Food addiction has been a hotly debated subject. In medicine, in nutrition–the question always arises: can compulsive overeating or binge eating qualify as food addiction? While binge eating disorder tends to share many of the same traits as other addictions (loss of control, adverse health and social effects, possible genetic components, increased dopamine response, etc.) some feel that the lack of physical withdrawal symptoms disqualifies it as an addiction, or at least, disqualifies food as an addictive substance.
Now, I am no doctor and certainly no scientist. The only credentials I have are a 20-year struggle with my weight, a 135-pound weight loss, and the hundreds of battles I’ve fought against binge eating. All of those experiences, combined with the numerous conversations I’ve had with others who’ve shared their struggles with me, have given me a sense that yes, in so many ways, food should be treated like other addictions.
Addiction ran rampant on my father’s side, and the desperate pull I’ve felt toward food has always felt like my cross to bear. It’s a struggle I’ve had my whole life, and has undoubtedly been with me at my basest, most brutally shameful lows. I’ve lost days and weeks and maybe years to the compulsion that is binge eating.
If you’ve never struggled with food or weight, you might assume that being fat is simply due to a lack of willpower. It’s just not that simple and one size couldn’t possibly fit all. Studies have shown that some overweight people may indeed have a brain chemistry that makes it much more difficult to stop after one serving, or to skip dessert, say. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse has stated that she believes food is an addiction very similar to drug addiction. Numerous studies point out the different brain responses people with food addiction have.
And even still, for years I went back and forth wondering whether or not I should consider my history of compulsive overeating as food addiction. The hesitation to just do it was always, If I label my struggle as food addiction, does that mean I don’t ever recover (like how addicts are always “in recovery” and never “recovered”). I didn’t like that sense of forever, and when I brought this up to a therapist, she asked something poignant, “How does labeling yourself a food addict feel?” I thought for a minute before she continued, “Does it help you?” When I told her I didn’t know, that I didn’t think I felt any better, she said, “It’s important that we don’t let labels make us feel powerless.”
She was right. In considering whether or not to call my binge eating an addiction, maybe I was subconsciously struggling with whether or not that label would make me feel like a victim. Or maybe I was thinking it took away my agency.
It was semantics, in the end. All that mattered was that I worked on it. Regardless of the condition, we never lose personal responsibility.
At the risk of sounding like your favorite elementary school teacher and calling each of us special snowflakes (though, yeah, kinda), we all do require our own self-care methods and modes of treatment. For me, therapy was enlightening in creating a strong sense of self-awareness to get to the root of why I wanted to binge—I should note that therapy was especially helpful to me later into my weight maintenance (2012 and 2013)—as was learning to reach out to a supportive group of friends and family, practicing self acceptance, and reading some important self-help books.
Like most things, dealing with food issues is a practice that requires living with intention and recommitting every day.
What do you think about food addiction? Does it even matter to label it?
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