Food: “Addiction” or not?

I’ve been poking around this topic, working on this post, since it came up in group several months ago, but never could quite figure out what to say.  Then about 2 weeks ago I heard this story on NPR about comedian Jamie Kilstein, who realized within a week of admitting to being an alcoholic that he also has an eating disorder.  The NPR story was based on this fantastic piece Jamie wrote for Jezebel.com: “I’m an Alcoholic Dude With an Eating Disorder. Hi.”

As someone who is battling Compulsive Overeating and Binge Eating Disorder, I identify with just about everything Jamie said.  I eat to avoid feelings.  To numb myself.  I use food the way many others use alcohol.  Other people’s leftovers? Yep.  Feel like I just need better willpower? Check.

“You feel alone. You feel hungry. You feel like your problems aren’t real, so you don’t fix them. Then, you feel full. Like, so fucking full. Then you hate yourself. Then you hate yourself for hating yourself. Then you eat. Then you feel sick. Like, so fucking sick. Then you start planning your next healthy meal to make up for the sickness. Then you think, well I already fucked up today, how about one last huge meal? Actually, it’s Friday. One more huge weekend! Like, so fucking huge. Then Monday happens. Ready to get back on track, but now you have a headache from sugar withdrawal. It’s like Trainspotting, but with carbs. You feel dumb again. Like, so fucking dumb.

This is your life.”

Check, check and CHECK.

There’s just one thing the several hundred commenters and I can’t seem to agree on: whether or not food can be an “addiction”?  Side note: I don’t know what it is with me and comments on the internet, but I’ve lost hours upon hours of my life worrying about what some anonymous stranger thinks about what some other anonymous stranger wrote.  JN would say “that’s something to be curious about.”  Maybe I will one day, but I digress…

I think part of the problem with the terminology is that addiction is traditionally associated with substances that create a physical dependence, such as nicotine, or drugs and alcohol.  However, some process addictions, such as shopping or sex, are also widely accepted as “legitimate,” which makes the argument about food a little more surprising.

Here are just three of the discussions that ensued in the comments section.live to eat semantics powerless

I’m conflicted, myself.  On the one hand, the definition of addict is: to devote or surrender (oneself) to something habitually or obsessively.  If that doesn’t fit the bill for what we do with food, I don’t know what does.

On the other hand, the (insert addiction) Anonymous crowd, teaches that you are powerless against your addiction and need to abstain (in this case just from specific foods like sugar, carbs and fat), because this monster inside of you will lure you back in at the first sign of weakness.  I have an issue with this, because (1) as one of the commenters states above, it allows you to consider yourself a victim, and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy/mantra (2) I believe the eating disorder is a symptom of something bigger going on inside and most importantly (3) I refuse to believe I can never be trusted to make positive decisions for myself, ever.  That I am going to have to fight with the demons inside for the rest of my life and that I will never find peace.  That would not be recovery; it would be hell.

Even though the definition of addict and addiction really fits the bill for eating disorders, I, and many other people out there, find it hard to consider food an addictive substance.  After all, you can’t ever totally abstain from food.  You NEED food to LIVE.  It’s like being allergic to water.  You’ll either die from dehydration (if you abstain), or you’ll die from the allergic reaction (if you don’t).

Additionally, based on what I learned about habits in Charles Duhigg’s book Power of Habit, rewarding repetitive behavior, or repeating behavior that is in and of itself rewarding in some way, eventually leads to craving that behavior, because the brain begins to associate reward/pleasure with doing activity.  I’ve been using this behavior with food as a coping mechanism for 25 years.  It is no surprise that I have come to crave it, but that does NOT mean the craving is the result of physical dependency.

Abstaining from trigger foods will work just as well as going on any other restrictive diet.  And if you are anything like me, telling yourself you may never touch sugar again will increase the likelihood of submerging yourself in a vat of candy by about a million percent.  Maybe you are not like me, but I, for one am just now starting to get to the bottom of WHY any kind of restriction sends me in the opposite direction of the one I intended.  I mean, you could tell me I am to never ever eat a brussel sprout again, I hate brussel sprouts, but rest assured, if they are forbidden, I will find a way to like them.

This is exactly my point about ED being a symptom.  I believe if I can get to the bottom of why I am fighting this epic battle of rebellion and work on that, if I can stop beating myself up and instead try to approach my feelings with compassion and understanding, if I can learn to love and accept myself and find comfort in places/activities/things/people other than food, I believe I can beat this “addiction” and live happily ever after, with occasional sugar, fat, carbs and EVERYTHING.

My friend Curvy Yogi also wrote an excellent post on the subject, which you can read here.

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