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June 15, 2005

Food Addiction – Is It Real?

Food ‘addiction’ isn’t a new topic, but one that resurfaces periodically when there appears to be nothing else to blame for a person’s weight struggles.  These days, with faith in low-carbohydrate diets waning, it seems that people are almost looking for another carbohydrate-free code that will explain their seeming inability to eat certain foods without overeating them.

While it seems so common sense, what escapes most people is that trying to avoid specific foods – as well as keep calorie intake low – sets us up for overeating those foods and anything else that’s in our line of sight when we’ve gotten too hungry.

An experience this past weekend confirms this.  I sat next to an acquaintance at a dinner party; I knew she was a former Atkins dieter who wasn’t being so successful with it these days.  She’d aged a few years, which had taken her into perimenopause, when no matter how hard you work at it, some of us find our bodies getting a little larger.  (The experts don’t really know why, but it’s not uncommon for women to gain 5,10 or even more pounds during perimenopause and/or menopause.  I believe there’s definitely more to it than women just getting older and slowing down – which is what you will commonly read is the cause of the weight gain.)  She made a few comments about her struggles; I talked a little about the non-diet approach, and we left it at that.

During the meal, however, I couldn’t help but noticing how she ate.  We both ordered steak, and with it came salad, mashed potatoes, green beans and bread.  She had missed the cocktail portion of the party and was hungry, so proceeded to eat all her salad, steak, and green beans. But she didn’t touch the potatoes or bread. 

Okay, I saw what was happening – she was still trying to cut carbs, a holdover from Atkins.  But then the dessert came out – a cake that was very pretty but wasn’t very tasty.  I took a few bites and that was enough.  My tablemate, however, proceeded to eat not only her piece, but also her husband’s, laughing guiltily all the while. 

Someone who believes in food addiction might say this woman was addicted to sweets.  She couldn’t stop at a few bites.  But I saw something entirely different.  If she’d eaten other carbohydrate foods, and didn’t have a lingering belief that she shouldn’t eat sweets, she’d probably find she didn’t want as much cake as she ate.

There are times when ‘food addiction’ could be considered a real phenomenon.  But those times are not really about the food – they’re about using food as a salve for difficult emotions.  Someone has turned to food to bury those emotions, much like someone would turn to alcohol or drugs.   Even in this case, however, I’d prefer not to call this an addiction.  Because the very word 'addiction' implies that a person is at the mercy of a substance.  Instead, I'd rather help people empower themselves by believing that they are the ones in charge, and if they deal with the real problems, then the food struggle can disappear.  That is, if it isn't compounded by notions of good and bad foods, diet 'shoulds' and 'shouldn'ts', etc., etc. -- all those notions that take us outside of using common sense to feed our bodies in a supportive manner and use our internal cues that are fully capable of guiding us in choosing the right foods for us.

Bottom line: It doesn’t seem to be helpful to categorize foods as addictive, and it’s certainly not helpful to confuse a person’s misuse of food for emotional purposes with diet-induced cravings for specific foods.

In fact, if we could all step back and think about food a little less emotionally and use common sense when it comes to making food choices, we’d probably find the subject less noteworthy, and we could get on with the really important things in our lives.

Posted by Marsha on June 15, 2005 | Permalink


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Marsha - what a timely post. I've been thinking about food addiction alot lately. A very good friend of mine is a recovering alcoholic who recently got out of rehab. I see so many similarities between his mis-use of alchohol and my mis-use of food. We even joke that his drug of choice is alcohol and mine is food. I believe I have a food addiction - I use food to escape, to feel better, to get away from my problems, to not face what I need to face; almost all of the same reasons an alcoholic will drink - many times I am at the mercy of food. I absolutely agree with you that you should enpower people to change but I believe there is still an underlying addiction for those true emotional eaters. Call it what you want but it's there. A funny thing is he never really understood why I went to GMFR until he spent some signifcant time in rehab - now he gets it.

Posted by: Lori | Jun 15, 2005 1:36:00 PM

Hi Lori,
Thanks for your post. I understand what you're saying, and I do think we're still learning in this area, plus it's all complicated by people being individual. What I worry about, however, is when a chronic dieter says she just can't seem to eat certain types of foods in moderation, and she believes she needs to eliminate the foods as a choice -- is she making a leap that she's not really prepared to make? In the absence of eating well, it's impossible to tell how a food ingredient really affects you (unless you're dealing with an allergy or something like that) because your body is not getting what it needs to function well. For example, someone could eat sugar on an empty stomach (that's empty after a series of unbalanced and skimpy meals) and feel like it just makes her hungrier. But if she ate it at the end of a well-balanced meal, after a long run of well-balanced meals and snacks, it may just be a pleasant ending to a pleasant meal. Or maybe not...but she'll never know if she doesn't first support her body in functioning as it should.

This is an interesting topic, and one I hope we'll hear lots more about.

thanks again!

Posted by: Marsha | Jun 15, 2005 1:58:05 PM

I think I see what you are saying - you are differentiating between different types of eaters. Someone eliminating certain foods from their diet because they think or society is telling them that they are bad does not have an addiction. I'm talking more of the pure emotional eaters who are eating all types of food but are unable to control it. I absolutely agree with you that a big part of the answer is to tune into your body and give it what it really needs. I find that when I am doing that I don't turn to food for emotional reasons as much. I'll be at GMFR on Sunday for a two week stay - I hope to see you then.

Posted by: Lori | Jun 15, 2005 2:14:24 PM

I think what we're talking about is physiological dependencies vs. psychological dependencies. That's a topic worth exploring more. Maybe I'll try to do a post on it soon.

I'll look for you next week, Lori!

all the best,

Posted by: Marsha | Jun 15, 2005 3:48:55 PM

Hi there,

Just wanted to say that I enjoy your blog! I'm glad other people are blogging about food and weight.

However, I was prompted to comment on your last post because I was a little disappointed about how little credit you seemed to give women who are struggling with food addiction. All in all, you seem to pass it off as something close to imaginery.

I wish it was just easy for me to "step back and think about food a little less emotionally and use common sense when it comes to making food choices." If it were really that easy, after a lifetime of food dependency, I'd be a much more carefree woman!

Again, thanks for your blog. Just thought I'd share my reaction!


Posted by: bytergirl | Jun 21, 2005 6:12:10 PM

Hi Allison,

Thanks for your post. I didn't mean to come across as unfeeling or saying that food struggles are 'all in someone's head.' I've had my own very serious food struggles that I overcame after many years so I do understand the difficulties we face.

My major point in this post was to encourage people to feed themselves well first, before they start thinking they're addicted to food. It's amazing the difference people see when they feed themselves well -- we see it happen all the time at Green Mountain. Someone thinks she can't touch a bite of sugar without going out of control, but after a week of eating well-balanced meals and moving her body and thinking positively, she enjoys ice cream at dinner -- and truly enjoys it! She has a 1/2 cup portion that we serve, and finds that she can stop at that.

The 'emotional baby' in all of us is nurtured by dieting and food restriction. So it is completely understandable that when we're struggling, we'll be emotional. My plea is that we understand that -- that emotions and food can get intertwined, but if we can separate them, we'll find ourselves doing much better.

This is all much easier said than done, but sometimes it all starts with just thinking about it.

Hope you continue to read the blog, Allison, and please do point out when you think any of us have stepped over the line. As CeBe said in one of her posts previously, we all learn from each other. We've certainly found that to be true at Green Mountain in the past 33 years -- I think we've learned more from the women whom we've worked with than any professional journal.

all the best,

Posted by: Marsha | Jun 21, 2005 7:20:26 PM


One more thought I had in the middle of the night :-D -- when we feed ourselves well, we also find we're much less emotional about food. It's truly amazing what being well-fed can do for us. Seems like such a simple concept, but it's one that escapes us so often because we get caught up in all the diet misinformation we've been fed about how we should eat.


Posted by: Marsha | Jun 22, 2005 6:25:00 AM

Hi...GREAT topic...I seemed to agree with much of what Lori is saying, Marsha. But also about your referring to "physiological dependencies"...(where much of today's research is being done)...and I might add what one of the fine guest speaker's at Green Mt. explained to me and rang so true for me was an actual shift in my consciousness or ego state...before or during the process of my eating food. I often know I'm in a different place as soon as...what often seems like a spell..is over. Having spent much time on the why's etc...very intersting and helps me in other areas but none of this shift relates to my emotional moods or stress. My addiction is with act of eating itself wih all foods across the boards ...fruits and salads as well as sweets, starches & other rich foods etc. Once started early on like me..I believe the switch that controls this in my brain got askewed..like a chemical imbalance which once was once unheard of... bi-polar... autistic...all sorts of conditions/disorders affecting people have become accepted. BUT this still doesn't mean I can't get to...be at a healthy and comfortable weight for me...which I'm quite close to and have maintained now for quite some time. But it takes a huge amount of daily awareness, action and seeking support which I've done. And also speaking my truth which I've done here. Thanks Marsha...

Posted by: Harriet Krivit | Aug 4, 2005 4:03:39 PM

Hi Harriet,

Thanks for sharing your truth. As I've said before, this subject is so complicated, and I'm sure there's a lot to be delineated about individual differences when it comes to reactions to food and eating. Let's just hope the scientists get some good insight into it soon so that those of us who struggle with this can benefit. But it's more likely it will be our daughters or even granddaughters. Am I being pessimistic? Hope not. Wouldn't it be great if our children didn't have to worry about all this?


Posted by: Marsha | Aug 7, 2005 9:44:15 PM

What a great post! When you try too hard not to eat something, this food is always on your mind...

It's like "Don't think about the pink elephants" - as you've read it, what did you think of? :)

Posted by: Melanie | Oct 20, 2005 3:00:03 PM

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