October 30, 2014

Is Food Addiction Real?

 Over the past six months I have been working on my thesis for my masters degree in clinical counselling. I was interested in looking at obesity treatment (and weight loss) from a therapeutic perspective instead of the usual (boring) banter, "eat less and exercise more".  That banter is bullshit and I'm sick and tired of hearing it.

So, I began researching into the validity of food addiction.  What is it? Is it as harsh as drugs and alcohol or is it just another word for foodie? What I have learned so far is enough to light the fire under my bum and offer a program that would tackle this multi-faceted issue.  To put it bluntly, food addiction is real and is as serious and important as addictions to drug and alcohol.

To put this into perspective, just like alcohol, some can drink a glass of wine and leave it at that, while others can't stop until the entire bottle is empty (not that I'd no anything about that....the wine glass are just too big these days). As with alcohol, there are people out there who CAN just eat one chip or cookie (and one day I will meet one) while the rest of us lose all control while sucking back the entire package.  Whether cookies or cocaine, these substances promise rewards of calm, pleasure, and escape from negative feelings. These substances focus on the reward systems in the brain and, in turn, feed the addiction.  The food addict, like the drug / alcohol addict will search out their drug and need more and more of it to obtain the same high.  They will continue using even when they know it is bad for them.  They are unable to stop.  Sound familiar? I know eating an entire column of Saltine crackers will make me sick....(nuff said)?

When I was dealing (or not dealing rather) with the death of my father in my 30s, I remember days and nights where I would make special trips to the donut shop for a dozen donuts and eat them all in one sitting (half were gone before I got home).  Other nights included an entire large pizza and bottle of wine while watching Sex in the City with my cat, candles, and self help books covering the living room floor.  I would devour an entire box of Halloween candy or tub of ice cream in a night without thought (and that was exactly what it was...no thought and a strong desire to push down the negative emotions that were dying to come up).  To make it worse, I was a fitness leader and full time fitness professional working very hard to mask my sweet and salty habit under a veil of spandex and sweat. Everything was fine as long as I worked out hours a day...to be fit was to be healthy.

And so is the addiction.  An addicted individual may appear completely together or "normal" on the outside until you find the candy wrappers hidden under the couch or bottles stored in the corner of the garage. To this day I find it hard to eat just one of those mini Halloween chocolate bars (stupid little chocolate bars). Just the other day I found a couple of wrappers hidden in my own bra without any recollection of how they got there (kidding....sort of). For some people, like me, this addiction may always be present in the back of our minds but knowing how to work or deal with these voice is key.  I have a fabulous friend who is one of the leading experts in body image and emotional eating.  She refers to these momentary lapses of weakness as "snack-cident".  Many times these "snack-cidents" occur after a hard day at work or when we are hurting. 

Food addiction, like other substance addictions, are (most of the time) rooted in early childhood traumas, dysfunctional families of origin, life stressors, and the like. After reviewing the research, I was surprised (risking sounding like an ignorant Polly-Anna) at the role trauma played in food addiction.  Couple negative histories with an "obesogenic" environment that sells fast food at every corner while offering the latest technology that renders movement obsolete, and you have yourself the perfect storm for the food addict.

So does that mean the Cookie
Monster was a pusher?
So why do we continue to blame the individual? Why do I still see fitness people and nutrition people selling "the only program that will work" or promising the last program you will ever need? We have to get rid of the idea that people just need the program, the food, the plan, the coach to change. We need to stop judging the obese and seeing the problem for what it is....a psychological, sociological, biological, cultural, and environmental problem.  It is systemic and no exercise program or nutritional plan will help.  I promise you that. This is a serious issue as North America sees more and more cases of obesity.  We are aging, we are getting fatter, we are stressed out, we aren't having the conversations about mental health as we should. We don't have time to cook or grocery shop. Government awareness must increase and policy must represent this addiction. I know our government provides us with the alcohol and the gambling (and soon the drugs)...and then offers us trite, superficial PSAs "know your limit, play within it"...bullshit.  But there has to be something, other than blaming the individual, we can do to help?

That's all I got today. Once I figure out how I can help...I'll write more.

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