I know, I know. It’s been debated. Extensively. In medicine, in nutrition–does compulsive and/or binge eating qualify as an addiction? While both eating behaviors tend 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 disqualify food as a true addiction. Now, I am not a doctor or a scientist, so I am in no way writing this piece to come to a definitive conclusion on the subject, but I do feel food should be treated like other addictions.
The thing is: insulting and shaming overweight people is still tolerated by society. Many believe that because a person’s weight is largely within their control, it’s acceptable to criticize those who lack the willpower to stay in good shape. Because the medical community doesn’t accept food addiction as readily as they do other addictions, I think lots of folks might feel entitled to attack people who suffer from it. A few months ago, there was a hashtag on Twitter dedicated to bullying overweight people called #fatshamingweek. Users tweeted disgusting messages in an effort to “shame fat people into losing weight.” It was an excuse to engage in vitriolic hate speech. What would be much rarer to see is groups being attacked because they have a compulsion to drink alcohol, or to use heroin. Most see those as legitimate medical problems and thus too taboo to criticize people over. I can’t help but think that food, in some cases, should be viewed in a similar way.
People who don’t struggle with food mistakenly think that the reason all people are fat is simply a lack of willpower. But some overweight people may indeed have a brain chemistry that makes it much more difficult to stop after one helping, 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. And there have been numerous studies establishing the different brain responses people with food addiction have.
For years, I went back and forth wondering whether or not I should consider my food compulsions an addiction. I asked myself, asked therapists, If I label them an addiction, do I ever just recover? Does that mean I get over them? I struggled with the answer when I never really did get over them, when the compulsions never seemed to disappear entirely, despite years of living without bingeing. I’d always find myself in the midst of some hard time, wanting to turn back to eating. And not just eating, but eating eating.
To this day I’m not certain. What I do know is that the pull I’ve felt toward food, the desperate need I’ve had to binge eat, has often led me to a total loss of control, a series of negative consequences and then, a downward spiral that I can’t get out of easily. The struggle–sometimes powerfully present and at times barely there–has been with me for my entire life, leading me to believe that at least some part of it is genetically ingrained in me–not unlike my father’s alcoholism, or his father’s before him. Addiction, in my family, is everywhere.
In the past eight years, I’ve done a decent job of managing my maybe-addiction because I’ve treated it–seeking intense therapy and the counsel of medical and psychological doctors, figuring out a way I could not only live with it, but get to the heart of the reason I wanted to binge eat in the first place. All this because I don’t simply want to survive the addiction; I want to go on to live a better, fuller, richer life. And like most things, it’s a process. It means mindfulness, emotional awareness, total self-acceptance (even when I slip)–all the days of my life.
But that’s just me.
I’m not writing this to absolve food addicts of personal responsibility when it comes to weight and health. Just because you or I struggle with a compulsion doesn’t mean we get to throw up our hands and give up. Like any addict, it’s important to recognize the problem and seek help. Consult with medical professionals and figure out a treatment plan that works for you.
What do you think: Is food an addiction? Does it even matter to label it?