Food Addiction: Fact, Fiction or Feeling?

Is it possible to have an addiction to something we require to survive? That said, most folks addicted to food aren’t addicted to carrots.

Posted on | Ramani Durvasula, PhD | Comments ()

Is it possible to have an addiction to something we require to survive? That said, most folks addicted to food aren’t addicted to carrots.

I had the pleasure of appearing with Dr. Oz to discuss the controversial issue of food addiction. We weren’t able to get into the subtleties – and there is a lot of debate about whether it is a true addiction. From my read of the evidence from neuroimaging, neurochemistry and eating disorders, I do believe in such a syndrome. In addition, having experienced it myself, and feeling like a relapsing alcoholic whenever I am at a bakery window, it sure feels like an addiction.   

The most compelling part of my appearance was the part you didn’t see – the time I got to spend with the 3 guests off-camera, because it was there that I got to hear their full stories. These women are all of us; they are our moms, our sisters, our friends and our neighbors. They are trying to beat this addiction in a world where sugar, fat and processed foods are everywhere and people are constantly handing them more. 

These women got here through 3 very different paths – and their problems with food are kept in place by 3 very different sets of emotions, things like the loss of a parent, the illness of a partner, the criticism of family members. However, the one thing they all had in common was shame. They desperately want to stop, and can’t understand why they can’t. As a society, we berate overweight and obese people, assuming they are weak-willed, and tell them to just put the food down.

But as I talked with these lovely women, I was reminded that it’s not just about putting the food down.

  • It’s about having to tell friends and family “no.”
  • It’s about finding new ways to soothe themselves.
  • It’s about wanting to share a meal with family members even when it involves unhealthy choices.
  • It’s about the quick pleasure a busy mom gets from junk food in the midst of a busy day where other quick fixes are not accessible.
  • It’s about cruel comments about the pounds they have put on by “well meaning” friends.
  • It’s about wanting to pick up a food that reminds them of time spent with a recently deceased parent or a childhood memory of snuggling in bed with ice cream and mom. 

Where do we begin? 

For those struggling with out of control feelings about food – the food diary is really a powerful tool, and Dr. Oz’s online diary is a great application. Over a 2 week period – do not change what you eat or do. Just do what you always do, keep records and pay attention. You will be surprised at what you learn, and that the emotional calories which are stopping you from reaching your goals are the ones that you are often unaware of.

To me, losing weight is less about counting calories and doing squats than about counting demons and psychologically cleaning house. 

Good luck and I would love to hear your stories and experiences with this. It can be done. Before you try to change what you eat, figure out how you feel first.   

Blog written by Ramani Durvasula, PhD
Dr. Ramani Durvasula has over 15 years of teaching, clinical and research experience. After receiving her doctorate in clinical...