Addicted to Food? The Truth About Overeating
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Some people don’t believe that food addiction is real. What do you say to them?
What they’ve shown is that the prefrontal cortex actually shows organic damage to the orbital frontal part of the brain with someone who is just full-on addicted. They’ve done comparisons of brains in people who are cocaine abusers and those who are food addicted, according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale. What they found is that the brains are indistinguishable. You cannot tell the cocaine abusers from the food addicted because the damage is exactly the same. When people say “It’s psychology. For God’s sake, rein it in. It’s just one cupcake,” it demeans the entire experience of food addiction. That cookie triggers the entire domino effect in the rewards system. Your prefrontal cortex is so damaged that it can’t stand up to this hijacked rewards system and say “Wait a minute, what are we doing here?”
Would you say that kicking a food addiction is harder than kicking any other addiction?
That’s absolutely correct. I’m not at all minimizing the hell people go through in rehab, whether it’s from cocaine or from alcohol or whatever. It is a lot of work and you gotta do it. Let’s go to drugs for a moment. None of these things are necessary for survival. So I can see them as separate entities: I can push them out of my life. To detox and get on with my life, I have to change up the persons, places and things in my life that enable that type of addiction. You can change up your tribe, move somewhere else, and you don’t ever have to buy this stuff again because it’s not like you go to the grocery store and there’s alcohol in every aisle or cocaine hanging off the aisles.
Let’s flash forward to food. We need food to survive. Making this even more difficult, when I’m going down the street, I don’t see billboards with big syringes that say “Hey, do a hit today!” I don’t see pictures of people snorting cocaine. There are alcohol pictures, but they’re not that frequent. But food, are you kidding me? The cues are everywhere. Studies have shown that the cues and anticipation—not the consumption—for any addiction cause the greatest secretion of dopamine in the rewards system. They will start that whole obsession almost immediately.
What about Overeaters Anonymous and other programs for people with food addictions? Do you think tools like these are helpful?
I think whatever works out there in terms of well-established programs like Food Addicts Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous is great. I think that all of these have great merit. What I say is, people end up choosing a combination of programs. For example, in Weight Watchers, they have group meetings. Some people hate group meetings, but they’ll use the e-tools and they’ll just do it that way. But there are other people who go to the group meetings and they write their little logs on a spiral bound notebook but they don’t like using the computer much. At the end of the day, if both of those people have made their goal in a healthy way, rock on. I say congratulations and kudos to [Overeaters Anonymous and Food Addicts Anonymous] for being so helpful.
How should people with cross-addictions to things like drugs or alcohol handle a food addiction?
I say in my book to be very careful, because cross-addiction can set you up for food addiction. In other words, if you’re an alcoholic or a drug abuser, many of those people go on to shift their addiction over to eating. That’s very, very common—especially in alcoholism and cigarette smoking. There’s some very early, compelling research that shows that those people who are cross-addicted have a more intense issue when it comes to all addictions, especially food addiction. So for people who are cross-addicted, whatever your food false fix is, once you’re off it, you’re off it. There’s no going back. You need to try to avoid that like the plague because that will cue you into a much more intense addiction if you go into relapse.