Food addiction is a controversial subject especially when considered within the realms of WLS. Many talk about it in hushed tones as if it is something to be ashamed of whilst others poo poo its existence. Whatever side of the divide you’re on, this guest feature provides food for thought!
If you think calling obesity a disease is controversial, try talking about food addiction without getting into a scuffle! Half of the people will demand that you show scientific proof of your food addiction “theory” before they’ll even give the matter consideration while the other half will argue that addictive behavior is nothing more than a lack of impulse control (a character flaw).
Either way, you’ll likely get laughed out of the room by suggesting that a person can be addicted to a substance everyone needs to live. Without choosing sides, indiscriminately labeling, or trying to create a diagnosis, we propose that you ask yourself the following question: Is food/your weight a problem for you? If it’s a problem, it’s a problem, so let’s talk about that (and leave the labels for someone else’s article.)
What (exactly) is the problem with food?
- Are particular foods the problem?
- Is excess weight the problem?
- Are the medical issues caused by the weight the problem?
Excess weight can definitely cause problems that are medical and emotional.
What if the food isn’t the problem at all? What if food is a way to help ease life problems (job issues, marital problems, self-esteem problems, etc.) and the weight (caused by eating too much) is actually a symptom of the problem(s)? In other words, what if a person is eating to try to feel better because some thing(s) in their life are emotionally painful (sort of like some alcoholics use alcohol to numb their emotions and avoid life)? These are great questions, which are not easily answerable, unless you are willing to consider that everyone has a relationship with food, and that relationship that can be healthy or unhealthy, compulsive, abusive… and even addictive.
The Post-Op’s Story (Cari De La Cruz) – I knew I had a problem with food because even after I had weight loss surgery and lost a bunch of weight, I continued to make poor choices. I was eating far less than I ever had before, so could I be an addict if I didn’t eat much? To answer that, I had to peel back the layers of my life and take an honest look at my interactions (my relationship) with food. As it turns out, I didn’t just EAT food. I used it. I abused it. I hated it. I hid it. I hoarded it. I used it for comfort, validation, consolation and celebration. I ate the wrong foods. And those foods caused weight gain and the weight gain caused medical problems.
I had problem on top of problem. And I didn’t believe I could live without the foods I loved (the ones that made me feel better emotionally). The truth is, I didn’t have to live without ALL food, just the food with lots of sugar and fat. The kind that I didn’t stop, once I started. I wanted weight loss surgery, believing it would solve all of my problems, even the addiction I didn’t know I had. Unfortunately, food addiction is not a popular topic in bariatric support groups and doctor’s offices, so finding information on the subject can be difficult and sometimes mystifying.
Thanks to solid therapy and great support (from people like The Doc), I learned to reveal my issues and heal my relationship with food, establish healthy boundaries, and implement rules I can honor for the rest of my life. I don’t have a problem identifying myself as a recovering addict, but many do and refuse to admit that they even need help. This makes me sad, but I like to believe that between my story and The Doc’s expertise on the topic, we can gain respect and understanding within the WLS community, and help those suffering from an unhealthy relationship with food to find health and healing.
The Doc’s Perspective (Connie Stapleton, Ph.D.) – In more than a decade of working with the bariatric population, and nearly 20 years within the field of addiction, I can confirm that the debate rages on among healthcare professionals as to whether or not a person can be addicted to food. There is plenty of scientific research indicating that animals can be physically addicted to sugar. Humans also display physical changes in their brains when they are “under the influence” of sugar which are similar to the changes in their brains when using substances like cocaine.
People can also be psychologically addicted to substances (food, alcohol, drugs). When a person uses a substance or engages in a behavior to change how they feel emotionally to avoid dealing with their feelings or people or situations, or to distract their attention from life situations that upset them. Without getting into a lot of confusing discussion, let’s make this simple: If a substance (food, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) or behavior (eating, shopping, gambling) is causing PROBLEMS in your life, then it’s a problem. And it’s a PROBLEM if you know there are issues in your life caused by, or worsened, because of the substance or behavior, and you can’t stop using the substance or engaging in the behavior even though you want to.
Let’s say a person has developed Type II diabetes. They know they must change their eating habits and get some exercise to manage their blood sugar. If they don’t make these changes, the results could be the loss of vision, a limb or their life. They want to do these things because they want to live. But they can’t stay away from sweets. This is a problem. This suggests food addiction.
The same is true for those who cannot change their eating behaviors following weight loss surgery. A person needs to keep their weight off to avoid diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, etc. They know that healthy eating and exercise are the keys to keeping their weight off following surgery. If they are unable to stay away from high calorie, non-nutritious foods, KNOWING that these result in weight regain and medical problems, food/eating is a problem. This sounds like addiction.
“People don’t just eat because they’re hungry, food is a salve to avoid the pain of life problems.” ~ Dr. Connie Stapleton
Why don’t people change their behavior?
Many people think losing weight means they’ll finally be HAPPY until they realize their life circumstances are very much the same after losing weight as they were before losing weight. If they had problems with relationships before surgery, they still have problems with relationships after surgery. If they hated their job before surgery, they still hate their job after surgery. If their marriage or their kids had problems before surgery, they still have problems after the surgery. It doesn’t matter if a person uses food or alcohol or pills or shopping or gambling to numb their emotional pain. All addictions have some common denominators: using a substance or behavior to avoid unpleasant thoughts or emotions, a feeling of self-shame, being a failure, and most often, having experienced some sort of trauma in childhood.
People can have an unhealthy relationship with food, and not be addicted. Just like most people who drink alcohol are not alcoholics, many people who struggle with weight problems are not food addicts. There are many factors that contribute to obesity including genetics, some health conditions, certain medications, environment (meaning learned eating of certain food and eating behaviors), and personal food and exercise choices. For some people, becoming educated about nutrition and the importance of exercise is enough for them to make the changes they need to make. These people aren’t food addicts.
The bottom line is food addiction is real. If you think you are a food addict, get professional help or join a group like Overeaters Anonymous. You don’t have to consider yourself an overeater to benefit from this group that understands food addiction. If you’re not a “group person,” reach out on any of the OH forums such as General Discussion, check out online support organizations or InTheRooms.
No matter how you define it, if food is a problem in your life, it’s up to you to take care of the problem. You are responsible for your health! Even if you don’t believe in food addiction and don’t like being called an addict, if you have an unhealthy relationship with food, learn to address your issues in a healthy way. Find a therapist who understands obesity and addiction, associate with people who have a healthy relationship with themselves and food, and do the work of living fully in recovery from obesity.