food addicts would simply stop eating more than they need.

Do you really think someone weighing 400 pounds doesn't want to stop, especially faced with the kind of ridicule, insults, and discrimination that they experience every day from friends, family, coworkers, doctors, journalists, and total strangers? And please don't make the mistake of thinking that will power has anything to do with it--food addicts have more will power than most normal eaters.

The fact that some doctors and psychologists don't recognize food addiction is only evidence of their ignorance about addiction generally, and that's to be expected: the only person who can really understand addiction is an addict. Thank God there are fellowships like Overeaters Anonymous where food addicts can find the understanding, support, and recovery they need.

Posted by: Bumbershoot | January 18, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

"Others maintain that allowing for "food addiction" ends up absolving people of the personal responsibility to manage their food consumption."

Do those 'others' also maintain that allowing for alcohol addiction, drug addiction, tobacco addiction, etc absolve people of their personal responsibility? If so, then we know that we need to disregard those uninformed 'others'. Nobody chooses to be an addict of any type. Admitting that that's what you are doesn't absolve you of anything, but it gives you a way of dealing with the problem that will (hopefully) help you get well.

Posted by: onlytheshadowknows1 | January 18, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I agree that admitting addiction doesn't resolve one's personal responsibility. I do think we need to spend more money on brain research to uncover the relationship between the brain and various illnesses AND the many ways we can help people with mental illness, addiction and learning issues. It is my hope that in another 100 years we will look back on the way we treat the mentally ill, addicts, and people with learning issues today as barbaric.

Posted by: Lillaby85 | January 19, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

I so feel for the women who contributed above. As an Anti-Aging M.D. I have been taught more than those Drs still in the dark ages throwing one drug on top of another with symptoms. OF COURSE food is an addiction! We know that,for instance the happy neurotransmitter is increased with carbs! Take smoking; the real addiction comes from the increase of dopamine due to the nicotine. My belief and that of others is that certain people have lower levels of neurotransmitters and hormones to make them feel "normal" and they then find the substance(s) which make them feel normal. Everyone visiting this discussion know that we educated M.D.'s are insulted at the notion that food isn't addictive. Give me a break please!

Posted by: doctorkim1 | January 19, 2011 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I have first-hand experience with food addiction. It is not pretty. Addiction means obsessed with "when to get the next fix," which takes it out of the category of "needing more willpower." It's a deeper issue - some foods seem to be genuine triggers to eating more food. So, physiological, maybe. There are also often psychological ties to certain foods, or just to food/eating in general. All people I have met who confess to being addicted to eating agree that it is just that - an addiction. It does not absolve us from taking responsibility for the problem - it clarifies it for us, and the programs we choose for addressing the problem help us work our way through it. Many food addicts, many people who eat compulsively, have to treat their food intake with deadly seriousness in order to overcome the addiction. This addiction is obvious on the outside - overweight is a little hard to hide, after all! But it leads to OR exacerbates diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, arthritis, cardiac problems - it is the killer behind the other diagnoses. We do not choose to have these addictions. But we can choose to try to overcome them. And people who are "in recovery" (yes - twelve-stepping it) do choose to overcome, not succumb. It's not easy. We cannot stay away from the supermarkets or events that involve our addiction. And even doctors and nutritionists do not always understand when we have issues with certain foods that other people have no problem with. And we argue with them over the elimination of those foods from any plan submitted to us. But one thing is for sure - overcoming this addiction is guaranteed to keep us from having dull lives! Instead, we can live full lives again.

Posted by: janicenh | January 19, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Just like other addictions, tools are required to help individuals gain control over their compulsions. If the ability to stop drinking, gambling, taking drugs, or eating were easy, people would stop. Those who are not affected can easily say it's an individual's weakness that they must work through. But that is akin to telling an amputee to run a marathon without a prosthetic. Tools, in whatever forms, are the key to helping people help themselves.

Posted by: lee_smith | January 22, 2011 11:07 AM | Report abuse

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