Eating on Autopilot: The Case for Food Addiction

chobby woman eating a huge burger

Beryl was from a long line of tough Georgia women but she had one weakness that seemed to control her. Her home, Savannah, was a haven for some of the best food in the South and that was a happy fact for her, but also a point of vulnerability; Beryl could partake in so much goodness, but she felt she didn’t have an “off switch.”

At 5’3” and 205 pounds, her doctor was concerned. He’d been pushing her for years to modify her diet and to start an exercise regimen, and she’d been promising for years that she would. Now, however, because she had not followed his recommendations, Beryl was beginning to show signs of diabetes.

Every night after midnight, Beryl found herself sneaking down the stairs of her Victorian home and binging on food, especially salty snacks and sweets. She sometimes feared her husband would wake and discover her, so she kept one ear to the stairs for the sound of movement. She kept a plastic grocery bag for any trash she accumulated so that her habit wouldn’t be discovered in the morning when her husband, Nick, used the small kitchen wastebasket to toss his breakfast napkin.

In the mornings, Beryl ate with Nick—eggs, toast and coffee—and then drove alone to McDonald’s and ordered a pancake breakfast and a sausage McMuffin. Her habit of secrecy didn’t stop there. She kept secret stashes of food in her bedroom closet, in her car, and in her desk drawer at work. Although she brought a salad in a plastic container to eat with the ladies on their lunch break, she’d run out to “take care of errands” and stop for more fast food.

Often, eating secretly in this way was almost an unconscious act. Beryl reported feeling like she was in a trance or somehow on autopilot, just driving and eating and not thinking about it. But other times she found herself pulled over on the side of the road or in the parking lot at work in tears, feeling utter despair and shame about her inability to keep her promise to herself that today would be the day that she would eat “like a normal person.” This kind of self-talk may have been unconsciously self-sabotaging but it went a long way back. Although Beryl’s mother liked to cook enormous meals—and all of them with tons of lard, butter and bacon grease (she was a true Southern cook, after all)—she frequently berated her daughter for her weight even though she also commanded her daughters to clean their plates.

Today Beryl was married to a great man—kind, caring, and considerate—and she had a good job in which she felt appreciated for her efforts. But she had a problem that made her feel ashamed and disgusted, and she felt she was the sole cause of it. She also knew that unless she somehow fixed her problem, she might find herself very, very sick.

Can Food be Addictive?

Drugs like heroin and cocaine and addictive processes like gambling, shopping, and compulsive sex stimulate the brain’s reward circuitry. When the body ingests a drug or engages in an addictive behavior, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter sometimes referred to as the “feel good chemical.” Increased dopamine stimulates serotonin levels in the brain and this enhances a sense of happiness and wellbeing. Dopamine also sparks motivation for more of the substance or process that initially stimulated its production. A person becomes highly driven to do more of the drug or behavior that created this chemical response in her brain; this is the basis of the addictive process.

Now, researchers are finding that this addictive process occurs in compulsive eating, particularly when a person engages in the consumption of sugar, fats, and salty foods. Boston Children’s Hospital reported on a study of food addiction in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Their findings correlate with other studies showing that consuming foods with a high glycemic index, which have an immediate effect on blood sugar and insulin and which cause the body to “crash” after approximately four hours of ingestion, create the dopamine response in the brain’s reward circuitry system. This effect appears to make the case for food addiction, but more research needs to be done.

As for Beryl, she finally made the decision to take her health into her own hands. She did some research into compulsive eating and found Overeaters Anonymous (OA), a 12-Step group based on AA. There she met women with many shared experiences and she began to feel less alone. She told the truth to her husband which resulted in alleviating stress and shame, and she found she had his unreserved support. As a result of this, as well as the friendships and encouragement that she experienced through OA, Beryl was able to gain control over her eating. It was an up and down journey, but three years later, she has lost 60 pounds and is no longer showing signs of impending diabetes. Many times it takes a health scare to show someone the debilitating effects of food addiction, but thankfully in Beryl’s case, she was able to choose the path to recovery and healing.

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