I’ve often been asked, “How can I tell if I’m addicted to food, or if I just enjoy eating? Are all people who enjoy eating ‘addicts’?” These are very good questions.
Enjoying food is definitely not the same thing as being addicted to food. Our brains are wired to enjoy food — that is a primal survival mechanism. In fact, we enjoy foods that are high fat and high sugar for that very reason — these foods are energy dense and ensure our survival by making us want to eat more for immediate energy and storage purposes. Even the food addict who is in recovery still enjoys their food.
What makes the enjoyment addictive is the key question. When the enjoyment has become so large that it dominates other natural pleasures, a problem is flagged. We are either in a deficit so we need the excess food ( i.e. we’re very hungry) or we are in a disordered pattern of eating. The natural ebbs and flows of pleasure are misaligned: Notice that when you are hungry, the plate of brussels sprouts and glass of water is very enjoyable, but when you are full, you no longer desire them. The desire to eat ebbs when it is no longer necessary to ‘fuel up.’ But when you are not hungry and you still desire to eat, something else is operating that keeps you wanting to continue to eat or to ‘enjoy’ the food.
There are many neurochemical and hormonal reasons for this disorder, and one of them is the neurochemistry of addiction. The person may be rooted into an addiction loop that makes them crave food even when they no longer need it – in fact, even when they are no longer enjoying it. They still want it anyway.
The primary way an addiction doctor can determine if a person has a food addiction is by looking at the patient’s eating patterns and food behaviour. The doctor is looking for a dysfunction in the normal ‘ebbs and flows’ of wanting and not wanting food. We use questions from the DSM IV which determine addiction. Here are just a few:
An excellent questionnaire that you can use is the 20 questions that the Food Addicts in Recovery group uses. If you answer yes to just a few of these, you might be a food addict, rather than just enjoying your food.
Copyright © 2014 Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous
The Yale Food Addiction Scale
The Yale Food Addiction Scale is an attempt to diagnose food addiction from a scientific and clinical perspective. A diagnosis of food addiction from the medical or psychiatric framework does not yet exist, but a scale such as this marks the first step towards professional credibility of this disease. This is based on the DSM lV criteria of addiction (substance abuse/dependency)
If you answer yes to three or more of the following criteria, you could be suffering from a clinical addiction to food.
In the spring of 2013, the struggle with food was back. Did I really think it had gone away?
The impact was startling. I looked at the tablespoon of almond butter and felt a surge of warmth and excitement. After the third tablespoon, I groaned and put the jar away. I knew I was in trouble. I had been here before and I could feel the dread beneath the exhilaration.
The next day I picked up the nut butter jar and morosely stared at it. Then, despite my misgivings, I ate three more heaping tablespoons. But I hardly noticed the taste or the size of my servings. The old chorus had already started: Why not savour just one more spoonful? Just one more to really taste the delicious sweetness of the nuts, the succulent smoothness of the texture? I managed to confine myself that day to only those three mouthfuls, but I wanted more.
The next day I barely restrained myself, eating five towering tablespoons. I knew even this would not suffice. It was as if an old hunger had resurrected itself, a hunger that seemed bottomless, impossible to satisfy.
I was in a vortex of addiction that Dr. Gabor Maté has described as the “realm of the hungry ghosts.” This had nothing to do with taste anymore; I was trying to get a feeling of satisfaction again that was becoming more elusive the more I tried to get it. By the end of the month, I was sometimes shovelling more than ten mammoth tablespoons into my mouth each night. I knew I had to stop, but each night I gave in.
The scale became a terror. I promised myself I would stop once I gained five pounds. Then it was ten pounds. The scale kept climbing as my binges continued. By the time the scale indicated that I had gained fifteen extra pounds, I knew I needed a new strategy. I planned to cut back my nut butter splurges to only once a week, just on Saturdays. That plan lasted three days. I couldn’t possibly hold out until the weekend.
So I went back to devising how to eat only a few tablespoons a day. I asked my partner to monitor me, parceling out the tablespoons so I could not cheat. That didn’t last for even one day; I simply could not bring myself to ask her. I scanned my options — what rule could I devise that might actually work?
To stop eating this highly triggering food that had trapped me in this insane web of obsession and denial, craving and despair, did not seem possible. The thoughts in my head kept leaping from How could a food do this? to I can’t give this up, this is just too good to give up. I want that buzz, just one more time.
Why was I here, at this place, again? Why, when I knew what was happening and actually knew how to stop this cycle, was I caught in this loop again?
It took one year before I was ready to take the only action I knew would work. One year because I was stubborn and unwilling to give up the memory of that first night, wanting it back, if even for a few minutes. I could not let go of the anticipation that the next tablespoon would again give me that sparkle of delight. Nothing else I knew of could give me that thrill, other than alcohol, which I had foresworn five years earlier.
I grudgingly admitted to myself that I had a problem with this particular food: nut butters were a trigger so I had to quit eating them forever. I already knew I could not eat sugar, bread, chips, and pasta. Now I had to admit I was powerless to control my use of nuts too. The only solution: abstinence.
I discovered once again another truth about eating trigger foods: I would do anything — fast for an entire day or walk for hours to burn calories — just to allow myself to eat them. The craving was that strong. But, once I stopped, my desire gradually faded; it is as if the beast inside me is deflating each day that I deny it fuel. Slowly, I lose the mental obsession and regain my peace of mind.
I never did lose the fifteen pounds I gained, but I did stop the disease that had caught me off guard once again.
Why am I telling you this when I should be offering hope of freedom from addiction? My intention is to instill hope, but within a realistic context. Based on my personal and clinical experience, I believe that addiction of any kind has no cure. There is only a daily reprieve from its course of malignant action. The engine can restart at any time if the ignition is sparked. The engine is always idling.
The evidence has shown me time and again that I am still a food addict and food addicts are always in recovery, always just one mouthful away from the next binge. Admitting we are addicts is not about holding onto a “victim” identity and wallowing in despair. It is simply a reminder that we are powerless over our internal urges, cravings, and addictions once they are triggered. It is our job to be sure that we identify and avoid the triggers in the first place.
It is our job to avoid the first bite.
My message to you is that if you have a hunger that seems eternally ravenous, there is an explanation. You may be a food addict. Once you understand why this peculiar phenomenon of desiring food beyond “normal” hunger occurs, the solution to quelling that need is obvious. It cannot be done by filling that seemingly bottomless pit with food and more food. The solution to quenching that insatiable hunger is to put the alluring food down, since eating more of it only leads to wanting more of it.
Rather than trying to receive gratification from food or any other addictive substance, turning that desire toward connecting with others placates that ache. By sharing our humanity, we can bond with others and feed our own soul. We are then able to feel full at last; the bottomless pit that food addicts experiences can then fade like a bad dream. Freedom from food obsession can taste better than anything you could possibly imagine.
I invite you to leave the bleak world of food junkies and join me, by helping others on this journey towards food serenity. The power is ours.
Tune in to Addictions Unplugged on Rogers TV April 10th at 9P.M.
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