Food Addiction

Food Addiction: Gotta Have It?

September 19, 2012 at 9:31 am , by

Have you ever joked that some foods you crave (French fries, red velvet cupcakes) are like “crack” to you—even if you have no idea what crack is actually like? Is there a treat you’re truly incapable of resisting? Join the club. For me it’s dark-chocolate caramels with sea salt, among other things. Hello, lover!

No, we’re not just weak and have no willpower. The science is catching up and showing that addiction to food is every bit as real and powerful as addiction to drugs, alcohol or tobacco, says weight-loss expert Pam Peeke, M.D., below, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. That’s why she wrote her new book The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction. (Take her quiz to see where you fall on the food-addiction scale, here.)

LHJ: I overeat sometimes, but I’d never really thought of myself as similar to a “cokehead,” as you put it. Your book doesn’t coddle us with feel-good platitudes; it’s tough and science-based. So what made you decide to use the language of drug addiction throughout?

PP: I didn’t decide; the patients did. For years I’d been hearing men and women of all ages using drug vernacular to talk about food. They’d say, “I can’t get off the stuff,”  “I need a hit,” or “Withdrawal is killing me.” Years ago we didn’t have the neuroscience to back it up, but now we do, and I talk about it a lot in the book. If you line up a cokehead, a meth-head, an alcoholic and a food addict and watch them under functional MRI machines, and tell them their substance of choice is on its way, their brains all do the same thing: The reward center spews out the pleasure chemical dopamine. They’re indistinguishable.

LHJ: So you can’t just say, “Hey, eat less.” It’s not just a matter of practicing willpower and moderation, is it?

PP: Hello. Try talking to someone in full-fledged addictive mode and say, “Oh, you need to practice moderation, so let’s just take this bottle away.” Really? I don’t think so.

LHJ: So the concept of food addiction is finally getting some respect. But while you don’t need drugs to live, you’ve got to eat food. Please don’t tell us we can never eat the foods we love again!

PP: You have to identify the foods that are like crack to you, and then you have to detox from them. And let’s face it, the majority of what we got hooked on is trash to begin with. But there are things you’ll learn to do from my plan that will train the prefrontal cortex part of your brain to find equal pleasure elsewhere—from healthy, whole foods, from mindfulness and meditation, from physical activity that’s fun. Believe me, it can be done.

LHJ: Will I stop wanting the junk food?

PP: Are you kidding me? Who wants junky food-like products after you’ve been able to drop the weight and feel fantastic? Y’all better have a conversation with yourself before you do that. For some people who are more mildly affected, you can have some re-exposure to your danger food. But is it worth it? If you’ve done the work in this book you’ll have built such a powerful prefrontal cortex that most likely it will be a moot point.

Chocolate photo copyright Madlen, Shutterstock