Food Addiction: The Silent Disease

woman eating ice cream

The rates of obesity in adults and children in the U.S. have doubled since the 1970s, and it’s considered one of the leading public health problems in the country. We have a strange relationship with food: on one hand, we need it to survive; but, for some individuals, it can be the subject of one of many disorders. Food addiction and chronic binge eating are two examples, both with close ties to drug and alcohol addiction. But there are also problems like anorexia and bulimia nervosa that carry their own health risks. Writing in the Valley Morning Star, Dr. Ralph E. Jones provides an overview of the silent disease of food addiction and related issues.

Food Addiction and Chronic Binge Eating

Food addictions and chronic binge eating are often closely related to emotions, much like cases of addiction to drugs. Like a drinker or cocaine-abuser may ingest substances to cope with negative feelings, food addicts do the same but with fatty, salty or sweet foods. For chronic binge eating, it’s more common in those who have problems with low self-esteem, stress management, a lack of assertiveness and anxiety in social situations, and these individuals use food as a coping mechanism. This association between negative emotions and food becomes so strong that they often mistake negative feelings for hunger and binge-eat in response to distress.

About 50 percent of people who suffer from binge-eating disorder also suffer from food addiction. There are similarities between the two conditions, but food addiction specifically refers to a dependence on food, rather than merely the use of binge eating to deal with emotional stress. Because eating releases dopamine in the brain just like addictive drugs do, it produces euphoria and addiction in exactly the same way. The poor coping mechanism becomes more ingrained in the person’s behavior because he or she is biochemically dependent upon the effects of food and overeating.

Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa

Eating disorders are a distinct problem, but there may still be overlap with issues such as chronic binge eating in some cases. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the most common eating disorders, and although they usually affect women, men can and do suffer from them, too. Both of the conditions ultimately stem from societal pressure to maintain a slim figure, and represent this desire pushed to extremes.

Anorexia is very much about control. People suffering from it restrict their food intake and over-exercise in order to stay skinny, or to lose excessive weight. They’re likely to suffer from body dysmorphia, believing they are fat or otherwise unattractive when most people would say they were very slim. In other words, even when they’ve lost more weight than most people would say is necessary or advisable, they will still believe they need to lose more and continue their excessive dietary restrictions. In many cases, as with Karen Carpenter (one half of the musical duo the Carpenters), the issues stemming from this unhealthy lifestyle can be fatal. Bulimia, on the other hand, is characterized by periods of bingeing – uncontrolled eating followed by purging through vomiting or excessive use of laxatives.

Getting Better: Overcoming Eating Disorders

Treatment for eating disorders begins with re-establishing a healthy diet, and providing any medications necessary to help the individual stabilize his or her health. The most important part of treatment is to address the unhealthy ideas about self-image, appearance and self-concept that people struggling with eating disorders develop. Through group therapy and individual cognitive behavioral therapy, experts like Dr. Jones help them feel better about themselves and teach them to maintain a healthier diet. Aftercare and support groups are particularly important for people suffering from eating disorders, because the harmful ideas and dangerous habits are often deeply rooted and may return when the individual goes back to everyday life.

Recovery From Food Addiction and Binge Eating

Food addiction and binge eating treatment are in many ways comparable to treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. This is because the conditions work in very much the same way: an underlying issue like low self esteem, stress or depression leads the individual to overuse food as a poor method of coping with negative feelings. Dr. Jones tells the story of a patient named Mary, a woman in her 40s who had recently gone through a divorce and was 120 pounds overweight. She was clinically depressed, had high blood pressure and diabetes, and her doctor told her that if she couldn’t control her issues with food, she’d eventually die of heart failure. She was particularly fond of sugary and floury foods, had low self-esteem and had already tried and failed to control her food intake.

Dr. Jones learned that she was being referred for lap band surgery (which limits the amount of food your stomach can hold), but knew that without psychological treatment, the underlying problem wouldn’t be rectified. He referred her to a food addiction treatment center, where she learned healthier methods of addressing feelings of depression and low self-esteem. She also began to understand the root cause of her overeating. She lost 125 pounds and no longer showed signs of diabetes after her treatment.

Recovery and Good Health Are Possible

It might seem like there’s no way out with food addiction, binge eating or other eating disorders, but whatever the problem is, help is available. It might not be an easy process, but once you’ve recognized the true issues underlying your over- or under-eating tendencies and learned healthier ways to cope with the problem, you can make a positive change in your life. If you or your loved one is struggling with food addiction or an eating disorder, remember that help is just a phone call away.

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