From the First Bite; A Complete Guide to Recovery from Food Addiction
By Kay Sheppard, M.A.
A food addict is a person for whom one bite of binge food is too many and a thousand bites are not enough. Food addiction is a twofold disease: physical intolerance for refined and processed foods, coupled with mental obsession. The physical intolerance is a fact-the food addict's body cannot tolerate these foods. One bite will set up a reaction which demands more binge food. Since we act in accordance with our obsessive thoughts, the mental obsession commands us to eat, while the physical intolerance condemns us to illness and death. According to Maggie, one of my clients, a food addict is no different from any other kind of addict, except that food is a legal drug which we give to children.
She says, "I am not responsible for having this disease, but I am accountable for treating it. I have an addiction because my body cannot tolerate certain foods. I really don't think people accept my disease in this society. I can't figure out how someone can leave food on their plate, and I am pretty sure that non-food addicts can't understand why I eat so much. Food addicts understand each other. Some of us who are obese wear our pain on the outside. Food addiction is being in hell. I have been discriminated against and ridiculed. When I was in the disease, I was so afraid of life that I stuffed down food until there was nothing left but pain and fat."
For the food addict, binge eating blocks personal growth and maturation as it becomes the addict's only way to cope with life. It is the problem that is perceived as the solution. It is the disease that tells us we don't have a disease. These are the paradoxes of food addiction.
It is a popularly held belief that food addiction is a mental or emotional problem, when actually there is research that indicates it is a physiological or medical condition which adversely affects all areas of life, including emotional and mental stability. As the term food addiction suggests, there is a physiological, biochemical condition of the body which creates craving for refined carbohydrates. The craving and its biochemistry is the same as the alcoholic's craving for alcohol. The need to abstain from the addictive substances is shared by both addictions.
This is something that became clear to Cindy through her own recovery. She says, "I was struggling with food, feelings and myself when I found recovery and the food plan. I also had just started attending a Twelve-Step program. I learned from the food addiction book that it was not my weight but food addiction that was the problem. It was also important for me to understand that the food addict has a metabolic, biochemical imbalance. My brother's imbalance led him to alcohol and drugs. I was determined not to do what he did. You could not pay me to take drugs, but I used my drug-food-for escape and comfort and did not even know it."
Research indicates that food addiction, a biogenetic disease, is inherited just like blue eyes and blond hair. Surprised? Yes, addiction is an inherited trait. Researchers have linked a particular gene to addiction. The findings of addictions specialist Dr. Ernest P. Noble, at the University of California at Los Angeles, focus on a dopamine receptor gene that is responsible for sensations of pleasure or reward. A form of the pleasure gene called Al, previously linked to alcohol and cocaine abuse, may be the cause of carbohydrate craving and compulsive eating. In a study of seventy people who were obese, Dr. Noble and his colleagues found twice as many of them as expected carried the rare dopamine receptor pleasure gene Al. The more common or "normal" gene is the A2.
In previous studies, researchers found the brains of people carrying the rarer Al gene had fewer dopamine receptors than those with the more common A2 gene. This suggests that people with fewer dopamine receptors may use substances to satisfy the deficit. Just as alcohol and cocaine increase the level of brain dopamine, so do carbohydrates. People eat refined carbohydrates in order to "feel good" by bringing the brain into temporary balance. Food addicts eat highly refined carbohydrates in order to feel better. These carbohydrates increase the level of brain chemicals. Addiction is a process of self-medicating a distressed brain in chemical imbalance.
Food is supposed to make us feel better. We remember the pleasurable after-school "cookies and milk" feeling from childhood. But in addiction, eating to feel better actually makes us feel worse. Why don't the addictive substances keep the addicted brain in balance?
The biochemistry of food addiction follows a path which starts when refined carbohydrates flood the brain with dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. As the brain becomes flooded with these neurotransmitters, a feeling of well-being results and craving is stimulated. Serotonin promotes a sense of calm and well-being. It is the brain's own painkiller and tranquilizer. In food addicts, serotonin levels are increased dramatically after the ingestion of refined carbohydrates. In the brain, higher concentrations of serotonin exist in the hypothalamus, which is the site of the basic instincts for food and gratification, and in the limbic system, which deals with emotions. The result is that the food addict walks around "drunk" on refined carbohydrates.
Of course, what goes up must come down. Eventually this carbohydrate flooding creates a neurotransmitter deficiency in the brain. In addiction, it is feast or famine. During the famine, the hypothalamus is affected. Since the hypothalamus is the brain's center for emotions and survival, mood and cravings go out of control. During this process an insufficiency of neurotransmitters leaves receptor sites unfilled. This puts the brain in a condition of imbalance, resulting in distress and depression and cravings. Without additional trigger foods, these lowered feelings can persist for up to twenty-four hours.
It takes increasingly larger and more frequent amounts of carbohydrate to bring the brain back into balance. Over long periods of time, food addicts are unable to get back to baseline. They continue to eat food in order to feel better, but those are exactly the foods which make them feel worse. Those who wish to recover from food addiction need to abstain from those chemicals that trigger the addictive crisis of brain and body chemistry. In recovery, in order to achieve balanced brain chemistry, food addicts learn to be scrupulous about identifying all of the substances that will trigger active addiction.
Who would have thought that it is brain chemistry, not weight, that is the problem? Not those of us who have struggled and attacked our weight in every conceivable way in all those weight-loss programs! Now we see that weight gain is just a symptom of the disease. Have we concentrated too long on weight and weight loss? I think so. The important question instead must be: "Is my eating out of control?" Everywhere we hear weight loss being discussed. Much less often is it suggested that eating addictive foods is the source of weight issues. Those foods and the cravings they trigger have now come under scrutiny. A craving is a powerful urge to get and eat the substances that trigger food addiction. We sometimes hear food addicts calling themselves foodoholics and chocoholics. At this level some understand that what goes on with food addicts is the same as the alcoholic's experience with alcohol.
According to Karen, "Since I have become abstinent from my trigger foods, I have not had any physical cravings for any particular food whatsoever. During this time, there has never been an occasion when I thought that I had to eat something. This is in strong contrast to the cravings that I experienced prior to becoming abstinent. I used to behave exactly like a zombie-I would mechanically purchase and eat whatever my body craved, no matter how fiercely I had promised myself before the craving hit that I would not eat such foods. There was no stopping me from eating whatever came to mind. I had to have it and there was no talking me out of it. The only time I didn't succumb to the cravings immediately was when I was not alone. Then I would find a way to sneak off to eat in isolation. I had absolutely no control over my cravings. They ruled my life like dictators."