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Food Addiction: Let's Call It What It Is

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

In this corner, we have long-time world champion and self-esteem-crusher, Diet Culture, weighing in at $70 billion and 30 million eating disorders nationwide. And in this corner, the fast-growing Anti-Diet movement, weighing in at 200,000 Instagram posts and an ever-expanding section of the self-help book aisle.

Now if I had to choose between black and white, I'd chose the anti-diet movement every time. But I'd prefer to look for the gray because the nuance in these conversations? It's important. As with anything, extremes are dangerous. This is a complex issue with different things to consider. So let's.

Dismantling Diet Culture

First, yes, diet culture is dangerous. You won't hear an argument from me there. Diet culture is the driving force behind such well-hated and archaic hits as "you'd be so pretty... if you just lost a little weight" and "she's hot for a fat girl" and "I'll finally be able to take that vacation once I drop 3 dress sizes and get my bikini body back." It's a symptom of a patriarchal society -- one in excess of masculine shadow qualities -- that tells people, feminine people in particular, that they'll only be worth something once they restrict their food consumption and take up less space.

Let's dismantle the fuck out of it, indeed.

And yes! Diet culture mentality creates eating disorders. No ifs ands or buts. Because when you tell a body to restrict food, ignore cravings, and out-and-out starve itself, the only reasonable physiological response is going to be to overeat.

To deprivation, that's the only reasonable psychological response, too.

So in order to live up to socialized expectations of how they should look, behave, and consume, people restrict their diet, purge to avoid weight gain, and/or drown themselves in daily binges out of utter contempt for the whole lot of it.

In response to that, I've lately been noticing the narrative of the anti-diet movement is to depathologize everything related to food. I get why. There's a danger in language when it's used to manipulate; convincing us that we're sick or unworthy and need to subscribe to some kind of fix; a diet, a cleanse, a pill, an exercise regimen. Weight loss programs do it, the medical model sneaks it in, and big pharma's the reigning champ of it. We've been emotionally abused by these entities for so long that we hardly trust anyone anymore.

But diet culture and the quest for less is not the only thing that brings people into maladaptive relationships with food. It can be hard to tell, I get it, because diet culture is so pervasive. But diet culture is just a symptom of bigger issues on our hands. Like the patriarchy at large, for instance. The patriarchy has unwritten cultural bylaws that tell us to suppress all of our instincts, not just our food-related ones; unconscious messages that keep us from healthy relationships yet still seeking some meaning in our day-to-day existence. Food can, quite simply, be a drug. That doesn't mean it's a drug for you, but it's a drug for someone. It was a drug for me.

Drugs and Addiction

At large, the word addict seems apt only to substance abusers. But we can benefit to understand there are substance addictions and behavioral addictions. Drug and alcohol addiction can causes acute physical risks, create chemical dependency, and alter states of consciousness that most behavioral addictions do not. And that difference is to be respected. But the universality that lives in the underbelly of all addictions is often eerily similar.

Ruled more by the stigmas attached to the word addict than its actual meaning, it's possible we've lost sight of how the term can give us context and insight into our experiences and provide us a launchpad for healing.

Collectively, consciously or not, we fantasize about being on the "other side" of addiction. We're most comfortable when we view addicts as "other." It's a "not my problem" phenomenon that keeps us feeling as though we're in control of our lives. But many of us spend money we don't have and rack up debt we can't pay back. Some of us have compulsive, regrettable sex just to get out of our heads. Some of us love other people so intensely to the point of ignoring our own selves. Some of us work 18 hours a day. Some of our minds can't function without our morning coffee (an addictive stimulant that's acceptable on a mainstream level so much so that you can overspend on a cup on every corner). Nearly all of us check our cell phones on average every 12 minutes.

There is no invisible line that keeps addicts on one side and the "well-adjusted" on the other. We're all just a big mess of people struggling to find peace within ourselves.

It's not meant to be a competition of who has it worse. In fact, it's quite the opposite. As a culture of connected human beings, the more we relate to each other, the less harm we do to ourselves and subsequently everyone else. Finding commonalities in addiction helps create empathy. We can support each other more when we understand each other more. And breaking down the stigma of addiction, recognizing the ways in which we are all impacted by it, depathologizing it and taking ownership of it - that's where our power is.

Behaviors of an Addict

Like any other addict, a food addict does their deed in a state of denial, going to whatever measures necessary to get the high, and repeating those measures even when destructive risks appear. That's the behavior of an addict, no matter the substance.

One of the key determinants in addiction is persistence. You continue with the behavior in spite of harmful consequences. However wonderful the feeling of the moment, the consequences of compulsive pleasure-seeking are often devastating and defeating. Yet, in spite of the cost, countless men and women have spent much of their lives in relentless pursuit of those transient moments of heavenly delight.

-Grant Martin, When Good Things Become Addictions

Other behaviors associated with addiction include acting in secrecy, interruptions in interpersonal relationships, preoccupation, neglecting other areas of life, struggling to cease behaviors when desired, minimizing the intensity of the problem, and experiencing withdrawals when abstinent.

Even among clinicians, there are disagreements about what behaviors or substances can qualify as having an addiction associated with them. But in my personal and professional experience, I have found that the vice itself -- an upper, a downer, food, gambling, sex, porn, technology, work, exercise, shopping, other people -- is less important than how much the relationship with the vice is interrupting daily functioning and the user's ability to pursue the life they want.

Addiction as an Attachment Disorder

So if you're still with me, the question might become why? Why do we become so enthralled with the high that we risk our safety? What are we avoiding?

I remember the first AA meeting I ever attended. It was in Malibu probably sometime around 2012. I walked in figuring I'd have nothing in common with alcoholics because alcohol was never particularly appealing to me. I went out of curiosity. I think some part of me knew I was a food addict but couldn't admit it securely enough to attend OA, the meeting more designed for my struggle, instead.

Rather than feel like an outsider, I walked out of that meeting room never having felt more connected to other people in my life. Why? Because while our substance might be different, what we were all at once chasing and running from was exactly the same.

Alcoholism is known to be genetic but while an alcoholic is pre-disposed to reach for the bottle as their vice, what gets them there is what gets a gambling addict to the track, a drug addict to their next high, and a food addict to their next isolated binge.

Whether it is the high of a drug, the low of alcohol, the dominance of sex, the protective walls of clutter, the approval of technology, the distraction of material consumption, the fulfillment of food binging, the penance of starvation, or the exorcism of purging, most addictive behaviors are created from the same selection of ingredients: depression, anxiety, fear, shame, loss, abuse, trauma, unhealthy attachments, and an inability to be with oneself in one’s own skin.

In our addictions, we can become numb, hidden, and granted permission to hate ourselves for our missteps and that's exactly the way we want it because we think it's what we deserve.

Because of a person’s difficulty maintaining emotional closeness with others, certain vulnerable individuals are more likely to substitute a vast array of obsessive-compulsive behaviors (e.g. sex, food, drugs, alcohol, work, gambling, computer games, etc.) that serve as a distraction from the gnawing emptiness and internal discomfort that threatens to overtake them.

-Philip J. Flores

In his book Addiction as an Attachment Disorder, Philip J. Flores noted that while all addictions display different unconscious needs, what the addictions share is that they are born out of relational wounding. Flores noted that the ability to have “intimate, long-lasting, gratifying relationships is established” in the early stages of our human development, and addictive compulsions may arise as compensation in the

wake of a deficiency in that establishment.

These deficiencies can take many forms, for instance when a child’s physical needs are not met by a caregiver, or in any relationship in which one is unable to trust, connect, or be vulnerable. As a dysfunctional attachment style is cultivated, the ability to feel satisfied from interpersonal relationships diminishes. According to Flores, “experiences related to early developmental failures leave certain individuals with vulnerabilities that enhance addictive type behaviors and these behaviors are misguided attempts at self-repair.”

Jungian analyst James Hollis expanded on the importance of relationship to the developing self, looking beyond the development of relationships in childhood into that of prebirth. He suggested that humans are engaged in “the going home project,” or the desire to return to the place where they felt the most powerful connection to the universe—the womb.

The desire to return to the womb “is deeply programmed in us from our traumatic onsets,” the trauma being our expulsion from the womb into the external world. “But, as we see all around us, it remains the chief saboteur of intimate relationship. Thus, we are all caught between the deeply programmed desire to fuse with the Other [our families, partners, friends] and the inner imperative to separate, to individuate”

To take it even deeper, it was author and philosopher Aldous Huxley who introduced us to the transcendental function of addiction which is even the "well-adjusted" person's means of escaping their own humanness to reach a higher plane of existence. To Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, addiction is our quest for wholeness, an illusory totality that convinces us we've done it, when we are, in fact, far from it.

We are more than what we seem. We're just trying to find ways to believe it.

So Are You Addicted to Food?

So you've got relational wounding, an addictive spirit, and a burning desire to outrun the dark possibilities of human nature by dissociating and escaping yourself through food. Are you an addict?

You are NOT a food addict for:

  • Enjoying food

  • Eating large portions

  • Enjoying sweets

  • Not being on a diet

  • Being in a fat body

  • Being happy in a fat body

  • Eating when you're hungry

  • Eating when you're not hungry

  • Intuitively eating

  • Giving into cravings

  • Not being vegan

  • Not counting calories

  • Getting pleasure from food

  • Struggling with your body image

  • Having a hard time reading hunger cues

  • Eating to self-soothe sometimes

If contrary assumptions are why we're blanketly ruling out the term "food addict," we can be more specific. We need to be more specific.

Because you might have a food addiction if:

  • Your use of food prohibits your growth in desired areas of your life.

  • You're avoiding relationships by spending nights binge eating instead.

  • You call out of work sometimes because you made yourself sick with food the night before.

  • Your physical health is at risk and yet you still continue to eat large amounts of unhealthy food and/or restrict, purge.

  • You've become unable to regulate your own emotions or tolerate discomfort without disappearing into food.

  • You lie about what you eat to avoid shame/remain in control.

  • You're spending more than you can afford on food because you're overeating in each sitting.

The bottom line is this: does your use of this substance or behavior prohibit your growth in desired areas of your life?

If you're answering yes, saying you've got a food addiction can be your liberation, not your prison. This isn't about shame or pathology. You're not bad or broken. This all came from somewhere and yes, the diet industry was likely present at the birth of your food addiction. But it certainly wasn't the entire cause and attacking it certainly won't be the path back to the life you want.

The first step of any 12 step program is admitting you have a problem. It's designed that way for a reason. You can't take 11 more steps if you're not owning the journey. So call it what you will, but own it, lest it own you.



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