Food addiction, natural rewards, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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Warning: in this post I disagree with certain ideas and express opinions based on my own thinking, experience, and education. Ready your smelling salts.

In an earlier post, I wrote about why some people find food restriction comforting and reassuring. Today I want to talk about the idea of food addiction and why some people find it a helpful construct, but why I ultimately do not think it is accurate or helpful in the long term.

To begin with, I do not doubt that people experience feeling out of control with certain foods in a way that feels very much like an addiction.

I also don’t doubt that, at least partially or temporarily, banishing the particular foods that seem to trigger this feeling can result in feeling more in control.

But “addiction” is a specific thing, and feelings alone are not enough to make it a reality. In order for food addiction to be real (behavioural addictions like gambling aside, for the sake of simplicity), food should qualify as an addictive substance in and of itself. Indeed, several writers and researchers would argue that certain foods are indistinguishable from addictive drugs, but I disagree.

It is true that reward pathways in the brain are triggered by foods (some types of food more than others), and those same reward pathways are activated by the use of certain addictive drugs. But this does not mean, ipso facto, that certain foods are identical to drugs.

First, we need food to survive. We do not need addictive drugs to survive (except in some cases where the addiction has progressed to the point of very high drug tolerance.) Second, it is next to impossible to overdose and kill yourself with food (in the form of food, not a concentrated vitamin or mineral supplement) unless you have some disease, food allergy or intolerance – and in this case, it is the condition that is to blame, not the food. Third, while food can certainly impact your mood and give you pleasure, it does not produce altered states of consciousness or affect one’s judgment in the way addictive drugs do.

All of this should be obvious, but people seem to forget these important points in their desperation to compare fat people to drug addicts.

Even more importantly, I would assume that the reward pathways shared by both food and addictive drugs exist, in the first place, because of things like food. These are called natural rewards.

Food needs to be rewarding to eat, or we all would have died off long ago, because it requires a lot of effort to find and prepare. It requires far, far less effort now than ever before in human history, and even still, a lot of people find food gathering and preparation to be such a pain that they avoid it at all costs. Imagine how much worse those people would have fared as hunter-gatherers, or farmers, or even just home cooks before the rise of value-added/convenience/pre-prepared foods.

Even the foods people now think of as very basic staples used to cook from “scratch” are actually pretty highly processed compared to the raw article – dried pasta and legumes, canned tomatoes, bread or milled flour, pasteurized and homogenized milk, ripened cheeses, butchered and packaged cuts of meat, ground and dried herbs and spices. And still, we often complain about how much effort cooking is – meaning that food has to be pretty damn rewarding to make it worth even a moderate effort, while still remaining absolutely essential to survival.

Additionally, certain foods in the wild are more scarce, and more biologically valuable, than others. When food is hard to come by, stumbling upon a source of concentrated calories, such as sugars and fats, or stumbling upon a source of the very important electrolyte sodium, is extremely lucky and makes us more likely to survive and pass on our genes. Finding a stash of honey or a salt lick or seal blubber is like winning the biological lottery, and as such, it makes sense that we would evolve mechanisms to reward us for that.

Yes, it is true that we now live in a world where sugar, fat, and salt are available on demand. It’s also true that many of us have plenty of all kinds of food at our disposal – both macro- and micronutrient dense – provided we have enough money and access to stores and cooking facilities. And, lastly, it is also true that having too much or too little of any nutrient can directly cause disease or generally increase risk.

However, even in an environment where food is abundant and cheap, I believe humans do have the ability to self-regulate, even in the face of extremely naturally rewarding foods containing lots of sugar, salt, and fat. If we are well-fed and nourished on a regular basis, and if we include those extremely rewarding foods as part of our diets along with all the other foods we need to maintain good health, we are far less likely to go off the deep-end when presented the opportunity to eat a random Twix bar.

So why, in this food-secure world that many of us inhabit, do many of us still snatch after the Twix bar like it’s a life raft?

Because, with the rise of the accessibility of food to those who can afford it, also came the rise of food restriction, food rules, and a scarcity mindset around food. You can think of these things as a sort of induced food insecurity. Even if you have adequate access to food and eat enough of it on a regular basis, the continual messaging from both internal and external sources that you shouldn’t eat that food, that you shouldn’t eat that amount of food, that you will start dieting on Monday, that that delicious food will kill you, or even that you are too fat to deserve to eat at all, scares the very ancient and vulnerable part of you that still thinks starvation could be around the corner at any moment, and thus throws a little neurotransmitter party whenever a wild Twix appears!

Ellyn Satter says “permission is the paradox that gives control.” I’ve seen this at work in myself, and in dozens of clients.

With a truly addictive substance, permission and unfettered access would likely perpetuate the addiction and the feeling of loss of control. With food, in the context of eating competence, the opposite is true. The more permission you have, the less scarcity you fear, and the more responsible you become about feeding yourself in the ways that count, the more in-control you feel around food.

I used to have a bit of a fixation on sweets. Since childhood, they had been a mildly forbidden food, and even when I was allowed to eat them, it was always with the understanding that they were somewhat bad, and I assumed that I was somewhat bad for liking them so much, and I believed that I could never really be in control with them.

In adulthood, my experience with dieting only intensified this feeling, and when I stopped dieting and tried to learn to eat normally, it took several years of giving myself permission and sometimes overeating and feeling slightly out-of-control with sweets before I finally calmed down. What seemed to do it was 1) making sure that I ate dessert once or twice a day, usually with lunch or dinner, every day, and 2) keeping at least some basic sweet (like vanilla ice cream) in stock in my kitchen at all times, buying more when I ran out, and 3) acknowledging that part of human nature is to find sugar really attractive, because of the aforementioned biological value.

I feel quite happy now with sweets. I will occasionally eat too much in one sitting and feel a little bit off afterward, and I accept that. It only happens once every few months, and I think it is part of the human experience, and part of eating competence even, to sometimes make mistakes with eating and then let your body sort itself out. I learn from those mistakes because I don’t get caught up in the shame-spiral of judging myself. I usually end up feeling less hungry afterward for the next few meals or the next day, or I start craving a completely different type of food that seems to address the feeling of imbalance.

Most of the time, I eat an amount of sweets that feels fine in my body, even if it’s more than the serving size on the label, and I accept that. And sometimes I don’t think about or crave anything sweet at all, except for the sugar in my coffee, often for days at a time. Candy, cookies, and ice cream can sit in my kitchen without being eaten immediately, waiting for the time when I actually want them.

In my opinion, the model of food as addictive substance ultimately is a distraction from the real issue, which is a lack of eating competence or a rift in a person’s relationship with food. As one of my commenters pointed out in the previous post on this topic, sometimes people simply don’t have the resources to deal with the root problems, and some form of restriction can be a temporary work-around. I agree, this is true with dieting, and it can be true with the idea of food addiction.

However, my problem is that when people take on these temporary measures as a means of self-help, they often don’t leave them at that. They often start to generalize these measures into absolute truths about the nature of food and people, and reify concepts like “food addiction” into actual, concrete phenomena rather than useful metaphors for how they, personally, feel about food.

That is a problem because it adds to the negative, controlling discourse around food and bodies in our culture, and because people within this culture, who have internalized negative, controlling ideas about eating, are likely to take such a concept at face-value because it feels true, even if the biology of natural rewards vs. addictive substances, and the fact that food is essential to survival, say different.

The truth is, food is not an addictive substance, although addictive substances hijack the same reward pathways that were forged by food. That, combined with a fear of scarcity in a very food-negative culture, can very closely mimic an addiction. But the food addiction concept and the subsequent treatment of complete abstinence from that particular food are limited solutions, and they do not reach the roots of the problem, which are poor eating competence and fear of scarcity. If we continue to promote the concept, I believe that it will deepen people’s fear of scarcity, and subsequently their lack of control with food, and become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you call food an addiction often enough, it will scare people. When people are scared, they will have a harder time eating competently. When they are not eating competently, they will often succumb to binge eating and being out of control with “forbidden” foods, which we will then diagnose as a food addiction. So it goes.

The answer is to treat all food like it is food, calm down and manage anxiety about eating, make sure you are eating enough food at consistent times, and eat a variety of different foods, healthy and “unhealthy” alike, with lots of permission and a refusal to beat yourself up over it.

(Or we could just keep doing what we’re doing and see how miserable and food-preoccupied everyone becomes in the coming years.)

Cat Pausé just published a nice, nuanced post that goes into more detail about the research into food addiction. If you’re interested in hearing more than just my opinion, check it out.

Today, I’m not really hosting a debate, though respectful discussion and further points are always welcome.

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182 Comments

  1. Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I love you. That is all.

  2. Erin B
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Great post. The only I thing I would add or change is that last sentence. See how much MORE miserable and food-preoccupied everyone becomes in the coming years.

  3. Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Beautiful! I was particularly alarmed to see an app for teens using the food addiction model with all the bells and whistles of complete avoidance, the language of this being a “disease” of addiction they would have to manage, peer support, twelve steps etc. I was so profoundly saddened to think that these young people are told to believe they are diseased and flawed, forever, taught to fear and avoid, rather than taught about competent eating. I can’t imagine it will end well for them. Thank goodness you are here. keep up the good fight! Apparently there was a piece in Mother Jones about sugar being addictive, and that you wouldn’t give your kids guns or alcohol or pot blah blah blah. So sad. This time of year is so hard for the parents I work with to trust feeding their children, and not to spiral into anxiety with those kinds of stories. Will share this for sure!!

  4. Leslie
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I am in recovery from alcoholism, and I am also fat. I’ve gained about 20 pounds since I got sober 2 years ago. I’m going to reread this and probably make a more substantive comment later, but I wanted to thank you very much for putting this out here.

    It’s interesting to me as I’ve really started getting into dealing with my food issues now that I’ve worked a program for a while, and I assumed my problem is another addiction…but your post is making me think. Great stuff.

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 4:35 am | Permalink

      Alcohol is a food, and it converts to sugar. People who have been drinking heavily and then stop crave sugar for that reason. It gives them the nutrition they were getting from alcohol without the toxicity and effects on the brain. At least, that’s my understanding.

      • Posted November 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        Interesting. The only time in my life I ever craved alcohol was when I had to give up sugar for awhile because of a medical issue. Otherwise, even though alcoholism is common in my family, I’ve always been able to take it or leave it.

    • Gillian McManus
      Posted November 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      I too gained weight when I gave up alcohol 2 years ago. Like another responder I believe I was trying to replace the sugar I got from alcohol with sugar from candy, cookies etc. I also think that since I no longer had the alcohol to blunt life I used food. This is an old pattern for me but giving up alcohol made my food issues clearer.

      I believe that “addiction” is incorrect when used about food. I agree that restriction is what caused most of my food issues – I don’t know how many people I know who say they have been either “good” or “bad” about eating – restricting meaning you are being “good” and eating freely meaning you are being “bad”.

  5. Paul Ernsberger
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Thanks for further explaining a point I always make, which is that there is a reason that drugs, food and sex use the same reward pathways in the hypothalamus, and that is that food and sex are natural rewards that can be hijacked by addictive drugs.

    The best case that can be made for a food addiction is large servings of beverages with high fructose corn syrup. I have known people who consume more than 2 liters of sugar sweetened beverages a day and go through something like withdrawal without it. The beverages contribute a major portion of their daily calories. When these soda addicts do kick their drinking habit, they often do lose a lot of weight. I believe a high proportion of successful weight losers are people who were never “biologically fat” or “genetically fat” but simply plumped up on beverages. The mistake experts and the public alike make is to extrapolate from these relatively rare cases to everyone else.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Interesting observations about HFCS. I’m sort of on the fence about it myself. I find that sometimes when people attempt to restrict it, they experience a backlash and thus drink more of it, and that permission can help them calm down and drink it more moderately. However, I do have to admit that I don’t like the way I feel when I drink it (more hungry, more thirsty, and less satisfied), and I’ve had other people report similar experiences. Thankfully my life would not be materially altered by the absence of HFCS, though I know it is in many foods in small amounts. If it turns out to actually be evil somehow, it would be nice if they could replace it on a systemic level like they did with trans fats (although the replacement ingredients can also have ramifications.)

      Thanks for commenting :)

      • Jkitty92
        Posted November 9, 2012 at 1:40 am | Permalink

        What is the deal with HFCS? I’m Australian and our lollies and soft drinks are sweetened with normal sugar. I tried some American lollies and found them to taste odd to me. I really didn’t like them. So I guess my question is why is it used so much in your foodstuffs?

        • Posted November 9, 2012 at 2:29 am | Permalink

          Because corn is a heavily subsidized crop and it makes a cheap source of sweetener, mainly, as far as I know.

        • Posted November 9, 2012 at 4:48 am | Permalink

          Corn production is tiny in Australia compared with America (we produce 0.6% of the world’s corn; America produces 43%), so HFCS is probably never going to be much of a thing here – largely for $$ reasons, not any particular nutrition concerns.

      • Saffie
        Posted November 15, 2012 at 3:55 am | Permalink

        I never noticed that with HFCS sweetened drinks I felt less satisfied – until I stumbled on the Dr. Pepper, Mt. Dew and Pepsi made with cane sugar. Particularly the Dr. Pepper… I never realized how little the sodas I drink actually quench thirst. I drink the Dr. Pepper heritage and I don’t particularly want another right that minute, while I do with the regulars. Great sales technique, that.

  6. Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this post, which expresses so beautifully and intelligently my own viewpoint.

    I just wish we could distill this post, put it in a spray bottle and douse all those fear mongering diet maniacs out there with the truth. If I had a dollar for all the dieters who either sneer at HAES or woefully explain that it sounds good, but if they got half a chance to eat mindfully, they’d get too fat to even walk to the fridge.

    Michelle, I think this is one of my favourite posts on your blog.

  7. Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Excellent post, as ever!

    One of the things that most deeply troubles me about the concept of food addiction is the fact that, if food really were addictive, a lot more people would be addicted to it. If sugar really were this addictive substance, there would not be so very many people who don’t have sweet tooths, who can eat sugar easily in moderation, and who don’t crave it. So far as I can tell, when you talk about a truly addictive substance, like nicotine, trying it is not a guarantee that you’ll become addicted but, chances are, if you were to smoke a cigarette twice a day for any period of time, you would become addicted.

    That’s my understanding, anyway, of how addiction (to addictive substances) works. It doesn’t jive with how food works in my body – when I’m craving a hot fudge sundae, I might have one or two (without guilt) and then that’s enough for months and months.

  8. Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    You have given me points to think about.

  9. Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    This post is spot-on. By the way, breast milk is one of the sweetest foods on the planet. Our first tooth was a sweet tooth!

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Absolutely. Lactose is sugar. Sweet is one of the first taste preferences humans develop. The human body runs largely on glucose. Sugar is biologically valuable, as well as culturally meaningful if all the desserts and confections in the world are any indication!

  10. Christina
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I’m new to your posts, so I’m learning to try them on and see how they feel. This one feels really good! This quote in particular “even that you are too fat to deserve to eat at all, scares the shit out of the very ancient and vulnerable part of you that still thinks starvation could be around the corner at any moment,” struck at my core. Having been somewhat overweight my entire life, I’ve always had the secret fear that I was too fat to deserve to . . .eat, play sports, fill in the blank. I fight this fear everyday, but I never realized that others had this same fear. Thank you.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      I know this stuff can be challenging and uncomfortable, so I appreciate your willingness to try things on :)

  11. Bex
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I think the problem is with the way we, as a culture, deal with the idea of “addiction” – I have no doubt in my mind that certain foods can be as addictive (ie. HABIT FORMING) as certain drugs. There are illegal substances that can be habit forming without being dangerous. Cannabis comes to mind. As someone who has, on and off through my life, imbibed many addictive substances, I can tell you that cannabis is habit forming. But you can’t overdose and die on it either, at least not easily. It is a “natural” substance and often used by smokers as a reward. That doesn’t make it not a drug, and it doesn’t render its effects benign.

    Of course, saying that “food” is addictive is about as bad as making any blanket statement about “drugs” – all foods are not created equal, nor are all psychoactive substances. Some foods are psychoactive. In fact, certain foods play a crucial role in the release and uptake of natural cannabanoids in the body.

    The idea that if one develops an “addiction” to something, it means they must cease and desist all contact with that thing is ridiculous. I can see how that might prove true for certain illicit substances which have disastrous effects on a person’s life, but as a human being who has tried many different “addictive” substances in my day, I am living proof that humans can exhibit self control when it comes to a lot of things.

    Being able to show self-control and being subject to habit-forming cycles of influence and behaviour are not mutually exclusive traits.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      I also feel like the most important distinction to make is that food is absolutely essential to life (and yes, people can even survive on sugar-water and salt alone longer than on nothing – they do it in the hospital all the time) whereas drugs are not. This is the major distinction to me.

      The idea of habit-forming is an interesting one. I find lots of things habit-forming in my life that have nothing to do with drugs. I guess the big question is whether or not those things are life-affirming, neutral, or self-destructive.

      • Bex
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        “Food” is essential for life…. true. But again this assumes that all foods are created equal. Not all foods produce the same effects on the rewards pathways, and not all foods are actually necessary for life. Since carbs are the most likely to cause addictive behaviour, and carbs are not actually necessary to live, the point seems moot. The body cannot survive with too little fat or too little protein, but no body actually requires carbohydrates. All the sugar the body needs to run can be made from fat.

        • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

          I’ve heard this argument about carbs before, and I actually disagree. [Sorry I cut out a little biochem section here because I have a fever, my head is swimming, and I don't want to be making detailed biochemical arguments without being sure of what I'm saying. If any biochemists want to jump in and explain some stuff about the body's use of carbs and glucose, I'm all ears.]

          You could argue that gluconeogenesis exists in the first place BECAUSE the body needs glucose so much that it was evolutionarily favourable to develop a way of producing it endogenously. Without carbs, or without enough substrate to produce glucose in the body, you can survive but there may be negative health effects, not to mention psychological misery.

          You could flip the argument the other way and say, perhaps someone could technically survive on a no-carb diet (although they would still effectively be producing carbs endogenously through gluconeogenesis), but a person could also survive on sugar and little else for quite a while. The equivalent can’t be said about drugs – no amount of a drug is going to take the place of food, unless it is a plant that can double as a food.

          Glucose is the body’s basic fuel, whether it is consumed through the diet or produced by breaking down muscle and fat tissue in the body. Naturally, that is going to mean that finding an easy source of it to consume is very valuable biologically, even if not strictly necessary. Again, you can’t say the same for any drug.

          I usually find these arguments about the body not needing carbs are made in support of the idea that carbs are killing us all, that we weren’t designed to eat or metabolize them, and that we should all switch to a very low or no-carb diet. In which case, I am, of course, extremely skeptical. I just read a really interesting paper on this, here – http://pus.sagepub.com/content/20/5/706.short

          • KellyK
            Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

            Another thing to consider is that “you survive” is a pretty low bar for nutrition. People live with vitamin deficiencies or anemia all the time. It’s not optimal, but it doesn’t necessarily kill you outright (at least depending on which vitamins or minerals the deficiency is in).

            So someone who wants to declare carbs superfluous needs to not only prove that your body *can* produce sufficient sugar from fat consumption, but that it will function at least as well doing that as when consuming carbohydrates. (Having done the South Beach Diet, I can say that mine doesn’t, but I don’t know what stats or studies there are for bodies in general.)

          • Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, and I think quality of life is a huge issue to take into account as well, on a social/psychological level as well as a nutritional one. I am not going to be a happy camper if I am suddenly never allowed bread or pasta again. Those are meaningful foods to me for cultural and social reasons, and I don’t understand why people are so comfortable dismissing that in the search for eternal longevity or whatever.

          • Posted November 1, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

            I know that wild tubers aren’t nutritionally the same as white flour, but we DID eat complex carbs (as opposed to simple carbs like fructose, which we also ate, in the form of fruit) back in the days when we were all hunter-gatherers. I mean, they weren’t anybody’s favorite food. (I actually saw somewhere that they’d asked hunter-gatherers what their favorite foods were, and tubers were basically no one’s. BUT DID THE HUNTER-GATHERERS HAVE SOUR CREAM???) So maybe the paleo people are just being “evolutionarily appropriate” when they don’t pay attention to them. Especially since they were collected by old ladies instead of charismatic men in their prime.

            (I realize that Bex didn’t quite bring up hunter-gatherer stuff, but I think the “addictive” thing implicitly relies on carbs being an “unnatural” part of the diet.)

          • Amanda
            Posted November 4, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            One thing I always wonder about when paleo dieters start dissing bread, is why would every single agricultural civilization have developed its own bread if it was so superfluous to life or whatever. It’s such a major convergent development, I just don’t think it would have been all over the world like that if it wasn’t somehow good for us to eat.

            It’s mentioned in the freaking bible people.

          • Posted November 4, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

            Amanda, EXACTLY! Bread and beer are pretty much the oldest foods there are and beer is the first written recipe (actually the first written instruction for anything).

          • Alice
            Posted November 7, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

            The body can produce enough glucose and other energy sources from fats and proteins to not immediately die, sure. But your body will be in starvation mode, which isn’t exactly a walk in the park for your mood or health. Also, metabolism is pretty damn important for the rest of the body and regulates both hormone levels and gene expression (and not just of the genes that are in direct relation to metabolism). Completely changing it might not be a great idea and might have some major side effects.

  12. Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    A great post, but I actually disagree! The problem is not how you describe our relationship to food (which is spot-on), but actually that you are using a fairly prevalent but maybe not so accurate description of addiction.

    For instance:

    With a truly addictive substance, permission and unfettered access would likely perpetuate the addiction and the feeling of loss of control.

    This may not actually be true. Addiction is about more than a chemical enslavement based on the substances own properties (the very popular medical model approach to addiction), just as it is more than a product of individual weakness and fallibility (the traditional but still popular moral-criminal model).

    Whenever a new illicit (or newly-illicit) drug comes on the scene, there’s immediate hype about how “just one hit” is all it takes to be lost forever, but some of the most persistent addictive drugs actually have very low “first hit” addiction rates (heroin is one, I believe, although the withdrawal is very intense). And those who work with addicted people know that it’s not just about getting the person off the substance – it’s about addressing all the psycho-social reasons that contribute to their drug use, and some researchers argue that these psycho-social reasons (poverty, unemployment, social dislocation, loss of identity, hopelessness) are not just extra challenges, but are in fact the root causes of addiction.

    There’s a study which *ought* to be famous, but which was rejected by the scientific community and seems to have fallen off the radar, called “Rat Park”, conducted by a Canadian psychologist, Dr. Bruce Alexander. He “tampered” with the traditional experimental procedure for testing drug addictiveness in laboratory settings to show how the addiction rates were the product of more than the drugs themselves. From the Wikipedia article:

    Alexander’s hypothesis was that drugs do not cause addiction, and that the apparent addiction to opiate drugs commonly observed in laboratory rats exposed to it is attributable to their living conditions, and not to any addictive property of the drug itself.[1] He told the Canadian Senate in 2001 that prior experiments in which laboratory rats were kept isolated in cramped metal cages, tethered to a self-injection apparatus, show only that “severely distressed animals, like severely distressed people, will relieve their distress pharmacologically if they can.”[2]

    To test his hypothesis, Alexander built Rat Park, an 8.8 m2 (95 sq ft) housing colony, 200 times the square footage of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, an abundance of food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating and raising litters.[3]:166 The results of the experiment appeared to support his hypothesis. Rats who had been forced to consume morphine hydrochloride for 57 consecutive days were brought to Rat Park and given a choice between plain tap water and water laced with morphine. For the most part, they chose the plain water. “Nothing that we tried,” Alexander wrote, “… produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.”[1] Control groups of rats isolated in small cages consumed much more morphine in this and several subsequent experiments.

    The two major science journals, Science and Nature, rejected Alexander, Coambs, and Hadaway’s first paper, which appeared instead in Psychopharmacology, a respectable but much smaller journal in 1978. The paper’s publication initially attracted no response.[4] Within a few years, Simon Fraser University withdrew Rat Park’s funding.

    So, really, I think that the truth is that drug addiction is more like “food addiction” than the other way around. I have always wondered if Rat Park could be replicated using so-called “chemically-addictive” foods (if you read the full article, you will notice that in the original experiment, they actually relied on sweetening the water to try to induce the rats to drink it, rather than just the morphine alone).

    There is no “truly addictive” substance, except whatever substance we find that helps us feel better, however temporarily, about the massive pain and anomie that we are truly coping with behind the scenes. The chemistry of the substance alone can probably contribute to some extent given that some addictive substances (like alcohol) seem to pop up through-out history (likely because they produce chemical effects which provide the necessary distraction/entertainment to fulfill the coping need), but the truth is that there are actually many examples of people successfully resisting becoming addicted to supposedly addictive substances (or being able to quit them), and the moderating factor is probably their underlying struggles and the other supports they have.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      In case it’s not clear, I completely agree with your rejection of the medicalizing of “food addiction” – I just think this rejection also applies to addiction even more broadly! That’s the tl;dr version.

      • Bex
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        This was the point I was trying to make as well – the problem, IMO, isn’t how we look at “food addiction” but how we view addiction as a whole.

      • Stephanie
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        For a fabulous book that discusses this sort of more complex model of addiction, I really recommend Gabor Maté’s “In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.”

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Interesting. I’ll have to read more. Thanks.

      What would you say about addictive substances that can cause an infant to become addicted in utero?

      I remember a few years ago, when I first wrote a blog post on this topic, I read some of the addiction literature to get a clear sense of the definition and criteria of addiction, and was amazed at actually how much disagreement there was about that among researchers, when it is often presented as so clear-cut by the media, public health efforts, etc. Stuff is always more complicated than we think. I think questioning the entire model of addiction could actually strengthen the argument that food is not an addictive substance, since perhaps nothing is unequivocally an addictive substance? Though then we’re back to comparing chocolate and heroin and I can’t help but feel there is a difference in degree of addictiveness, if not an absolute yes/no.

      • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        I would say that there is no such thing as “addiction in utero”. Addiction is a set of behaviours and a foetus or even a newly born infant is physiologically-incapable of acting out those behaviours. However, that infant very much could experience the withdrawal symptoms and chemical dependency as their body learned to respond to a particular chemical environment. An infant who is exposed to such substances in utero also is staggeringly likely to grow up in the same social environment which contributed to their parent’s drug use and have all the same reasons for acting out addiction behaviours when they are able to.

        Addiction is often defined as chemical dependency, as if these are synonymous, but this is a very limited view which in my experience does not come close to describing the general person’s experience with addiction. My argument is that addiction can encompass chemical dependency (and certainly this adds another level of difficulty when trying to change the addicted behaviours), but that is it is *more* than chemical dependency, which I think there is both lab and field research to bear out. It’s long been acknowledged that one of the hardest parts of quitting smoking or drinking is not just the substance itself, but the loss of the social experience and lifestyle (as a non-drinker, I can attest that it is enormously difficult to socialize as such in a drinking culture). Successful drug treatment programs always include major lifestyle changes as a component. It seems to be the case that people assume that the chemical dependency is the core of the addiction and the lifestyle and personal issues are simply extra barriers. Looking at the work by people like Alexander and my own experiences talking to drug addiction counsellors of all stripes, I would say that the lifestyle and personal issues are the core of addiction, and chemical dependency/withdrawal symptoms are things that definitely makes it even harder, but don’t define addiction themselves.

        In the case of heroin versus chocolate, you also have to look at our social discourse (include all the class and racial biases) around what gets defined as an addictive substance, issues of access and “bang for the buck” (heroin does have a stronger kick than chocolate and hell in some communities is probably cheaper/easier to get a decent score of), and how are addictive behaviours are often defined around what is easiest for us to use – what we have on hand and what we feel comfortable, due to other social factors, being a user of. I would differentiate between the chemical impacts of heroin versus chocolate (and in the negative impacts of their respective social sanctions – being fat/health-shamed for eating chocolate is bad, but so far doesn’t entail a criminal sentence, though I’m sure if we could figure out a way to make sure only poor people got imprisoned for eating chocolate, we would /bitterness), but not necessarily in the addictive experience.

        I can give a little more personal context about where I am coming from on this: I have used food to fill holes in my life for reasons other than sustenance or pleasure. I have used food in ways I recognize now as being part of an incipient “addictive experience” (not food alone, but in combination with a host of other unhealthy behaviours); a pattern of behaviours which I “needed” in order to cope with everything else in my life and which, had I not received additional support from other more productive sources, could very well have progressed to the point of defining my life and all my activities. (I became very experienced at hiding these behaviours in socially-acceptable ways; “lost time” while I was engaging in them; gave up on other social and work experiences to engage in them; spent a lot of time when I was doing other things thinking about the next time I was going to get to engage in them – this should sound familiar to anyone who has struggled with an addiction.)

        I would never turn around and say that any of this was because the food in question was “addictive” in and of itself, but I was very clearly starting down a pathway of addiction.

        • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          But again with the whole “totally agreeing with you” bit, one of the reasons that food was such an important part of this pattern for me is because my access to food at a young age, particularly “junk food”, was restricted, and that was when I first learned how to sneak and hide food. And one of the ways in which I am helping myself deal with all this is by giving myself full permission to eat whatever I want when I want, so that that old pattern of mine is no longer an “escape” and something special that I can hold on to and look forward to. Obviously that’s not a strategy that works with all of the foci of addictions, like those which are illegal to possess and/or which have serious physical consequences, but the basic premise which does work for other substances is to change the context of use, change the *meaning* of the substance. (I know people who have dealt with alcohol abuse not by total abstinence, but by recognizing that they were using alcohol to deal with particular issues and learn not to drink at those times for those reasons.)

        • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          Interesting, thank you for expanding. I can totally understand and get behind the idea of “addiction” being bigger than just chemical dependency.

          I do think that disordered eating can mimic the behavioural and even social portions of addiction. (And we know that the chemical dependency is there since we are chemically dependent on food in the first place.) Some people even find the addiction model is helpful in getting over that part of the disorder. I just worry about the slippery slope of classifying such things as such because of what it might imply about food itself, and the further harm that might do to people.

          • Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I definitely agree there. Our general social definition of (and reaction to) addiction is really dysfunctional and harmful to people with addictions, in addition to often being very inaccurate! As I said, I’d rather that change, not see it expanded to other “substances”.

          • Posted November 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

            I appreciate Jadey’s contributions, here, to the often overlooked cultural contexts (social and material conditions, for instant) in which potentially problematic behaviors arise. The idea that animals (such as rats or people) demonstrate less or reduced attraction towards self-medicating behaviors (attempts to mediate/reduce suffering or to enhance socially-demanded forms of functioning) under social conditions which are experienced as less oppressive (less painful or hopeless, for instance) provides additional reasons to be concerned about socially constructing a “disorder” known as “food addiction”. Addiction has been socially constructed by dominant discourses as a kind of disease process or malady which occurs “inside” individual bodies, with little analysis of the wider social contexts (far beyond “family systems”) and almost no critical studies of the dominant discourses which construct lived experiences in ways that are too overwhelming for many human nervous systems to withstand (and thus prompting a normal and reliable human response—a powerful urge to escape from or reduce feelings of pain, chronic fear and insecurity, and so forth).

            With a social construct such as “food addiction”, the emphasis for analysis tends to focus on food (as a problematic substance) and/or on falsely assumed individual (psychological) pathology. Thus, what originates as a normal and physiologically driven urge to minimize nervous system trauma and stress under overwhelming social conditions, then becomes transformed into yet another source of social pressure (domination) and demand for increased individual “control” over a natural behavior (such as eating) and over a natural and necessary substance (food)—hence, targeting both eating and food as potentially risky to human life and, therefore, in need of (preventative and ongoing) monitoring and strategic control efforts.

            Thus, attention is shifted away from potentially helpful analysis of social conditions; moreover, additional social pressure creates increased demands on individual nervous systems to “monitor and predict the potential dangers related to food and eating” and to “control” one’s individual behaviors related to eating and food.

            These growing social demands for increased individual focus on prediction and control of outcomes also produces physiological costs (to human bodies and minds) which we cannot yet fully understand or measure. The biochemical and neural pathways (including signals between endocrine systems and brain regulatory mechanisms) that *tell* us when to eat and when to stop eating, for example, may over time become dysfunctional (and their signals distorted) as a result of chronic social pressure (with increased demands on biochemical stress pathways and responses) to monitor, predict, and control outcomes related to eating.

            In other words, Michelle, the harmful consequences of such socially constructed (false) needs for vigilance and “control” become more pervasively damaging and more complex than psychologically-based “self-fulfilling prophecies” (often pejoratively framed as purely emotional—infantile or immature—reactions to *needed* structure or restriction). Rather, these increasing social demands (pressures) for individuals to constantly predict and maintain control of eating (and eating-related outcomes) may result in harmful changes (distortions) in neurological, endocrine and biochemical signalling systems, which originally functioned beautifully and reliably together to allow people to clearly recognize their unique individual needs to eat and to stop eating—before being subject to chronic stress signals—yet become (over time) sources of confusing and worrisome problems that, for instance, may damage or even destroy a person’s trust in her body’s ability to function properly, while she becomes less confident in her ability to “listen to” and correctly interpret previously healthy signalling processes.

      • peregrin8
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t withdrawal an aspect of the definition for addictive substances? Food in general, perhaps (the withdrawal symptom is starvation) — but none of the specific “addictive” foods give you symptoms when you stop having them, whereas heroin and caffeine definitely do.

        • Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          I’ve heard that there’s such thing as sugar withdrawal, which is supposedly pretty similar to caffeine withdrawal. I think the effects probably vary from person to person, though.

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      This is maybe a little off-topic, but anyone who wants to do *extra credit reading* on non-drug addiction or habit-forming behavior might find this article interesting:

      In 1967, a pair of psychologists at Northwestern developed a standard procedure for inducing a kind of overtraining syndrome in the lab: Under the right conditions, a captive rat would become exorexic. The scientists noticed that if they limited a rat’s access to food to one hour per day, the animal would start to lose weight before adapting to the new schedule and consuming more food when it had the chance. But if they gave that same rat the opportunity to exercise in a running wheel, it never adjusted. Instead, the rat would get slightly deranged: running more and more, and eating less and less, until it became too scrawny and weak to move. Without intervention, the animal would starve to death within two weeks.

      • Posted November 2, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Oh, I’ll be looking into that! It sounds very interesting and controversial.

  13. kathy
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    My problem is, whenever I would like to go to lunch or dinner I’m accused of having a “food addiction” (translation, you’re fat and we don’t like it). Or when I’m told that I’m the pot calling the kettle black for objecting to my husband cheating on me because “well you have a food addiction, so there!”

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Wow. In that case, everyone who eats lunch or dinner has a food addiction. And a food addiction does not affect another person or break a code of ethics the same way that cheating on a committed monogamous relationship does, so the comparison is totally invalid.

      • kathy
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        oh it would NEVER be an issue for anyone else to ask what time dinner is. I’m the only one that is responded to with “it’s when I SAY IT IS!” And it’s NEVER an issue for anyone else to be the first to make their plate, or the first to get seconds. No one else is ever told they have a “food addiction” when that happens.

        • Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

          Totally unfair and not right. Do what you gotta do :)

          • kathy
            Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

            I keep a hidden stash in my suitcase for that very reason. And that’s also a prime suspected symptom of “food addiction” but you know what? If they weren’t such food nazis I wouldn’t have to do that. THEY are the ones with the “food problem” and the bigotry. Not me.

    • peregrin8
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Those comments sound like flat-out abusive insults with no basis in reality. (And if you *did* have an addiction, wouldn’t you deserve compassion rather than abuse?)

      • Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        Yes. This. That justification for cheating is completely douche-tastic.

      • Lisa
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

        I also agree. This. Those comments are not ok.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Wow, Kathy. Your husband actually said that? Your choice to actually eat and stay alive in no way excuses him for breaking his marriage vows. Not to mention the fact that what you eat affects you and your body. Whom he chooses to sleep with could have devastating results on both his and your health if he isn’t sufficiently careful.

      Also? Lunch and dinner are meals, not deadly sins.

      You don’t deserve the way the people in your life are treating you. You deserve so much better.

  14. Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I so very much agree. I’ve experienced it myself.
    I tried the now all popular paleo diet. The idea was to try it for 30 days and then reintroduce the “bad” food and see how I felt.
    You have no idea how much I craved chocolate and simple bread and whatever else I wasn’t allowed. After 25 days I quit. I ate bread and guess what? I felt fine! No intolerance or even slightly feeling bad.
    The problem was that after I quit I overate on all the food I wasn’t allowed before.
    Then I found your site and decided to do things different. I’m now allowed all the food I want, I’m trying to give myself permission for that.
    And guess what?! I’m not craving things so badly anymore!! I now enjoy my lunch salad, because I know that if I don’t want to eat it, I don’t have to!
    I enjoy food so much more (all food!) now that I can just eat what I feel like. And honestly, I don’t feel like eating “bad” food all the time. Actually I mostly crave apples….

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      That’s great. I’d really recommend reading the book Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch if you want more info and help. Their model is very similar to what I talk about here, and the book is quite helpful and has some interesting research in it as well as sound nutrition information about carbs, etc.

  15. Lisa
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I used to have a really large sweet tooth too! And over the years I have done the same thing – given myself permission. And permission means having candy in the house at all times, and chocolate. And usually ice cream in my freezer.

    And what happens now is that I can have it whenever I want. On occasion I do, but I found that if sugar is the last thing I eat at night I feel like crap in the morning (almost like a hangover), so I’ve started choosing carefully WHEN I eat the stuff. And I definitely go days or sometimes weeks without candy/chocolate – which I think is so cool.

    I remember walking into a friend’s house when I was a kid and they had a bowl of candies out on the coffee table. I was SO EXCITED and the friend said “well, you can have one if you want but I think they’re stale”. They were those hard candies that were prevalent in the 70s/80s, different shapes/sizes, no wrapper – anyway, they were so old they were ALL STUCK TOGETHER. And I remember thinking, WOW, they get to have candy whenever they want so they don’t need it!

    And I gotta tell you, it feels great to be in that position now. And it feels great to be modeling that for my kid, too. He doesn’t beg for candy or overeat sweets, he’s the only child I’ve EVER MET who sometimes says “no thank you” to cake or cookies, or who will go back to have seconds of dinner after eating dessert (when he’s hungry).

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Wow, good observation about eating sugar at night (I’ve had a similar experience, but usually only if I eat too large a quantity, ugh, it’s usually the Skittles that get me.) It’s amazing how noticing those things without shame actually allows you to then make choices based on health instead of fear or guilt. And it sounds like your kid knows what he’s doing :)

      • Lisa
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        Hot Damn but I love Skittles! Also Lifesavers – especially the pineapple ones.

    • Veerle
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      I hope I once get to the point were you (Lisa and Michelle) are now in regards to sweets. The problem with me is not that I restrict myself from eating it, but that I eat it even when I know it is not the right choice at the time, “because I can”.

      I have been reading this blog and an HAES blog for quite some time now and think this attitude to food is a far healthier way to go. So I try to work with it. And I give myself permission to eat what I want, whenever I (my body) want(s). I am an emotional eater though and haven’t really learned to listen to my body that well. So sometimes I go for chocolate, when I’m actually hungry and need something more substantial.

      And to me that is not making the right choice. I don’t beat myself up about it anymore, but I feel like I have to start listening more to my body signals if I want to be (what I consider) healthy.

      I know this is a process and I’ll get there one day. This blog will certainly help me with it.

      (Sorry, this is not really a comment about addiction…)

      • Lisa
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        I know you’re not asking for advice, and this is not advice, but only what I noticed about myself one time and what I did about it…

        I remember the “sometimes I go for chocolate when I’m actually hungry and need something more substantial” and I remember I went through this period of “feeling bad about it” which did nothing to help me. So I just switched what I did about it – recognizing that I was hungry AND I wanted chocolate was the hardest part. And then I said to myself “ok, I’m going to have chocolate. But I’m hungry, too, so I’m going to eat something a bit more filling first, and THEN have the chocolate”. I’d even go as far as to take the chocolate out and put it in front of me so I could see it while I was eating the other stuff. So I knew no matter what I’d get that chocolate, I was allowed that chocolate.

        anyway, worked for me, I’m not you, ymmv, etc, but I thought I’d share. :)

        • Posted October 31, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          I have found this helpful too, to mix “forbidden” foods with regular meal foods. It can be very satisfying.

        • Veerle
          Posted November 1, 2012 at 3:24 am | Permalink

          Thank you for the tip. It sounds like something that could work for me.

          I was thinking about “challenging” myself for a month to write everything down about when and what I eat, how I feel about it, what it does for my mood/hunger/etc. and put it on my blog. If I have to write about it every day, I can’t ignore the signals. And then I can also try new things, experiment with foods and times to eat.

          Hopefully I have a better view about my habits after that and I can continue to go from there.
          Does that seem like a good idea or is that spending too much time on it?

          • Posted November 6, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

            Wow, Veerlee, gotta say the phrase “emotional eater” is as misunderstood and has been pop-psychologized into as big a mess as “food addiction.” I hope Michelle writes about it some day.

            Upshot: We all have emotions. We all eat. It’s all okay and don’t let some women’s magazine tell you it’s pathological. For that matter, don’t let an MD or RD do it either. Emotions and eating work with some of the same endocrine signals. So what?

            I’ll let Michelle answer that question . . . in her own time, some day.

  16. Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I love this post!

    I think it wouldn’t be so necessary–would still be true, just less necessary–if we didn’t also have horrible social attitudes toward addiction. There’s a huge tendency, both in the general public and in healthcare, to associate addiction with laziness, selfishness, and untrustworthiness. So calling someone a “food addict” lumps them into these same stereotypes.

    But the whole thing is screwed up. Treating a heroin addict or an alcoholic like a bad lazy person doesn’t help them get better either.

    I don’t think the situations are entirely analogous, like you pointed out–nobody should withdraw off food!–but I do think they’re both symptomatic of a society that likes to label personal problems as moral sins.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I agree. There is a lot of stigma around addiction that doesn’t actually help people get well.

    • Laurel
      Posted November 1, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      I agree that labeling people and stigmatizing further does not necessarily help them. I would also note that society tends to treat people as though the problem is only with the individual, whereas there are many more factors – their social network, their family life, the culture around them, their access to mental and other health services, etc. If we try and treat only the individual we may be missing opportunities for healing and health. Thanks.

  17. Linda Strout
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Wild Twix! That made me laugh.

    I completely agree with the concept of restricting food terrifies the primitive part of your brain that worries about starvation. Whenever I have told myself that I can’t have whatever, I suddenly want to EAT ALL THE FOOD!

    Now that I am trying to give myself permission to eat whatever (within the needs of gluten intolerance and diabetes) I have a slight tendency to stuff myself on some things (phad thai) but I am also having more moments when I realize that I really do want those vegetables, now that I can choose to eat them or not.

    Like you, I have something sweet everyday. I keep dark chocolate around for this very purpose. I stopped spending all my time thinking about sweets.

    Speaking of energy to cook food, I was recently diagnosed as anemic, and I didn’t realize how little energy I had for cooking (or anything outside of work and basic cleaning) until I suddenly had energy again. I am taking iron pills, but I have also upped my red meat intake, which goes against years of media conditioning. If anybody cares, I opt for local, hormone free, grass fed beef, because I think it is better for the environment and I think it tastes better. Your mileage may vary. I also bought a cast iron pan. If nothing else, my arm muscles will get stronger.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      I loved the image of a wild Twix bar too! I picture it out in the forest, stalking unsuspecting dieters.

      • Jkitty92
        Posted November 9, 2012 at 2:10 am | Permalink

        With how she said it I’m picturing it as a Pokemon. A wild twix appears. Mouth I choose you! :)

  18. Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    reward pathways shared by both food and addictive drugs exist, in the first place, because of things like food.

    Really good post. We cannot compare what is always necessary, to what can only become necessary.

    There’s no addiction without intoxication, “highs” are a side effect of that.

    I’m not convinced by the sugary drinks either. Adapting to something your body is extremely suited to, is not the same as “addiction.” There is homesickness after all. We get ‘withdrawal’ symptoms when changing from many (benign) ingrained habits.

  19. Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    This is a great post! I hate the “food addiction” language. Of course I’m addicted to food–if I weren’t, I’d be dead. I especially like Joy Nash’s take on it.

    I do have one question, though: what about people with PCOS/metabolic syndrome, whose bodies just keep craving sugar even when they’ve given themselves permission to eat whatever they want?

    My dad and I both have it. He’s been able to manage his cravings by regularly eating small amounts of dark chocolate, but I’m still struggling. I don’t want to restrict myself–I know nothing good lies down that path–but left to my own devices, I eat more sugar than is good for me.

    I have noticed that I crave sugar the most strongly when I’m tired, stressed out, or waking up from a nap. So at least I can try to avoid those states (not that that’s easy). But I’m not sure what else to do, and most PCOS/metabolic syndrome advice out there is focused on weight loss.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if this is a side effect of insulin resistance, and if improving your insulin sensitivity could help? Usually this is done through exercise or drugs like Metformin.

      • Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        That’s a good point. I used to take Metformin, but I had to stop after it messed up my teeth (not a listed side effect, but my dad, who is a family doctor, has seen it in some of his patients). I do exercise but sometimes I let it slide when I’m busy or stressed out, so I guess that’s something to keep working on!

        • Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          One of my commenters with diabetes said that he noticed improved insulin sensitivity from doing Tai Chi. I thought that was kind of unexpected and interesting.

          I also hear from folks with fibromyalgia that they often crave sugar when what they really need is more sleep or a nap :)

          • Linda Strout
            Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            I have PCOS and I take metformin, which does help my sugar/hunger cravings.

            I also choose to use stevia to sweeten my tea, which I find helpful when I am craving something sweet but can’t afford the carbs.

            Laura, may I ask what happened to your teeth?

          • Posted October 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

            Interesting!

            Also, in response to Linda (since we’ve reached the end of the comment threading): I suddenly developed 16 cavities in one year after taking Metformin. It’s possible that there was an unrelated cause, but I didn’t want to take the chance, so I went off the Metformin.

          • Posted November 3, 2012 at 1:03 am | Permalink

            I’m the diabetic Tai Chi practicing commentator! I’ve trained a lot, at a whole range of things, and curiously always found Tai Chi had the most dramatic impact when it came to helping to regulate my diabetes – in that I seemed to require fewer units of insulin per injection when I was training more regularly – which I put down to increased insulin sensitivity. This is interesting because we’re usually told training at intensity with weights or resistance (because insulin is all about skeletal muscle) – that sort of thing that I’ve done quite a lot of as well – we’re usually told that’s what you need to do, but Tai Chi, where the point is being as relaxed and as fluid as you can be – that seemed most beneficial to me.

    • Linda Strout
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      Hmm, I’ve been on Metformin for longer than a year, and haven’t had any new cavities.

      It could be an unrelated cause, or maybe you react that way to Metformin. I hope you find a solution for your cravings though.

  20. Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post, especially the last few paragraphs. The thing I found interesting is that these kinds of arguments apply equally to other forms of “socially constructed additions”. Take sex for example:

    “If you call sex an addiction often enough, it will scare people. When people are scared, they will have a harder time having sex competently. When they are not having sex competently, they will often succumb to binge sex and being out of control with “forbidden” sex, which we will then diagnose as a sex addiction. So it goes.

    The answer is to treat all sex like it is sex, calm down and manage anxiety about sex, make sure you are having enough sex at consistent times, and having a variety of sex, healthy and “unhealthy” alike, with lots of permission and a refusal to beat yourself up over it.”

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      That’s interesting, but honestly I have no idea what I think about sex addiction. The whole spectrum of behavioural addictions is a bit mixed and confusing to me.

      • Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        It’s interesting to me that you say this. As a counselor with some training in helping people with addictions, I think your original post makes the most sense when I frame it as arguing that what is often called food addiction can be more usefully a behavioral problem rather than an abusive chemical dependency. (Jadey’s posts defined these terms very well.) The idea that access allows for control is important to theories of harm reduction which originated in the addictions treatment field. You will probably find some familiar ideas if you look into literature concerning harm reduction. I agree that the disease model and the medical model are often disempowering. I hope that those models of addiction treatment and the stigma they’ve engendered are what you are objecting to applying to people struggling with their relationships to food. As a sex positive person, I have a similar reaction when people talk about sex addiction, but I have learned that the behavior that is usually being described by that terminology is not actually about sex at all. I think the behaviors people engage in that get described as food addiction probably have nothing to do with food, either.

        • Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

          I absolutely agree that behavioural issues around food are the real problem, and not the food itself. I just don’t know enough about the definition and discourse around behavioural addictions to really state a strong opinion on them, but I appreciate the perspective of people who know this area well.

    • Nebet
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      I like your point here!

      (Sex addiction gets a lot of the same “it utilizes reward pathways so it must be bad” nonsense arguments that food addiction does.)

  21. Hanna
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    What are you talking about? Every single person is chemically dependant on food. ;)

    I feel that addiction is a very lazy way of trying to define people’s conflicted and often troubled relationship with food. I do, however, fully believe that there are any number of people who have issues with compulsive eating. I’m one of them.

    If there is food, I eat it. If there is any scrap of relatively easy-to-prepare food within eyesight of my body, I can think of nothing else but that food, even if it is not food I enjoy, or I am painfully full. I always eat until my stomach hurts, so as the food expands I am usually in fairly significant pain. I’m not stupid, I know darn well what the consequences of my actions are, and yet I still do it. In the last 2 years I have developed NAFLD and I will die a painful death of liver failure if I cannot get this under control, and I cannot stop myself from eating more than fits comfortably in my stomach. I don’t even feel that I *need* or *want* the food, but more like I have some kind of duty to eat it, make it gone. Being full doesn’t satisfy anything, but all the food being gone does. The closest I come to managing it is have extremely little food, and only time-consuming to prepare food, in my home.

    It makes me angry when people speak of food addiction like it’s a cigarette addiction or something, and we should be able to ‘kick the habit’. The only time I enjoy the food=drug habit comparison is when you see people try to wrap their heads around the comparison concept of kicking heroin, but you have to have a shot of it 3x/day to stay alive.

  22. Linda Strout
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Rant mode (apologies in advance)

    While watching the morning news, they brought up the danger of a large waist circumference (again) in a study by the Mayo clinic. I don’t know if this is a new study, or rehashing of old studies, but I went poking around.

    In the few abstracts I could find, the fat is associated with diseases, but not causing them. Also, no studies looked to see if the fat and the disease are both caused by something else.

    Also, the morbidity factor didn’t seem clear. Some said it was, others said it was inconclusive. The most recent date on any of these was 2008.

    The solution is, of course, to eat less and exercise more and lose the weight.

    The more I think about this mantra, the more it bugs me. I think about Oprah Winfrey, who with all her money and contacts can NOT get skinny and stay that way. I think about my friend who became a tri-athlete and didn’t get skinny (although she did get thinner). I think about my friend with Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome who can’t exercise unless she takes the appropriate medication, but most people would just view as fat. I think about my skinny friend who’s college boyfriend told her she was too fat (she dumped him).

    I think about sumo wrestlers and american football players who are supposed to be big, and professional dancers who are not.

    I think about my mom whose uncles hunted rabbits to make more food available to their families and inner city folks who don’t have enough food despite how rich our country is.

    All this stuff is supposed to boil down to me eating less and exercising more because some study maybe shows I might die earlier if I have too much fat on my waist.

    Okay, now I am just babbling. Michelle, thank you for your forbearance.

  23. Linda Strout
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Because I clearly can’t shut and Michelle hasn’t blocked me, another thing occurred to me around food deprivation.

    Friends of mine adopted a little girl from China. The toddler was probably about 18 months old, hadn’t learned to walk yet and was small for her age. It is not uncommon for Chinese orphanages to limit movement and to only provide a certain amount of food. Not abusive or neglectful, but not the sort of running around American children do, or eating however much the kids want.

    Right after they got her home, she tended to store food in her cheeks, or want to carry food around with her. My friends did not limit her food intake in anyway, so she grew a bit and quickly learned to walk. Even now a couple of years later, she will still want to carry food around in her hands, even if she doesn’t want to eat it right then.

    People, even very young ones, want the security of knowing they have access to food, especially when they have the experience of not getting all they want, even if they weren’t starving.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Interesting example, especially given that I am just now reading my friend Katja’s book on feeding for adoptive parents. She talks about this kind of thing – kids will totally hoard food if they are afraid they won’t get enough to eat. It’s a survival mechanism.

      Here’s the book for anyone interested – http://www.amazon.com/Love-Me-Feed-Adoptive-Struggles/dp/0615691315/

  24. Posted October 31, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    After years and years of restricting and bingeing and various disordered eating patterns, I was convinced that there were certain foods I just couldn’t have in the house. I didn’t think I was chemically addicted, but I felt very out of control with them (and probably flippantly used the word ‘addicted’). Ice cream was a prime example – I didn’t have it in my house for about 10 years, and if I did happen to buy it, I would binge and eat the whole 2 litre container in two or three sittings.

    Fast forward to now, where I’ve been eating (mostly) intuitively for about 9 months, and dealing with my ED issues. I have ALL those ‘addictive’ foods in my house, and I’m surprised to find that they’re actually not that interesting. Ice cream was the most amazing one… I bought it as an experiment, but still half assumed I would scoff the lot really quickly. It took me TWO MONTHS to get through a 2 litre (4.2 pint) tub of ice cream. And not because I was restricting at all; once I had permission to eat it, I truly didn’t want it unless I really felt like it. Even with embracing intuitive eating, I had remained convinced that ice cream was the exception for me because I was ‘addicted’ to it. I was honestly astonished to find that this was not the case… and that’s now what makes me very skeptical when friends claim to have food addictions.

  25. Posted October 31, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I love chocolate. I love a lot of different candies, but chocolate is usually my favorite. Today is Halloween. For the past week or so, I’ve had three huge assortment bags of candies (mostly chocolate) sitting on my kitchen table waiting for tonight.

    If my fondness for chocolate were an actual addiction, I would not have been able to walk past my kitchen table all week long without breaking open those bags and having myself a chocolate orgy right there in the kitchen… which is something that has not happened.

    Of course, I find myself hoping just a tiny bit that we don’t get our usual three to four hundred trick or treaters tonight (told you those bags of candy were huge!) so that I can guarantee a Reeses or two for tomorrow… but if it doesn’t turn out that way, oh well.

    Then again, there is my obsession with spinach….
    (plants tongue very firmly in cheek and grins)

    You know what? I’ve never heard anyone use the addiction model with ‘good’ foods like spinach, Brussels sprouts, or broccoli, but I have been known on a fair number of occasions to pass on dessert because that ‘super healthy’ dinner tasted so good I don’t want to let go of it right away. I just wanted to continue to savor the flavors.

    In fact, in the town where I grew up there was this wonderful little Russian restaurant that was famed for its pies. People went there just to eat pie. My mother and I went there quite a few times… but we never once ordered pie. What made both of us swoon was their pelmeni (sort of like Russian tortellini, for those who haven’t had it, served traditionally in broth). We would eat that and then refuse dessert because we were still savoring the broth.

    Even if we had plenty of room in our stomachs, we didn’t want the pie.

    Then again, I make pretty terrific pie myself, so maybe it was that we didn’t need pie from an outside source.

  26. Nicole
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I think some mistake compulsion for addiction … two very different things. ie. gambling is not an addiction, it is a compulsion. Things would be a whole lot simpler if people in media + healthcare + etc were familiar with merriam-webster.

  27. Sim
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    This makes my life make so much more sense! When I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes I did the “right” thing for 6 months. Not a morsel of sugar or white bread or jasmine rice passed my lips. I lost 10kg and became suicidal. Since then, and it’s been a good number of years, I haven’t tested my blood sugar much at all, and i’ve eaten way more of the “forbidden” foods than I should (health wise). I think the reason it’s been going on so long is because every time I eat something i’ve been told not to, I feel guilty, bash myself up for contributing to my early and painful demise, decide my children will lose their mother young and vow not to do it again.

    Then I have another binge. Sigh.

    I just can’t work out how to overcome the HUGE diabetes scare campaign that is impossible to avoid. I read blogs like yours and agree with every word, but i feel like I’ve been hardwired with this mindset. I feel like it is my duty to be healthy for my family, and I live in constant fear that I am killing myself. I just can’t work out how to take care of myself without restricting.

    • Linda Strout
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      As a type 2 diabetic myself, I don’t deny anything, I watch my carbohydrate intake.

      The guidelines I was given in the diabetic class I took were 45 grams of carbs per meal, and 15 per snack, assuming three meals and two snacks per day for a woman. Men get a bit more.

      Further, if you have fiber in your meal, you can subtract it from the carbs, thus getting a net carbohydrate count.

      Example: 1 piece of bread has 15 grams of carbs, but 5 grams of fiber. The net carbohydrate count is 10 for that piece of bread. For one meal you could have four and half slices of that type of bread.

      I am not super strict about this, and I do occasionally go over the amount of carbs per meal I should have, but more or less following this for the past couple of years and taking Metformin has helped keep my blood sugar under decent control. I don’t test much either, since when I get checked out by the doctor, it is more or less okay (A1c under 7).

      The other thing I do consistently is have protein with meals. Meat, cheese, nuts. They help slow down digestion and keep blood sugar from spiking as much. Fiber also helps in this respect. Most vegetables are basically carb free once you subtract the fiber from the carbohydrates.

      In any case, don’t deny and then binge. You will make yourself miserable. You are not killing yourself. You will make some mistakes.Whether you do nor not, the diabetes will still progress because that is what it does. Try not to freak out or get depressed.

      Here is where you will get into trouble – ignoring illnesses or injuries; eating nothing but one kind of food while disregarding your body’s needs; never getting checkups.

      Eat what you want, but manage the carbohydrates so you don’t spike and crash your blood sugar. This is not restricting, it is managing. There is a difference. If I choose to eat a 45 carb cupcake with my lunch, I don’t have other carbohydrates. It is my choice. I choose not to eat two cupcakes for lunch because I don’t want the blood sugar crash and I know it is better for my overall health long-term. This is still my choice.

      You have options. Use them. Be good to yourself.

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 4:23 am | Permalink

      Michelle could give you tips on how to eat to manage diabetes, too. It’s one of her areas of expertise, if I remember correctly. It’s not all or nothing.

      • Posted November 2, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        While I’ve worked in diabetes and as such know a bit about it, I’m not a certified diabetes educator, and I wouldn’t say it’s one of my areas of expertise. Sim, you should find a CDE to help you out. I know a few if you need names.

        • Sim
          Posted November 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

          Michelle, I’m in Australia but hey, if you have contacts down here I’d love to hear them :) I went to an endocrinologist once. She told me to have meal replacements and lost 30kg. I left and never went back.
          I think my eating has got so messed up that even sensible advice to count carbs makes me panic :(

          • Posted November 2, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

            I don’t know any dietitians personally in Australia, but there is a US dietitian who does work online with people – http://www.mysignaturenutrition.com/Nutrition_Services.php – she may not be a CDE but she will have the basic dietetic training in diabetes and she seems to take a weight-neutral, intuitive eating perspective. You might email her to find out more details about how she would approach your concerns.

    • Posted November 2, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      I also have diabetes – since I was 12 years old or so. I kinda grew up believing it was my fault, even though genetic factors seem to be the huge determining factor for onset of both type one and type two. That’s one of the things that bugs me the most with diabetes – it’s nobody’s fault at all. People do ‘all the right things’ and still get sick, it’s just that people like to indulge in the fantasy that we can control sickness with an iron fist. Maybe it’s a flat denial of chaos – some sort of Ostrich syndrome? People hurl around accusations of ‘personal responsibility’ as if it’s possible to prevent all sickness through a combination of obedience and strength of will. One of my theories is that the low-fat eating craze, which was a reaction to the fear of obesity, is as much to blame for diabetes as anything else, and I know I’ve done myself harm in the name of health – all by doing what I was told. When you remove all the fat from your diet, the glycaemic index of everything you eat goes up. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s hard, and you’re not alone, and having a disease does not equal killing yourself, even when it’s a disease associated with shame and guilt.

      • Linda Strout
        Posted November 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Chris, I’ve wondered the same thing about eating low fat as I was told and whether it affected how soon my diabetes set in. I am now eating ‘high fat’ regularly and it doesn’t seem to have affected either my cholesterol or weight. I am happier when I eat though.

        I also hate the people that leave genetics out of the equation. It’s all about ‘do the right thing and you’ll live a long healthy life’ even though there are health nuts that die at 50 and people who drink and smoke who live into their hundreds. Some things are just down to genetics.

        • Posted November 3, 2012 at 1:13 am | Permalink

          Yes. We seem to keep coming up against that ‘cognitive dissonance’ thing – where it seems our experience of life shows us that you can do all the right things and still get sick, but we cling harder to the dogma, trying to drown out our own fears…

          There was something that struck a chord in me, from a book on acting by David Mamet – I think it might have been “True and False” – he said you cannot control whether you act well or poorly, but you can control your intention. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you step out on stage, you don’t know if you’ll be good or not, so if nothing else – act truly. I like that approach very much – as much as our intentions can be manipulated or influenced by other factors, I found it a good way to think about what you can control vs what you can’t… It helps me to hold it all a bit more lightly…

          Eating low fat for me just led to testosterone depletion and once I started eating unrestricted quantities of butter and cream, my health started to improve. I can’t tell you how surprising it was! It had been drummed into me so much (as I’m sure is the case for most of us) that butter and cream would be the death of me – but these forbidden foods helped my body to recover. Without any negative consequences at all. My intention these days isn’t to be thin…

  28. Emily
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Great post as usual, and it makes me think how similarly we think of food and sex.

    They are both things that, supposedly, we are only allowed to “indulge” in in certain ways. They are both things that other people are incredibly judgy about. They are both things that some people attempt to literally force on others or keep from others in one way or another. Increasingly, we use the same language around each — sin, guilty pleasures, etc. Fat women are very often seen as “slutty” and vice versa. The rules keep changing for both food and sex at a rate that is astoundingly fast, but many of the core horrible things remain (fat-shaming, slut-shaming, victim-blaming).

    Some people have a massively difficult time letting other people do with their own bodies what they choose to do with their own bodies. Especially if they suspect those other people are having more fun than they are.

    • Donna Skelton
      Posted November 1, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Well put, and your comment correlates with the need that we seem to have as a society to call every behavior an “addiction”. Not all behaviors are addictions, in my opinion at least, but we certainly are wrapping them all up in that language.

  29. Mab
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    So true !

  30. Posted November 1, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I listened to a podcast the other day about food addiction, and the guy was saying that while it may be true that cocaine and highly rewarding food (I think they mean sugar) hit the same pleasure receptors, it’s cocaine that is crossing over being the odd-man out, not food. Sex is another thing, if it didn’t hit those pleasure centers, people wouldn’t bother – it’s messy, sweaty stuff.

    I get irritated when I read (or used to read – had to stop for my sanity) diety blogs where people claim sugar as addictive as crack. Come to my neighborhood, I have about 10 murders/year within a mile of my house, and they are not about sugar. My neighbor isn’t having a breakdown and crying because his son is starting to deal sugar.

    Personally, if I found sugar as addictive as other things, such as cocaine and ciggies, I would be wanting more, after all the Halloween candy I’ve been eating this week, instead of finding it completely unappealing at the moment. A true addict doesn’t get sick and tired of the substance and take a voluntary break, or it’s not a true addiction.

    • Jen
      Posted November 1, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      “My neighbor isn’t having a breakdown and crying because his son is starting to deal sugar.”

      That made me laugh out loud! I think you just nailed the point home with that. And we’ve had the same experience with the Halloween candy here at my household. I allowed my children to consume as much as they want of it over the past few days – they ate a LOT of it. And then BEGGED me to make them black bean salads for lunch yesterday. They haven’t looked at their candy since, even after a whole ‘nother round of Trick or Treating last night. Michelle (and Satter) are spot on about the permission concept.

      • Posted November 1, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        I ate a bunch of Oh Henry! mini chocolate bars the night of the hurricane, and some more chocolate last night with a client, and now I am so very sick of chocolate I probably won’t want to look at it again for a while. Self-regulation! It’s a real thing. Even with chocolate.

  31. Posted November 1, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    This is a really interesting insight on the psychological and physiological processes we all go through relating to food. I’m always fascinated how complex our minds and bodies are and how the mind and body are so closely interrelated in matters of health or the imbalance thereof.

    What I continually see, not just in matters of food, but in matters of health in many areas, is that our mental state is directly related to our physical state. Therefore, if our mental outlook on food changes, our physical bodies will react accordingly. All our systems are tied together; we cannot separate one from the other.

    Therefore, just as there are physical diseases that affect the body, there are mental imbalances that can affect the body as well, and whether we call them “addiction” or “disorders” or anything else, I do believe there are legitimate cases where the person’s relationship with food has become so unhealthy as to be dangerous to their health and even sometimes, their life.

    That said, I don’t think MOST of us are at that place, so to blanket everyone who isn’t a stick figure or who enjoys cake, with the title of being ‘food addicted’ is utterly ridiculous.

    On the other hand, I don’t think we should totally disregard the idea that addiction can be more broadly defined than a person just needing a dangerous physical substance. Addiction has been, and can be described as a disease of the mind, and thus, the object of the addiction isn’t the issue in of itself, but the addicted person’s relationship TO that substance or action that must be treated in order for that person to achieve a healthy balance in life.

  32. Posted November 1, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Good article and I mostly agree but… what about sugar highs? I’m pretty sure Ive had sugar highs in my life. Especially when I was bulimic, when I didn’t eat for long and binged I was definitely “high”. I wonder though if it was less the sugar and the food than something psychological?

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Well, the idea of a sugar high, or hyperactivity caused by eating sugar, isn’t supported by evidence as far as I know. That said, there’s definitely the possibility of physically having high blood sugar if you have problems metabolizing sugar, and that can affect your mood, though usually it makes you cranky and sleepy. There’s also the fact that eating sugar can be an intensely emotional experience, especially if you have an eating disorder or restrict that food. It can cause anxiety, or you might feel euphoric because you’re eating something you’ve wanted badly but felt was forbidden. That might be more of an emotional response than a strictly chemical one that comes directly from sugar. Binge eating can definitely affect your mood, but it’s not necessarily the type of food you eat, but the quantities you eat it in (especially after starving) and the emotional context of a binge.

      As personal experience goes, I can completely understand using the metaphor of “sugar high” to describe what it feels like. But it’s important to keep in mind that these subjective interpretations and metaphors do not make this an objective, universal fact about a particular food. All foods affect us emotionally because the raw material of food provides the building blocks for neurotransmitters, but this isn’t the same thing as becoming intoxicated.

    • Emily
      Posted November 1, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Something giving you a “high” does not mean it is bad for you or physically addictive. Exercise, sex, video games, fasting, music, even beautiful weather can all give someone a “high”. Being “high” is not necessarily bad. Anything at all can be psychologically addictive to the right temperament, of course, but that’s an entirely different concept from calling something inherently addictive.

  33. BC
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    So I think where you went with the post was good. I generally agree with you – a lot. But in this case I think you’re not quite there with the assumptions you’re trying to turn over. I think some foods (like sugar and high fructose corn syrup) are addictive. There’s quite a lot of research out there that shows both the emotional and the physical dependence to these substances. It’s clear that not everyone gets addicted to them. But not everyone who tries cocaine or meth gets addicted to them.

    Denying that is a way of denying people’s experiences with addiction. I think denying people’s experience is bad – even when you don’t agree. It is basically the same point you’re trying to prove. Which is, that people deserve to have their own experience with food that is not interrupted with other people’s crap.

    If people think they are addicted, you have to start the conversation there. Denying their addiction won’t help them and won’t help them hear you. So in a way it doesn’t matter if the addiction is factual, it matters what people believe and how to engage them so that they can hear you – because the message you are giving is essentially a sound one.

    I also wonder why you need to get rid of this idea. I don’t know if people can be food addicts, but you have so many qualifiers in your post to make your point it makes me wonder what’s going on with you and with these ideas that you need others to believe you.

    What I think I’m saying is that the qualifiers make your point less effective. Is gambling an addiction? Many people agree that it is. And you leaving that out invalidates your argument just a bit. And with each subsequent qualifier you lost me. Now I’ve been reading you for a while and so I kept reading to see the conclusion. But I don’t think this is an effective post unless all you want to do is talk to the choir (a fine thing to do, but it won’t reach food addicts).

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      I guess it basically comes down to me believing that “food addiction” is one more way that food gets painted in a dangerous, negative light, when there’s not actually good evidence, or logic, to back up that idea.

      I do understand that some people want to describe their experiences with food in this way, but ultimately I think it is destructive, and I don’t think it necessarily hurts people to be challenged to think of food in another way. Like, “maybe it’s not the food that is dangerous, maybe it’s disordered eating and living in a culture that constantly talks about food like it’s poison that is dangerous.” I’m not sure it would be a good idea for me to water down my opinions on things for the sake of marketing. People can hear disagreeing opinions and still consider them, especially in this relatively mild case where I’m not calling anyone names or questioning their right to exist. That’s part of being a grown-up. I even acknowledged in the post that people experience these things, and that I believe them, that compulsive eating can feel very much like an addiction.

      Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea. I know addiction isn’t as clear-cut when you get down to brass tacks, but the fact is that when we’re talking about “food addiction” colloquially, we’re usually dealing with a traditionally accepted idea of addiction that includes things like toxicity, altered states of consciousness, chemical dependency and withdrawal effects from substances that are not actually necessary to survival, so even if the science makes that definition fuzzier, the popular discourse around it is still using that particular construct or definition, so I think it’s helpful to point out that food does not actually meet those popular criteria.

      That said, I do actually think eating disordered BEHAVIOURS could be more closely compared to behavioural addictions, since we are dealing with behaviours (like bingeing or purging or restricting) that are not actually necessary to life, just as gambling or compulsive shopping are not really necessary to life. But this post is about food addiction itself, as in the substance of food, so that is what I wanted to address.

      I actually think the idea of “food addiction” is dangerous and destructive, so that is why I want people to think of it in a different way, or at least to admit that if they want to label their own subjective experiences that way, that it does not necessarily reflect an objective truth about food. People get to have their own experiences and use their own language for those experiences, but they don’t get to define those experiences as universal truths without evidence to support that, and they should take into account the potential ramifications of doing so. I don’t believe that people actually need the idea of food addiction in order to talk about disordered eating and to recover from it. And I think it might actually distract from having that discussion, and perhaps add to the negative discourse around food, thus potentially harming people.

      you have so many qualifiers in your post to make your point it makes me wonder what’s going on with you and with these ideas that you need others to believe you.

      This is how people usually put forth arguments or opinions – they state a thesis and then they make arguments in favour of the thesis. That’s what I was trying to do here – there’s nothing “going on with me” that I “need others to believe me.” I have a strong opinion, based both in my understanding of how food works and also my concerns about how food is viewed negatively in our culture and the harm that does to people, and so I’m making arguments in favour of that opinion. I don’t need people to believe me – I’m not going to explode or poop on myself if they don’t – but anyone who states and then defends a thesis is, on some level, trying to persuade people to believe them. Unless I am severely misunderstanding something about how discussions work?

      In re-reading my post, I’m not seeing the multiple “qualifiers” you refer to that weaken my argument. What I am seeing are multiple arguments in support of my thesis. I set aside one idea (the idea of behavioural addiction) for the sake of staying on track, and then through the post I proceed to point out ways in which food and and drugs are dissimilar. Are you referring to the discussion in comments perhaps? All I can say is that, I have an opinion, but reality is complex, and I want to take in the complexity of addiction while still drawing a line between substances that do not sustain life, and substances that do, even if they stimulate the same reward pathways.

      Even if certain foods are MORE rewarding and even less necessary than others, they are still foods that can directly sustain life, whereas drugs do not, even though some of them may be less addictive than others. There may be one overlap in the case of alcohol, a drug that doubles as a macronutrient (but which can also poison you in a way most foods cannot), but I am comfortable with some relatively minor overlap. It does not render the point that food is life-sustaining and drugs are not, moot. There may just be a continuum on which we have to make a judgment call about where to draw the line about what is food and what is a drug. I’m comfortable with drawing that line just before alcohol.

      There has certainly been literature and scientific discussion about the idea of sugar addiction, but it is still controversial, and I disagree with the hypothesis. It is often an offshoot of obesity research that starts with the assumption that fat people are diseased and out of control, and I disgree with that fundamentally. That is my prerogative as someone who works in this field or who cares about this subject at all. You may feel differently, and that’s okay. We don’t have to agree. Whether or not you like my blog or usually agree with me is actually pretty irrelevant to me.

      (And I apologize for rambling. I’m kind of sick right now and perhaps not making a ton of sense.)

      • BC
        Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        So just the qualifiers part, because I’m also sick.

        You get rid of gambling. Then food as addictive – sugar certainly addictive and there’s plenty of science research about that. (I think that easily falls into food addiction – where the addiction is to food and not to behaviors. If you think sugar is a food. )

        Then you have a list of three things, each of which has a qualifier. You qualify that we don’t need addictive drugs to survive; the qualifier is that addicts do. They also need the drugs to be emotionally well – people with food issues use food to feel emotionally well. This might fall into your argument about food vs behavior, but it’s a qualifier.

        The third one is interesting and where I think the argument itself breaks down. Food, especially for people with disordered eating, causes altered states of consciousness and impairs decision-making. If you’ve ever watched someone take food out of the trash and eat it, you know that people with food issues don’t make good decisions around food. I don’t mean sugar highs. I mean if I don’t eat all day and then I eat… anything, my body feels very different. I feel high. Not eating makes me light headed. Then eating sugar after fasting for 10 hours makes my heart pound and my pulse race very similarly to an anxiety attack. Food is what our bodies are made up of. Saying that food can’t impact mood makes me wonder… well all sorts of things. Because my experience of food and watching others with disordered eating says that food can make you high, make you low and make you act cray-cray.

        How to distinguish between food and behavior here is a challenge. Because while it is the behavior (or lack of behavior when I didn’t eat for hours and hours), it is the food that makes me feel different. And in watching addicts they often say things like, “I don’t need that.” Or, “It’s just a weekend thing.” Or other things that are inconsistent with their behavior. So when you say that substance and behavior are somehow separate, I think I have to disagree. What makes a substance addictive is a combination of factors including: the substance, the behavior, genetic pre-disposition, and behavior of those around you (like if your mom’s an alcoholic, you’re much more likely to be one and if she’s active about it, she’s training you to be one).

        I guess it just doesn’t speak to me at all.

        My issues with food stem from hypothyroidism and my mom’s way of dealing with that which was to diet. I vowed not to diet, but that didn’t really change things and it took more than a decade to get a doctor to give me meds. for my thyroid So I would eat when I was hungry, but I mostly was either starving or not hungry – because my body was broken (and is still recovering). Food effects me intensely when I don’t eat for a long time. I felt really unseen in your writing and like you were trying to deny people’s experiences to make a point where the denial is unnecessary. Making a comparison to addiction for the point of allowing people to change is good. Telling people they are un-possible feels bad.

        • BC
          Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          I also just re-read your reply. It sounds like what you want is for people to take responsibility for themselves and their eating. I’m all in favor of that. And I think that’s a great framing.

        • Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

          I really apologize for leaving anyone out or making them feel bad or impossible. If my writing did that, then that is something I need to take into account and work on. I think the experiences you describe definitely exist, but my argument is that the label of addiction is not necessarily the appropriate one, and can cause further harm. That is my big concern. That is why I disagree with it – not because people don’t have intense experiences with food.

          Having an issue with thyroid (or any other hormone, for that matter) complicates how you will feel about food both emotionally and chemically. But that takes you even further from the analogy to addiction, in my opinion, because an underlying chemical imbalance is the problem, not the food itself. And because, even with an imbalance, you still require food to survive, and food still sustains your life in a way no drug can or will.

          The qualifiers – first, people do not need drugs to survive by biological design. I wanted to acknowledge that chemical dependency can develop after exposure to a drug, because not to acknowledge that is dishonest. However, food is necessary right from the beginning of existence, but a drug is something you must be first exposed to in order for it to become a necessity. Second, I never said that food can’t impact mood – I actually just said the precise opposite in the post and in an earlier comment to another reader. Those qualifiers (that chemical dependencies do exist with drugs, that underlying conditions can make food seem like a toxic substance, and that food can impact your mood) acknowledge that reality is complex, and THAT is why people often mistake food experiences for addiction. It is understandable that they would do so, but I think those distinctions, while seemingly minor on the surface, are critically important. If that makes my argument seem weaker, so be it. I am trying to be honest and nuanced, while still drawing what I think is an important line.

          Food highs caused by disordered eating are usually the result of disordered behaviours, not the food itself. The same goes for not eating for a very long time and then eating again – is the problem the eating? Or the fact that someone has gone too many hours without food? If the problem were the eating, then the logical solution would seem to be not to eat. But we know that that is unhealthy and potentially fatal. And that is why the food=addictive substance analogy breaks down for me.

          Looking at the literature, it’s true that there are lots of papers and studies about sugar addiction and food addiction – there has been an explosion of interest and a concerted attempt to reify the idea of food addiction in science in the past decade. I like to take a step back from that and ask, “Why?” Why would this seem of such critical importance to people in this time and place, when there are some basic logical inconsistencies in the hypothesis (the most important being that food is an a priori necessity to life and addictive drugs are not)?

          You can find a critique of the idea from a paper in 2000, but everything since then seems to fall in lockstep*. I’m unconvinced this is because they have proven something dark and irrefutable about food (or even sugar) in the past 12 years, and more because there is a systemic bias right now, even among supposedly objective scientists, to medicalize fat bodies and pathologize eating behaviours since the “obesity epidemic” was declared around the turn of the millenium. This makes me take a very critical view of their conclusions, even while acknowledging that, yes, sugar is exciting and pleasurable and sometimes people develop disordered behaviours with it that look and feel very much like addiction. It is not their findings (the fact that foods and sugar in particular trigger certain reward pathways) that I disagree with, but rather their interpretation of those findings and the meanings they ascribe to them – that food is an addictive, and therefore inherently dangerous, substance that people cannot naturally and internally regulate.

          I fear that this hypothesis will cause further harm, even while it may seem helpful to some individuals, and I think there are other, less harmful constructs that can be helpful to people who struggle with feeling addicted to food. However, I still support individuals in describing their experiences in whatever terms they want, as long as they do not attempt to generalize that to other people.

          This is truly not about me trying to deny people’s experiences. This is about questioning why certain labels are used for those experiences, and what impact those labels might have on the broader culture and people’s subsequent relationships to food.

          *I found another more recent review, from 2010, that questions the ideahttp://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261561409002398

  34. Posted November 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Another great post!

    Sensible, structured, and well said. Thanks for all your work! This has quickly become one of my favorite blogs, and you are doing important stuff here.

  35. Posted November 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had conversations about this topic with my partner and friends before. I 100% agree with you and am so glad you wrote about it. I’ve felt that “food addiction” is a false concept but you’ve totally done a better/amazing job of explaining why. :)

  36. Laurel
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I really like your balanced, open-ended approached to dialog. You are able to have a strong point of view while also being open to other ways of seeing the issue. Thank you both for the content of your message and the style of your dialog.

  37. Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I was just thinking about this topic this week. I “caved” and bought a box of nutter butter bars and ate the whole box in two days–and that was with restraint. It would’ve been in one day or a few hours if I didn’t leave them in my car while I spent my time in the house with my husband. This is the second time I’ve done this in a week or two.

    And I wondered, am I addicted to these things? I “decided” that no, I am not (can you “decide” to not be addicted to something?). I won’t get withdrawl symptoms if I stop eating them. Then again, if I stopped eating ALL sugar and carbs, wouldn’t I get some kind of withdrawl symptoms? I don’t know.

    So I decided that I wasn’t addicted to them. Then why do I want them so badly? Why does my mouth water at the memory of their taste and texture, and I can’t stop thinking about that damn yellow box sitting on a grocery store shelf for a dollar and seventy-nine cents? THAT is when I start to feel out of control, and then it’s a battle of my will all the way until the point where I buy them and then eat them. Then I sigh and hate myself, and it starts all over again in a few hours or a day later.

    Is there such a thing as an emotional addiction to food, or certain foods? I know this craving for nutter butters and debbie snacks and cookies and donuts probably stems from the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have them as a kid, and as an adult they are “bad” and I’m STILL not supposed to have them. And I know stress lately really hasn’t been helping the situation. But I have an emotional attachment to them now, or so I kind of feels to me.

    “Emotional addiction to food” thoughts?

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      You would get something like withdrawal symptoms from not eating any carbs at all, because carbs (in the form of glucose) are an a priori necessity to your body. Your body was designed to use glucose as fuel, and thus to crave and seek easy sources of glucose (carbs) from the diet. But this is not the same as having a craving, or a withdrawal effect, from an addictive drug, in my opinion. You will also be sad about not eating them because they are culturally important to you.

      You want them badly because they are biologically valuable, extremely palatable, and because they carry strong emotional associations, stemming from childhood, and because you have been taught to be afraid that they will be taken away from you. Whether or not you want to call this an emotional addiction is up to you, but “addiction” implies that there is something magical and sinister about these particular foods. My experience and training tells me that is not true, but also that it is extremely common for people who are restricted from these foods in childhood to continue to feel compulsive about them as grown-ups.

      The label of “addiction” also implies a treatment. That implied treatment is abstinence, which in my experience with clients actually backfires pretty badly most of the time.

      However, dealing with the underlying problems of lack of permission and perhaps even mindless eating and emotional dysregulation would probably be a much more effective treatment, in my opinion and experience.

  38. Diana
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    This is so helpful!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you.

  39. Enjoy
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    The first chapter of my addition pharmacology book makes the point that refining drugs and distilling alcohol create the addictive nature of the substance. I agree that personal psychology is a major factor in addiction but so is the availability of such refined substances. The pleasure pathways in the brain work to make us feel good when we eat, cuddle and care for each other and reproduce. Overstimulation by refined foods and drugs can cause us to want to repeat the behavior especially in the absence of that cuddle and care we all need.

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      I think this is an interesting point, especially given that humans usually eat foods or nutrients in combinations. Yes, we have highly sugary foods available, especially stuff like pop which some people drink in large quantities, but even in desserts, the sugar is often mixed with starch and fats and protein.

      • Chris Gregory
        Posted November 1, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        I don’t believe in food addiction, partly because it doesn’t really fit (even people with a food compulsion don’t have withdrawal symptoms or particular attachments to specific categories of food, just food in general…but then people get ‘addicted’ to eating things like rocks) and partly because it confuses issues rather than helps explain anything.

        The notion of addiction has strong emotional connotations derived from all sorts of sources. Somehow stimulants like coffee are good but depressants like alcohol are bad, for example. But that’s a cultural thing to do with work and capitalism and a puritanical culture that doesn’t like pleasure very much.

        You can argue until the cows come home about whether or not food fits into the category of things you call addictive substances. The question is whether or not it is helpful to categorise food as such. Does it help explain our behaviours any better? Does it help us understand our relationship with food any better? Or is it misleading? Is it just a poor analogy?

        I think the only reason to categorise food as addictive is because it makes it easier to moralise about food. Can’t think of any other point to it.

        • Posted November 1, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

          You know I agree with you. People only get addicted to eating rocks (or dirt) because of pica, which is an eating disorder usually caused by an underlying nutrient deficiency. Which is different from an addiction. People do often experience feeling compulsive around sugar in particular, but I honestly believe that’s more to do with it being forbidden (as well as really tasty and culturally important) than because it is drug-like.

          Ultimately…yeah. My priority is figuring out whether it’s a helpful construct, and I’m afraid that while it may seem helpful to individuals in some situations, on a broad level I think it’s harmful and not helpful.

          • Chris Gregory
            Posted November 1, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

            Limestone…my hidden shame…

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      Logically, it seems like “refined food is like refined drugs” would make sense… And yet…

      The type of food my relationship is most shaky with is sweets. But I don’t really like soda. I have a big bag of malted milk robin’s eggs from Easter in my desk drawer because at the time I bought it, I was thinking that I liked that particular kind of candy more than I actually do. I don’t feel any desire to eat a jar of honey by the spoonful. Maple candy and Cadbury eggs are so sweet that they’re actually an acquired taste for me–I didn’t like them as a kid. If refined sugar was such an addictive substance, how does any of this make sense?

      Also: ” Overstimulation by refined foods and drugs can cause us to want to repeat the behavior”–Except the more candy (or other sweet food) I eat, the less I want it. (Once I get past a certain threshold, anyway. There are probably some people who restrict enough that they never let themselves get past this threshold, which may contribute to the “addiction” framing.) Especially that same particular kind of candy. If the candy was conditioning me to want to repeat the behavior, wouldn’t I be most likely to go back to that same candy?

  40. Beth M.
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Just speaking for myself, I think that for those of us without a clinical background and the finer understanding of the nitty gritty details of the definitions of addiction, seeing our disordered eating through an “addiction” lens can be a relief. When you begin to feel like you’re a crazy person around food, or around certain foods, thinking of it as being at least somewhat LIKE an addiction can actually eliminate some of the guilt and shame and give you a productive framework for thinking about how to move past the “addiction”. It’s a recognition that there’s likely a behavioral and a physiological element involved, that you may need some help getting over it, that it’s interfering with your ability to live your life fully. For me, my relationship to sugar in particular is all of those things. My attempts at intuitive eating, mindful eating, savoring, and moderation have all failed miserably so far. Abstinence is a struggle, but when I’m able to achieve it, provides me with a blissful freedom from what otherwise feels like a constant distracting struggle with food. My life ceases to revolve around food for awhile. So, at the moment, I’m far more inclined to continue to work on the abstinence path.
    Seeing the rest of you argue so strenuously that what I’m experiencing can’t be an addiction, because of x, or y, or z, because it doesn’t meet this criteria or that, because it’s not how YOU experience disordered eating, all feels extremely unsupportive to me. Oh, I understand the perspective that it’s not a “helpful construct” on a “broad level”, and it’s probably because I don’t understand the finer technical points of addiction from a clinical perspective, and I’m just using the wrong terminology because I don’t know any better, but framing it as an addiction gives me a mental framework that makes some sense to me, and down here in the trenches, it’s the bag of tools I’ve got to work with at the moment.
    I guess what it comes down to is, it doesn’t really matter much how YOU all see it. What matters is whether it’s helpful for ME as a way to frame my experience and to decide how I want to proceed. In which case I suppose my little perspective on the issue isn’t really important either, and I can be written off as one of those individuals to whom it may SEEM helpful. But I wanted to point out that calling something an addiction can be empowering and liberating, not shaming and blaming. To me, the addiction framework is exactly the opposite of moralizing about food, (I don’t blame the drug addict for his addiction, I blame the substance, and perhaps his biological susceptibility to addiction), and all this discussion telling me I can’t possibly be addicted, because it’s just food, puts the blame and guilt for my disordered back on me. And maybe that’s the real issue I need to focus on, is why this discussion makes me feel more personal blame for my eating rather than less.

    • Posted November 1, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure the relief from shame is a large part of the reason people find it helpful to look at food (or disordered eating) as an addiction.

      But I would never blame someone with an eating disorder for their problem in the first place, so that’s not what I’m trying to do here. There should be no blame in disordered eating at all, but if we have to place it somewhere, we can place it on a culture that is so messed up around food that it constantly sends people the message that they are not deserving of food and that food is poison to begin with, which triggers ED vulnerabilities in some people. I’m sorry if it feels unsupportive to question the “food as addictive substance” concept, but I think this critique is important because I believe that people may stand to be actually harmed by this idea if it is accepted as fact.

      Equally, some people feel more blame and shame from the addiction label, so that by itself as an argument doesn’t really settle the issue for me. The addiction label, to me, easily leads to the assumption that I must be an addict because I am fat and because I enjoy food, which to me feels stereotyping and stigmatizing. But my feelings I guess don’t matter as much? Nevertheless, I’m not making this argument on the basis of my feelings, though I acknowledge them – I am making it on the basis of some logical inconsistencies I see in the hypothesis, and the potential harm I see.

      I don’t doubt that for some people experiencing disordered stuff with food, food addiction as a construct relieves blame and shame. But I don’t think that blame and shame should exist in the first place. No one truly wants to have an eating disorder. No one wants to feel out of control with food, and no one is a bad person for ending up in a disordered relationship with food. I have said on this blog repeatedly that disordered eating, binge eating in particular, is not something fun that people do because they want to, because they have no willpower, or because they have some character defect. I don’t understand why we have to blame everyone for their own misfortunes all the time, and if we’re not doing that, turn around and blame food even though it is something none of us can abstain from and which all of us need to survive.

      Enough with the blame here. People with eating disorders are not to blame for their disorders, whether those disorders can be characterized as addictions or not. You definitely do not deserve to be blamed for feeling a certain way or having troubles with food. It is not your fault, even if sugar is not a drug. Disordered eating can be caused by an underlying vulnerability in the brain that gets triggered by a some event or set of circumstances, just like my depression is. It is not your fault.

    • Posted November 2, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      “I guess what it comes down to is, it doesn’t really matter much how YOU all see it. What matters is whether it’s helpful for ME as a way to frame my experience and to decide how I want to proceed.”

      So what if I said the same thing about how the addiction model is NOT helpful to me? Only your viewpoint is valid? Or maybe only people with binge eating disorder’s feelings matter? How it makes me feel doesn’t matter, only how it makes you feel? You seem to think that this only has an impact on your feelings, and for everyone else here it’s just an intellectual exercise. It’s not.

      Also, the truth doesn’t matter, just whether believing an idea makes you feel better?

      Saying it’s addiction-like for YOU is one thing, telling everyone else that those are their experiences is another.

      I’m afraid I sound angrier than I am here, it’s more just disbelief.

      • Beth M.
        Posted November 7, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

        Wow, I clearly worded that completely wrong. When I said that what mattered wasn’t how you all see it, I honestly didn’t mean to imply your viewpoint wasn’t valid, or didn’t have a right to exist, or didn’t “matter” to the universe (if there can even be such a thing), though now I can see how it might have been read that way. I only meant that, as I try to get through my own life and work on the things I struggle with, how you all see things shouldn’t matter TO ME.
        I was just trying to point out that some of us experience this differently.

        • Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:12 am | Permalink

          I appreciate that Beth, and it’s true. What matters is how you treat yourself.

  41. Charlotte
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    This fit in well with something I’ve become aware of lately.

    When I was young, my mom pretty much never had sweets in the house. We’d have pop on the rare occasion we had some sort of event (New Years Eve party, say) and on road trips, we’d usually get a candy bar at the gas stations. But otherwise, we never had sweets. When I went to friends houses, I was always overwhelmed with all the sweets they had. Fruit snacks, pudding packs, even full-on candy. What was amazing about it was that they weren’t all scarfing it down (when that’s exactly what I wanted to do).

    I usually don’t permit myself to buy sweets in bulk now that I’m an adult, but I do go out and get sweets a lot … nearly every day, because of the cravings. My husband, however, will buy bulk sweets. He buys pudding packs and at first, I was eating them like crazy while trying to stop. Now, we have pudding in our fridge that’s been there for weeks. I just don’t want it. We also have huge bags of Halloween candy that I’ve been munching on, but not to an absurd amount. We have ice cream I haven’t even eaten at all.

    I realized that when the food is just there, I tend to not crave it so much. And that’s a crazy thought to me, since I’ve been regulating my eating consciously for years while trying to rid myself of my crazy sweet tooth.

    Great post.

  42. Posted November 2, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    I totally love this post. It expresses so well many things I have struggled to express myself.

    What you said about the concept of food addiction “feeling” true reminded me of one of the most poignant things that has been said to me in recent times, which I will no doubt paraphrase in a much less impressive way, but it seems to me to be an eternal truth:

    That which exploits your fears and insecurities always feels true, because it carries weight. But the reason it carries weight is because it exploits you, not because it’s true. This is why telling someone they’re beautiful a hundred times doesn’t necessarily help – it doesn’t carry weight because it doesn’t exploit their fears – it has nothing at all to do with truth.

    The truth is, beauty and ugliness are objective, and neither one determines your worth anyway. But that’s only comforting if you’ve thought on it for awhile and already come around to seeing things in a certain way. I am comforted by the notion that my desirability is irrelevant (because then you get to stop worrying about it all the damn time! Yay!), but many aren’t.

    And maybe the sad truth is that when we are at our most vulnerable, when we are in the most need of love and nurturing, this is when we are easiest to exploit – and it’s also when we tend to be hardest on ourselves, when we need to be loving and loved. Because of course, we are taught to be hard on ourselves, we’re taught to congratulate ourselves when we successfully start to fit in, it’s the whole internalisation of fat-stigma thing that you and others have written about in very insightful ways.

    But anyway, this explains why when someone says hurtful things it always feels true. And the mountains of exploitative crap that’s out there – that people try to pretend is for your own good – it drives me nuts.

    And in terms of the idea of food-addiction feeling true – maybe it can alleviate guilt? Maybe… is that what we’ll cling to? Could it remove stigma and pressure with one hand, while replacing it with a whole different kind of stigma and pressure with the other? You can start to forgive yourself if you start to think that maybe it isn’t your fault? The thing is, I believe it “isn’t your fault”, but I believe that for reasons that have nothing to do with addiction or “personal responsibility”, I believe it’s nobody’s fault because of social factors and all kinds of other things. And because size is not a fault! GRRR! And I also agree completely with you – I don’t think food addiction is really a thing. But I’m in favour of things that can help us to deal with ourselves in more compassionate ways. That’s kinda weird. I started writing this comment and I’ve never even thought of the ideas in this last paragraph before. I don’t think the concept of f00d-addiction is helpful, ultimately, because it doesn’t seem to actually address anything on eating-competence terms, and I’m a massive fan of becoming more competent at eating, not less. I’ve been there and it’s no fun. I like the idea of love and compassion directed inwards not because we think of ourselves as addicts, but because we think of ourselves as human. And in terms of compassion – this exposes more layers! Do we (and by ‘we’ I mean the status-quo) think addicts deserve more or less compassion than fat people who might not be addicts? It comes back to the good fatties / bad fatties arguments… And it’s all tied up in so much ‘control’ rhetoric, which is problematic for me in so many ways, because control vs chaos is a big issue for me personally right at this point in time. Rambly comment, I know. Thanks for reading.

    • Posted November 2, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      Oh yes, I see some of what I wrote has been covered already…

  43. Laurel
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I saw something at the bank yesterday that made me think of this post. A woman with a boy of say maybe a year old was waiting at the counter. The boy had a dum-dum lolly pop in his mouth, about halfway through with it. After a minute the mother took the lollypop right out of his mouth and said “no more of that, your lips are blue!” I’m in the line, thinking, jeez lady, that’s kind of mean. You gave the kid the lolly in the first place, and now you are taking it right out of his mouth? Of course 30 seconds later the kid is upset and crying, and I would be too in his situation. So the mom starts trying to tickle him and distract him. And when he won’t stop she looks around wildly and spots a halloween plastic pumpkin full of candy on the counter. Wait for it – she offers him the pumpkin and he picks out a lollypop! shew! it’s a mean old world out there for kids and parents trying to do “what is right.” Michelle, I think you for drawing some lines of rationality and civility back into this process. Kindness, too. If the lady had let the kid finish his lolly instead of taking it away and soothing him with more, maybe he would not have wanted more.

  44. Posted November 2, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Dinosaur comics apparently does not find the food addiction concept useful (with apologies to those who do).

  45. Posted November 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    When dominant discourses are used to conceptualize behaviors as addictions, language is being used as a force of social control, or domination; language is being used by specific groups of people who have previously been designated and approved (socially constructed) as legitimate holders of power who will decide which behaviors by individuals will be labelled (or socially constructed) as “normal” and which behaviors will be categorized (or socially constructed) as a problem in need of a solution–a problem existing within an individual person, a problem which needs to be “managed” or “controlled” at the level of the individual, a problem requiring, for example, medical “assessment,” “diagnosis,” “treatment” or “care” for that individual for the purpose of “controlling” the behavior, a process which (not incidentally) brings the individual under the control of socially approved forces of control (or domination), such as medical organizations or institutions (doctors and hospitals, for example), and the individual is expected (according to social norms and/or political policies,) to obey the recommendations or directions of these socially constructed holders of power, so that the individual may come to regain the power of control over his or her “problem” behavior. All of these strategic control maneuvers are carried out, of course, in the name of “helping” or “caring” for that individual’s “health needs”.

    In “Biohealth” (R. Downing, 2011), the author suggests that “medicalization…ignores social factors…” as legitimate sources for analysis, as unworthy of investigation and concern in relation to an individual’s health. Thus, the social conditions in which human beings live their lives are not considered as relevant factors in the health outcomes of individual people. Oppressive social conditions, such as economic and/or food insecurity, chronic stress related to poverty or unemployment or unsafe housing conditions or hostile workplaces, lack of access to reliable transportation, and so forth…these conditions (no matter how unjust or harmful) require no assessment by our culture’s designated holders of authority and power over individual health needs; there is no legitimated requirement—no social policy required—to change or to improve oppressive social conditions if the dominant discourse has socially constructed the problem as a problem for the individual to fix or change.

    So. Is there any confusion remaining here about why Michelle might legitimately worry about the potential consequences of socially constructing a new disorder to be known as “food addiction?”

    • Posted November 3, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      RNegade: Exactly!

      • Posted November 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Thanks closetpuritan! I’m glad you were able to discern some of the implications on which I’m attempting to shed light by following this particular line of argument, which intentionally shifts the analysis of health away from an individual’s personal actions and so-called “choices” (behaviors classified–using dominant discourses–by members of privileged social class, rank, and status as either “normal” or dysfunctional–or, in this case, “addicted”. The behavioral classifications are judgments made without any reflection on, or understanding of, the significance and reality of social and material conditions in which humans must exist, conditions that allow some individuals to access a much wider variety of different and *healthier* behavioral options–and conditions that limit and restrict options for others. Hence, before the classification is determined, the individual’s power to choose different options (say, less harmful options) has already been restricted, limited, or completely prevented by specific social and material conditions. Dominant discourses make it possible to classify a behavior as an “addiction” even when that behavior proves to be the best possible option available to an individual struggling to survive in otherwise intolerable social and material conditions.

  46. mara
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Such and interesting post! I feel educated by it. For one thing, I realize that I sometimes over-use the term ‘addiction’ without giving it much thought. I do like the way you explained it. I know that I’ve said, for example, that I sometimes read ‘addictively’ – perhaps a better word would be ‘compulsively’. Or when I start looking at shoes or something on ebay, it can actually feel what I think of as addictive in that it interferes with my life. It actually blocks out or is a way of spacing out from life. But that’s not about the ‘substance’, obviously. It’s about me. Actually, I think even Gabor Mate characterizes his compulsive purchasing of classical music CDs as an addiction?

    BUT BUT BUT. Even given this ambiguity that seems to exist in the culture about what addictive actually is and isn’t (and I liked your criteria – very clear) – I think the argument against thinking about food as an addictive SUBSTANCE is a very good one.

    I have had the experience, too, of removing restriction and finding the compulsion is gone too. Quite magical.

    But here’s the thing – sometimes little pockets of compulsiveness about food can stay, and that can be okay, too, and really not such a big deal. I have this thing about cold pasta and cold potatoes. I just love them. If there’s pasta left over from dinner, I know I’ll be picking away at it till it’s gone. Sometimes, if I don’t want that to happen, I’ll just make less or I’ll give it to the dog. But most of the time I don’t mind. It doesn’t bother me.

    If I were problematizing my eating in an effort to be thin, or to understand why I wasn’t, it would bother me.

    And if I thought of food as in inherently addictive substance, it would bother me because it would be scary.

    And both of those scenarios might induce me to try and eljminate the behaviour. And that is not, for me, the way sanity lies.

    Now, re: sugar…. I actually have sometimes thought that it might be a mildly addictive substance (as opposed to the object of a compulsion) to me. Only because, if I have a certain category of sweet thing (ice cream yes, grainy granola barry things no) one day, I’ll usually want it the next and the next… whereas if I don’t have it at all, I can go without for weeks at a time. And that is to me distinct from a compulsive behaviour because, a, I don’t actually enjoy eating very sweet things very much and even when feeling ‘addictive’ I’ll only have a little, and b, it’s not a thing I try to restrict. And the behaviour doesn’t feel out of control. It’s just a ‘thing’ – a little blip – if I start on the sweet, I’ll have some for a string of days until I eventually lose interest.

    For me, even if that is a mildly addictive thing – in the true sense – it’s not really a problem. Except, as before, if i was trying to be thinner by restricting – or if I regarded food as inherently or chemically scary – then, yes, it could become a problem, in my mind, pretty quickly.

    There was a letter to the editor in my local paper following the death of Amanda Todd. The writer ended by saying that she wished Amanda had known that “she did not owe anyone purity, beauty, or an explanation”.

    I love that, and I think it applies equally to us heavier individual – or, actually, to all of us, regardless of size, and regardless of habits, compulsions, etc. We do not owe anyone purity – in the dietetic or any other sense – or beauty – or an explanation. Sometimes we can eat most of a pot of pasta just because. Ultimately it is possible on a peronal level to be okay with that. On a social level, I think okay-ness with that is something we should absolutely demand.

  47. Alexie
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    How refreshing to have someone call the ‘carbs = addictive food’ what it is: bollocks.

    The comments here are interesting, too, particularly around the subject of compulsion vs addiction. There’s no doubt lots of people find food problematic, but confusing the issue with loaded terms like ‘addiction’ doesn’t help sort anything out.

  48. SE
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    I have not been to this site in over a year. All these things get really complicated for me, and I get pulled in so many directions by so many voices. I have been unsuccessfully dieting, dealing with illness, feeling shame. Back in my toxic food/dieting/gaining weight cycle. I come back, and BAM, I instantly feel more at peace. I am remembering this message and how welcoming and smart and wonderful your writing is. Thanks for reminding me that there is a different path, and for being so articulate about these issues that I struggle to find the words for.

  49. Posted November 5, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    It also might be . . . I don’t know, cross-pollination from other problems. Speaking from personal experience — I’m ACOA, both my parents are addicts. I know the language. I understand the doublethink. Addiction is a concept I’m comfortable with. I can relate to it. People around me can relate to it. I tell my mother I’m a food addict and we can have a conversation, but when I tell her I have a binge eating disorder she gives me one of those Mom looks and nods without saying anything.

    • Posted November 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      I can totally understand this. It makes sense.

  50. Posted November 6, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Oh yeah, this post led me to go back to this classic post by Meowser: Yeah, I’m a Junkie, and a Liar, Too.

  51. Posted November 6, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    While I agree with some of your points, your entire argument seems to hinge on the idea that people eat unhealthy amounts because of a supposed scarcity they feel, yet I don’t see any proof for that assumption.

    • Posted November 7, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      Hi – I don’t have time for an exhaustive bibliography at the moment, but I think this is a good and fair question, and the literature does have some interesting things to say about it. And, for the record, I think that sense of scarcity I mention is one factor, and it can be a significant factor in people overeating, but is not necessarily the only factor. Anyway, here’s an interesting paper for you – http://www.lifeafterdiets.com.au/resources/Eat_drink_be_merry_for_tomorrow_we_diet.pdf

      The books Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch and Overcoming Binge Eating by Fairburn talk a fair bit about some of this research. It is also an observation I’ve had in working with clients.

      • Posted November 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        I will have a look at those. Thank you, Michelle.

  52. Annie
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    eating sweets “is part of the human experience”. i love that. i also love the notion of feeding yourself what your body tells you that you need. i have a similar experience with red meat of all things.

    as always, thank you for a well thought-out post.

  53. Linda Strout
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    So this business about a ‘thick waist’ is it something that people have a genetic predisposition for? Is it caused by extra stress? Eating highly processed food? Pixies? Does it actually mean you have more fat around your internal organs, and is therefor somehow more dangerous?

    • Posted November 7, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      What it’s caused by really depends on the individual. I seem to remember a study showing that people who took up an exercise program but did not lose weight did tend to have a smaller waist circumference. Where people put on weight definitely has a genetic component as well. Waist circumference and waist/hip ratio is used as a proxy for having more fat around the internal organs (abdominal fat), but there is also fat that’s just under the skin (subcutaneous fat) around the waist as well. And yes, stress may cause you to have more abdominal fat at the same BMI, at least if you’re a monkey. Despite all the attention that gets paid to it, I’m not sure how useful it really is for non-researchers to know about.

      • Posted November 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        Precisely. Plus there is the fact that even if a physical characteristic can be a potential red flag to check for a condition, that’s not the same as having direct medical evidence that any specific person already has it/is about to develop it. Unless you have a history of the individual’s blood sugar readings, pancreas function, etc., you don’t know for certain whether a particular person is developing diabetes or not.

        General physical characteristics are not a good shorthand for diagnosis.

    • Emily
      Posted November 8, 2012 at 12:55 am | Permalink

      It is also partly age. People tend to gain weight as they age. It’s a simple fact of nature. Also, women who give birth tend to gain and keep weight. Both of these things are protective from an evolutionary standpoint. And if I see one more woman in her 30s lamenting that she can’t fit into the jeans from when she was 16 years old — i.e. not even fully grown — I am going to plotz.

  54. Katie
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michelle,

    Thank you for this great post! I have been hearing a lot about casein in cheese, and how addictive it is. I’ve heard it compared to heroin! I was wondering if you know anything about casein, or if you could point me to some good information about it?

    • Posted November 6, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      I have heard none of these accusations against casein. I will have to look it up. At first blush though…it sounds ridiculous, frankly. But I’ll see if there’s anything I can find.

      • Katie
        Posted November 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        yes, I thought it sounded ridiculous too, but I’ve heard it several times over the last ten years or so, usually from vegans, and I’m always curious about what’s really true. I’ve had a hard time doing internet research on it because most of the websites appear highly biased toward not eating dairy for ethical reasons, which makes me slightly skeptical about what information might be being left out or how things might be being skewed.

        • Posted November 10, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

          I did a quick search for scholarly articles on casein and food addiction, and I didn’t see anything. That, of course, is not proof that such a thing doesn’t or couldn’t exist, but it is an indication that the objective evidence for it is either non-existent or sketchy at best.

    • Christine
      Posted November 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Cheese is one of the more delish foods known to humankind, but I’m pretty sure casein isn’t addictive like heroin. For one thing, I’ve never gone through casein withdraw and I dumped dairy products all at once because I discovered I have a semi-mild allergy to casein (nothing like being sick all the time to make you stop eating something). No withdraw at all. The only time I crave dairy is because I forgot to take my calcium supplement for a week or two. Heroin creates a chemical dependency, casein doesn’t.

      Do I miss cheese? Yes, because it is so freaking yummy and good dairy free cheese is a thing that does not exist (sad, so sad). Also, my favorite food of all time. But I’d never describe it as addictive. My caffeine problem is a whole nothing story – because that is addictive and I do have withdraw if I stop consuming it.

  55. Emily
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    By the way, here’s something I was thinking of regarding the “sex addiction” and “food addiction” parallels:

    By “sex addiction”, no one means actually addicted to sex. They mean seeking out many different partners, strangers, in ways that are compulsive and harmful. If I went to a psychologist for so-called “sex addiction” and told her I had problems sleeping if I didn’t have sex for a week — sex with my monogamous partner, who very much wants to have sex with me — and that I’m really happiest when I can have sex daily, and so I must be addicted, she’d look at me funny. If I said the same thing about chocolate, I’m afraid she might think I actually had a problem.

    I’m a stickler for correct terminology. Words mean things, and words can cause real harm. Therefore, I hate the terms “sex addiction” and “food addiction”. There are some harmful compulsive behaviors that some people have that revolve around these things. They are not just like drug and alcohol addiction. Further, unlike, say, gambling, both food and sex are good for you. Food is even completely necessary for survival for every single one of us. The withdrawal symptoms from food are severe and they have a 100% fatality rate.

  56. Alice
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    I think the idea of food addiction is really problematic, since it’s such a prevalent one. I saw some news report about it a while ago that used AUDIT as a self-test, substituting alcohol for sugar or food. Which in my opinion is pretty much useless, because they just aren’t equal.

    A lot of what I hear people who claim to be addicted to certain foods describe sounds a lot more like disordered eating. Combined with the fact that glucose is pretty darn necessary to survive and that we actually have systems at place in order to make us stop eating (several of which are triggered by carbs and blood glucose), I just have a hard time to believe that food addiction is actually a thing. Also, I think the idea is just harmful, because of the “restrict and binge”-cycle you were talking about.

    • Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Some interesting tidbits from a review article questioning the idea of food addiction:

      “Addictive drugs and palatable foods both release dopamine from the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens has different populations of neurones that are activated by natural and drug reinforcement. The release of dopamine by natural rewards, unlike drugs of abuse, undergoes rapid habituation [for those reading who don't know this term, it means a decrease in response from repeated exposure to the stimulus]…The suggestion, based on the animal evidence, is not that palatable foods are physically addictive, but rather that a particular style of eating can produce a reaction to food that is similar to the response to drugs of abuse [I believe in the evidence discussed, the rodents were deprived of food for a time, and then given access to both regular food and sugar-water. So having access to highly palatable foods after a period of deprivation may be the style of eating they're referring to.]”

      This is from “The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders” by David Benton, Clinical Nutrition 29 (2010) 288-3033

      This is eerily similar to some of the arguments I’ve made (or tried to make…or thought I was making….) in comments right here over the past week, so…yeah. David Benton and I should go bowling sometime, I guess.

      • Bex
        Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        So in other words, it looks like dieting causes food addiction?

        • Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          I don’t want to jump into big conclusions, but it’s possible that a cycle of deprivation and then disinhibited eating can feel similar to addiction. That matches up well with my personal experience and what I’ve observed in clients.

          It is still not chemically identical to addiction, but I’m sure it feels very close. A hopeful note, though, is the habituation from natural rewards – meaning that the feelings of compulsion probably calm down after a while of having repeated exposure and access to food. Which also matches up with my experience/observations.

          • Bex
            Posted November 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

            Heh, I missed out my quotation marks. I meant that, much like how dieting can cause fatness, dieting also causes the behaviors and dopamine reactions that lead anti-fat crusaders to talk about “food addiction.”

  57. Sarah
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    This is an excellent post. A few years ago I tried to break the awful cycle of disordered eating I had gotten into in my teens (binge eating then hardcore dieting then bulimia then binge eating without “compensation” again) by going to my GP and asking for help. He sent me to a psychologist who was an expert in drug addiction counselling. I’m sure she was excellent at that, and she was very nice and compassionate, but she was completely unequipped to deal with my issues around food and my body. A lot of the suggestions she made, like trying to get me to go to Weight Watchers or avoid certain “problem” foods, were exactly the techniques that had made me bulimic in the first place. It was very disheartening and made me feel even worse about my relationship with food than I had before I went to see her.

  58. Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    The only issue I have with this post- which brings up some amazing points- is that things like shopping (which could be considered a deviation of the natural urge to nest) are definitely able to become unhealthy addictions. And things like gambling also somehow follow these same pathways and also do not do any of the three things you stated regarding food. (I would also put certain religious experiences in this category).

    I think the premise is good and is definitely a meaningful contribution to the dialogue we should be having about this issue. I just don’t know if I can completely buy it.

    I agree that removing the stigma from certain foods helps, but I find that sugar begets sugar for me. If I eat one I’m likely to eat another. I think this may be a different kind of cycle than simply reward pathways.

    • Posted November 9, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Nicole. I think this is a good point. If you haven’t already, read the comments. We kind of touched on this, and a couple people who know more about behavioural addictions than I do contributed. I think that is where the addiction analogy actually holds some merit – because disordered behaviours around food actually are quite similar to behavioural addictions. I may not have stated this as clearly as I liked, but the thing I most intended to question was the idea of food as an addictive substance, because not only do people talk about that in a colloquial manner, there are researchers who actually investigate this and propose that it is, despite obvious logical fallacies with the premise.

  59. Mandy
    Posted November 10, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    For many years I felt like I was “addicted” to food (I alternated bouts of anorexia and compulsive eating during my teens). What I used to ask myself was how,during childhood,I had been perfectly comfortable around food and had an eating pattern similar to the one most people have.
    It was only when I stopped dieting and started giving myself regular, enjoyable meals and snacks (after Reading Ellyn Satter’s work and your work) that I began to realise that my addiction had evaporated and that food/weight issues no longer ran my life for me. As long as I felt fed and generally satisfied with my food I could be presented with a plate of cookies or chocolates or whatever, and not be plagued with the feelings of desperate yearning that I used to get in my days of chaotic eating. And for the first time since childhood my mind is occupied with things other than food.

    I really can’t thank you and Ellyn Satter enough,Michelle.

  60. Linda Ramos
    Posted November 10, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    There was no such thing as a stale cookie, candy, chip, et al in my life until I adopted this approach. Then I learned I had to share or give away most of the “bad” food I bought or it actually would go bad. Right now, I’m looking at a box of cookies and a box of mint thins I bought before summer and have yet to open. Because I am a very fat person, whenever I tell people that I eat whatever I want, their eyes widen in horror. But I know the how much peace with food, that has brought me.

    • Posted November 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      I know that feeling so well. We end up with quite a few ends of bags of chips (?) that go stale with no one finishing them. It’s happened with cookies too, and even ice cream a time or two. It’s not that I don’t eat these things – obviously I do, or we wouldn’t have them in the house to begin with! But it is just not a fraught thing at all. We eat them until we get enough of them, and then let the rest go. There’s no fear that they will be capriciously outlawed. (But the trade-off is, I’m fat! A fate worse than death. Or something.)

  61. Linda Strout
    Posted November 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I saw that LA has City Council has officially endorsed “Meatless Mondays” http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/11/city-council-asks-la-residents-to-go-meatless-on-mondays-.html

    Is this what government is for? Why not endorse Tai Chi Tuesdays?

    I’ll give up meat when you pry out of my dead, anemic fingers.

    • Posted November 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Ugh, seriously. I’m not a big meat-eater, so I sometimes have meatless days without trying. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for an individual to do, but it’s not the government’s business. And it’s based on the assumption that meatless = healthier, which isn’t true for everyone.

      I used to be a vegetarian for about 12 years, and semi-vegan for 7 of them. And then I got sick, and had to phase back in meat and eggs. I still don’t eat a ton of meat, but I need what meat I eat. And I hate the popular suggestion that everyone would be better off reducing their meat consumption. Especially when it’s coming from the government.

  62. Posted November 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Well, I’m passing through yet again, this time partly to mention that your post and discussion on this topic are really provocative and well written (I keep coming back to the ideas, both here and mentally.) And also to add a few personal anecdotes that may help to illustrate some of the ideas that I see people (myself included) struggling to better articulate and to conceptualize with the (cultural) language constraints we share.

    I’m still sure that I don’t like the construct “food addiction”—but I can identify with the ideas conveyed by “self medicating with food”. Of course, food is not a medication (as many have noted), but when one’s unique physiological response to sugar (for example) includes a fast and noticeable endocrine response (various hormones going WOO WOO!, to illustrate the extreme sensation that would follow, from my own internal perspective, a large influx of glucose)—well, then, “self medicating” seems appropriate under very specific conditions.

    I guess I’m saying that my body does appear to respond to significant increases in blood sugar in a way that FEELS much like a medication. Don’t know if the reaction is insulin related, mostly, or if it is much more complicated than that for some bodies, mine in particular. I suspect the latter, complexity.

    I’m sure my husband does not experience anything similar (to my response to sugar) although he (like many humans) enjoys profound feelings of comfort and pleasure which he connects with his enjoyment from eating foods that he particularly loves. (My baked goods, for instance.) It’s quite different for me.

    Small amounts of sugary foods (say, a large bowl of mixed berries) does not cause a feeling of being “medicated”, for me; however, a larger amount of sugar (several cookies, perhaps, or a can of soda) might send me on an unpleasant journey that is much more physiologically induced (biochemical) than psychological (as with an emotional association or feeling). The initial sensation of high blood sugar would be very pleasant (almost jolting), but the aftermath would not be. I would need to keep refilling the glucose stores in my body, with repeated follow-up servings of sugar-dense foods, to avoid the highly (extremely) unpleasant sensations connected with the subsequent rapid drops in blood sugar. That physiological reaction came along with diagnostic labels (borderline diabetic or diabetic, depending on different circumstances.)

    Those diagnostic categories no longer applied after I reduced my carbohydrate consumption significantly. Thus, I no longer orient toward eating as if I’m self medicating (or desperately trying to restore a “normal”—or a not-unpleasant—feeling.) The change in my dietary habits, incidentally, resulted in significant loss of weight. But I don’t think it would be rational to say that I was an emotional eater, before, or to say I was addicted to food, then, but I “recovered” from compulsive or emotional eating. Bah. Yes, I arrested the progression of diabetes, and stabilized blood glucose levels to “normal”, but that occurred rather quickly (within weeks) in response to dietary changes, and long before significant weight loss occurred.

    Still, people (irritating people) love to tell me (apparently), what a “great thing!” I did for my health by losing all that weight—or what a “wonderful achievement” to have lost so much. I never know how to respond. It’s not like I have some awesome personal will power to control my weight outcome, as they seem to assume, I simply know about and follow a dietary plan, nowadays, that keeps my blood sugar “normal” and stable—and keeps me from NEEDING to eat larger and larger amounts of high-carbohydrate foods (to prevent feeling bad and then worse.)

    Like DebraSy mentioned, it wouldn’t make any sense to use the expression “emotional eating” as a descriptor of my former eating behaviors—even though much of what I ate was in a frantic attempt to feel better, physically and emotionally. It was driven by physiological imbalances.

    On the other hand, my husband and our adult son are two great examples of people who (more often than not) respond with extremely strong positive emotions in response to eating tasty foods. They “love” to eat (according to numerous self reports)—when the food is well prepared and fresh, of course—and they both eat large amounts…or perhaps I should say they typically eat multiple “serving size” portions and feel very deprived (and hungry!) if portion sizes resemble typical “suggested” amounts listed in nutrition guides. If either one of them were viewed as “overweight” or “obese” by dominant cultural standards, I’m quite sure they would be prime targets for the accusation of “emotional eaters” or even “food addicts”—indeed, that is how overtly they enjoy eating (with gusto) and how strong their need (not just preference) to eat “large amounts” (which would be socially constructed as “too much” if their eating appeared to result in larger-sized bodies).

    I hope these examples adds to the discussion, here, and underscore the socially constructed aspects of our cultural discourses about eating and weight and health.

    Thanks again for your awesome blog discussions! :)

  63. Linda Strout
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    More of my hangups. I have been reading Health At Every Size and have gotten to the part about recognizing your hunger cues. I realized it isn’t that I don’t recognize hunger cues, but I don’t always act on them. I feel guilty about eating when I want and how much I want. Nobody is currently bugging me about food, I am doing this to myself.

    What I want is a meal every three hours or so. What society says I should do is eat a meal roughly every six hours with a small snack in between. What is a snack anyway?

    What actually happens is I do eat breakfast, I eat lunch about three hours later (or more, depending on what I am doing at work), then I have the long stretch until I go home, and I still have to make my evening meal. Since I usually lunch around 11:30-12, I end up not eating dinner until 7 or later. This is a crazy long stretch to go surviving on nuts and yogurt or popcorn.

    I need to get over myself and plan on having two meals at work. Then I might not feel the need to stuff myself in the evening.

    • Posted November 18, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Interesting observation. I think this would make a good experiment to try. If you try it, let me know how it turns out :)

  64. Amber
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Whew. I made it through, finally. I stumbled onto your post about “I have a right to exist” about three weeks ago and have been reading through ALL the archived posts. Somewhere in the midst of reading over and over that I am allowed to eat whatever I want, something clicked. I’ve wanted to tell you, for over a week now, thank you. I’ve always thought that my eating was out of whack, but didn’t know why. I never realized that I do eat in a disordered way, and that the way I think about food is NOT healthy.

    I recently lost 35 pounds in 30 days on a HCG drops diet, and then gained 65 back. I am currently the heaviest I’ve ever been, and surprisingly, I kinda like myself–except when I can’t find pants to fit (6’2″ and a size 24).

    I have the most supportive husband who is the epitome of the “super healthy fat person.” He weighs probably 380 pounds and has perfect cholesterol and blood pressure. Thanks to you, we are both working on eating competently, and giving ourselves permission to eat good food, when we are hungry. I have signed up for a phone session with an HAES and fat supportive nutritionist and I have hopes that this will change things for the better.

    Thank you for your work. I just wanted to let you know that you’ve made a believer and a lifelong non-dieter out of a girl from Washington. And you know where I mean, being from the PNW yourself. :)

    • Posted November 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much! It makes me so happy to hear that what I write might help someone feel calmer about food. Way to go!

  65. Emma
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    I have never thought of ‘eating competently’ before. What a great article. It’s really given me some interesting ideas to reflect on. Thank you

  66. Heather
    Posted February 27, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    As a radical unschooler with my children, I have been thinking a lot about restrictions and rules and freedom and choices. It hit me that “HEY! Maybe that’s why you have a problem with food! Years of starving, binging, purging, dieting, Paleo-ing and vegan-ing! You need to stop restricting and put some joy back in!” I’ve been praying about it (Love me some Jesus) and searching for good stuff online. Then I came across you and Ellyn Satter. I LOVE YOU! Just thought you should know. Yesterday I ate enjoyable meals at my mealtimes. I finished when I was done. I drank a lot of water (and a half a coke). I took vitamins, did some T-tapp DVD (which I enjoy with my kids). I went to Bible study and ate a couple brownies and didn’t finish the rest because my body was done. I went to bed thinking “That was my first day of ‘normal’, in years.” I feel free- like my life is starting. :) Thank you for sharing your knowledge and humor and thoughts!

3 Trackbacks

  • By Friday links, 11/2/12 « Tutus And Tiny Hats on November 2, 2012 at 10:03 am

    [...] -The Fat Nutrionist on the concept of “food addiction.” (And a related oldie-but-goodie: Joy Nash’s Fat Rant 2: Confessions of the Compulsive.) -Why [...]

  • By Happy Friday! - Designing Around on November 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    [...] What do you think of this eating philosophy? [...]

  • [...] This doesn’t necessarily mean that high fructose corn syrup is not connected to the change in BMI, or that milk, egg, or meat consumption is. This study in particular makes a pretty good case for a connection between HFCS and an increase in body fat. OTOH, not everyone agrees. One of the authors defends the paper at Grist. Paul Ernsberger seems to be a pretty smart guy, and he thinks it’s possible. [...]

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