Food Addiction: a ‘Legitimate’ Concern?
What if I were to tell you that a friend of mine was attempting to break the nasty habit of going to the restroom? Would you consider him crazy? What if I went on to explain that because he habitually spend such an inordinate amounts of time in the restroom that he is often unable to bath, sometimes neglects to eat and has been known to forget to lock the front door in a rush to be on time for this or that? Is he still crazy in their desire to quit? What if I then told you that a specific health condition made using the restroom an extremely painful and laborious process that often left him physically and psychologically battered and unable to be a participate in life? Considering all this, would his desire to quit using the bathroom still seem odd and unjustified?
While the hypothetical above may be a little extreme, I’m simply trying to demonstrate a situation in which the health, hygiene and safety of an individual is compromised by detrimental behavior associated with a condition that may exist on the fringes of the medical community or is not widely recognized by health practitioners.
Such is the plight of food addicts and those who attempt to overcome dangerous eating behaviors. Eating is an unavoidable fact of life and individuals that have developed a perverse relationship with food do not have the benefit of being able change such behaviors by simply quitting. Food addicts must constantly walk a fine line between ordered and disordered eating and must learn to escape harmful habits while continuing to indulge their addictions.
Developing a better understanding of the addictive experience and recognizing the power that food can exert upon ones physical and psychological well being will help us better understand the complexity in treating obesity and will hopefully make us more aware of the prevalence of disordered eating.
The Addictive Experience
The addictive experience is said to be dependent upon the consumption of identifiable addictive substances that have neurochemical effects on the brain. These neurochemical effects are often identified by the presence of certain observable criteria, which include: tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, loss of control, continued use despite psychological and physical distress, and repeated failed attempts to discontinue use. It is easy to see that alcohol and drugs fit these criteria and are rightly considered addictive substances, but there is some reluctance in the medical community to acknowledge food addiction as ‘legitimate’ concern and escape the label of a “rough and incomplete phenomena.”
This is ludicrous considering the fact that certain substances found in food are known to trigger psychological and neurological processes similar to those received from alcohol or drugs. Honestly, who hasn’t anticipated the high associated with consuming large, sugary desserts or relaxed in the calming effect of heavy, typically fat-laden ‘comfort’ foods?
For the food addict, hunger is not the driving force in established eating behaviors. What triggers the desire to eat, often in excess, is the smell of our preferred ‘drug’, the anticipation of how it will make us feel and the warmth or comfort that we will receive immediately after consumption.
Further, the body may be primed for the release of specific chemicals when a certain food is consumed, exacerbating the emotional response that specific foods may cause. In this context, food addiction can be better understood as both a psychological and physical condition that requires a comprehensive treatment plan similar to that used in instances of drug and alcohol dependence.
Public Perception and Influence on Obesity
Failing to recognize the significance of food addiction in the health care community allows those unaffected by such a condition to attribute a lack of personal responsibility or control to those who exhibit detrimental eating behaviors. This will further stigmatize those with food addictions or who exhibit its most prevalent symptom (obesity) and will present a greater obstacle in overcoming detrimental eating behavior for those who may be under the influence of hyper palatable, energy dense, nutrient deficient foods that have captured the hearts of many Americans.
Compounding the concern, the folks at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity have found that food addiction is viewed more favorably than drug and alcohol addiction and public perception is largely dependent upon environment cues and the confirmation of stereotypically slovenly behavior. For example, an overweight, jovial, well dressed, Caucasian businessman who happens to be partial to obnoxious portions of steak and potatoes may be viewed more favorably than an overweight, unemployed and slightly disgruntled African American woman who regularly consumes fried chicken and butter biscuits.
Understandably, labeling all obese or heavy-set individuals as food addicts will ameliorate those who lack personal accountability for their health and may cause unjustifiable sympathy for people who may simply prefer to live a life characterized by excess and gluttony.
Which is why I believe it is an absolute necessity to educate health care professionals and your everyday citizens on how to identify disordered or addictive eating behaviors and ways in which to overcome such detrimental behavior.
The Simple Truth
For the addict, food means love and companionship and these emotional attachments with food can be extremely harmful when left untreated.
However, all is not lost for the food addict. As an individual who has overcome multiple addictions and has a history of destructive eating behavior, I am living proof that extremely harmful behaviors and a distorted relationship with food can be conquered when there is a desire to escape the torment of addiction and the appropriate measures are taken to provide an environment conduce to recovery.