Addicted to Food? The Truth About Overeating
“This book can change your life, if you allow it,” declares Biggest Loser contestant Tara Costa in the foreword to The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction, by Dr. Pamela Peeke. It isn't a rare claim to be made of a book. But Costa is far from the only person to be convinced that Peeke’s work will revolutionize how our society views overeating and food addiction: after The Hunger Fix launched on Katie Couric’s talk show in September, it took just five days to become a New York Times bestseller. “My team and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we must have hit a nerve,’” Peeke tells me.
While many scientists continue to debate whether or not overeating is a true "addiction"—the current DSM says not—Peeke has no such doubts. She's gathered an abundance of new studies and evidence, shedding light on the serious food problems from which so many Americans suffer. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a nationally renowned nutrition and fitness expert, a Pew Foundation Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. She also founded the Peeke Performance Center for Healthy Living, working to help thousands of men and women recover from food addiction.
In The Hunger Fix, she offers a unique perspective on eating disorders, and suggests simple lifestyle solutions to anyone struggling with them. (The first step is assessing just how serious your food obsession actually is: Peeke recommends taking the Yale Food Addiction Scale.) She speaks to me passionately about the science behind overeating, the obesity epidemic, and how kicking a food addiction can be even more difficult than a drug habit.
How does food addiction normally get started?
I’m going to make two cases. One is the case where you have absolutely no addictive genes in your body. As this person enters the world, they have an exposure environmentally to a truckload of sugary, fatty, salty substances. And you’re just surrounded by it. So now what’s happening is you’re conditioning that person and you’re causing organic changes in the brain and the prefrontal cortex, which is the rewards system and the “smartypants” part of your brain. Then over time, you become addicted.I always say, genetics load the gun but environment pulls the trigger.
Another kind of person does have some level of addiction in their genetics, depending on how many parents or relatives have dealt with addiction down the line. And that person is born with a genetic tendency toward developing one of those. They’re going to have a much quicker latching on to an addiction.
How important are the environmental factors that add to genetics?
The third piece that’s very, very important in the equation is that when you’re a child, you are at the mercy of whatever your parents give you. When you start a small child out with the “hyperpalatables,” and they have a Pop-Tart for breakfast instead of oatmeal, you’re just basically turning them into a science fair project. Some of those kids will become addicted much faster than others and some will not be effected whatsoever. And then there’s the issue of stress. People with addictive tendencies have difficulty adapting and adjusting to life’s stress without caving to the cravings. How it begins is you have a crock pot of assorted things here. You have your genetic background, you have the environment in which you live. This can happen at any point in time. You can have a completely clean childhood and then maybe a trauma happens later in life, and then you pick it up at that point in time.