Does food addiction exist, or it is just an excuse for overeating and “always being on a diet”? How can we have an addiction to something as necessary as eating?
In my 20 years of clinical experience, I have never seen so many people suffering from chronic illnesses, obesity and being overweight. I speak of both adults and children. Type 2 diabetes and obesity are already being talked about as global epidemics will surely claim more lives than the COVID epidemic.
The medical profession does not appear to have an answer to this epidemic. Although a good percentage of health professionals suffer from being overweight and obesity comments such as “if patients only did what they are told” “it is easier to overeat than to exercise” “do not bother suggesting lifestyle changes, it is a waste of time, it is better to prescribe pills,” are all far too common.
However, one day a friend casually told me that her problem was addiction to sugar. She lost control when eating sweet things or food made with flour. Thereafter she felt guilty and ashamed. I looked at her puzzled, I thought she was looking for the perfect excuse to justify her behaviour.
But how easy is it to see the problems in others and not see your own …… if she was wrong, why did I lose control eating Nutella? A spoonful was never enough, I wanted to eat the whole jar and, in my brain, there was a battle to stop or to continue? Why did I plan to eat just a cookie but ate the whole package? and the bread …. Just one slice of bread, really?
And those struggles at the grocery store to avoid the cookie and chocolate aisle? The mental dialogue “go on buy them, you have not had them for a long while” “this time you will be able to control it” “life is too short, treat yourself” … if I bought them the bingeing was inevitable. Also, inevitable the upset stomach followed by the guilt and shame. Weighing myself and regretting my behaviour came as fast as the sugar rush reaching my brain.
How was it possible that being so organized and disciplined in my life I lost control around cookies and chocolate? Even my children laughed at my ‘attacks’ to the Nutella jar. They were epic and unforgettable. If I ever dared to buy it, they took care of hiding it because they knew the outcome.
Maybe my friend was right after all, sugar and some types of food can be addictive.
My curiosity did not stop there. I searched social platforms for information on sugar and processed food addiction. This led to Vera Terma’s book Food Junkies and my training as a therapist with the INFACT Food Addiction Institute in Iceland led by Esther Helga Guomudsdottir.
What I discovered was fascinating, that an addicted brain has been hijacked by an addictive substance and behaviour. The more you repeat the use of the substance or the behaviour, the more likely your brain will succumb to addiction. Eventually, neither willpower nor self-control will suffice to break the cycle of addiction. Instead, the brain’s reward system governed by the ‘’happy hormones’’ released by the addictive substance or behaviour will take over. Yes, you heard it right, dopamine, serotonin and other hormones will hijack the decision-making and self-control power.
I also learned that not all foods are addictive, generally those with a high sugar content, carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (bread, pasta, rice, flour in general) and junk food are the most problematic.
I also discovered that behind the additions, there is a world that must be understood, leaving aside pre-conceptions and prejudices. Comments such as “you don’t have discipline” “you don’t give it up because you don’t feel like it” “with will and motivation you will be able to break that vicious cycle” are counterproductive and harmful for the person suffering from addictions.
And above all I understood that abstaining from the substance or addictive behaviour is just one of the steps that must be followed to recover and that with specialized help and support recovery can be achieved in many cases.
That is why in this blog I encourage you to dare to question the labels that society puts on people who overeat or who struggle to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. I did it and not only was I surprised by my discovery, but it also changed my clinical practice.