Joan Ifland and I got together virtually last month for an informative conversation, and I posted the unedited video version in early August. This is the edited-text version; Joan got to see and approve the edits.
Joan and I met at least 10 years ago at a conference she organized in Houston for food addiction professionals. One of Joan’s first claims to fame is being the lead author of the first academically published description of food addiction in humans. She later founded Victory Meals, which makes and distributes healthy, unprocessed food meals and other products and she operates a several-thousand-member private group on Facebook helping those who struggle with food addiction.
Born when and where? "Beaver Falls, Pa., Oct. 25, 1951."
Where do you live now? "Cincinnati, Ohio."
Family circumstance "My oldest daughter is expecting a son in December, so we just have her in our prayers and thoughts, and I have a younger daughter. My older daughter, Claire, works for Kindle in London and my younger daughter, Camille, is a doctor working in Seattle and I am divorced."
An early influence on you outside your immediate family. "Kay Sheppard (her website | her 10 Words or Less interview). Kay Sheppard is my hero."
Saya little bit more about that, please. "Well, she saved my life. In 1996 I picked up her book. I eliminated sugars and flours from my food plan. I joined a support group and my life changed radically. And that's how I got into this field."
What did you want to be when you grow up? "A vet."
How long did that last? "Not very long. By the time I was actually in school I was taking economics, political science. I took my MBA and I wanted to be like my dad. He was a corporate scientist and I wanted to be like him."
How can someone be addicted to food? Don’t you need food to survive? "There are two kinds of food, just like there are two kinds of beverages, alcoholic, non-alcoholic, and then in the food realm, addictive, non-addictive."
I appreciate your "10 Words or Less" response, but I’d like a little more please. How can someone be addicted to food? "Processed foods are processed like drugs. So they’re concentrated, extracted, refined, fermented. Things are done to plants to make them into drugs and those same kinds of things are done to plants to make them into addictive foods. So biochemically, these are not foods. They’re not activating the feeding pathways in the brain. They're activating the addictive pathways in the brain, and neurochemically speaking, that’s how you make the difference."
I was recently on a panel in San Francisco at the Commonwealth Club with, among others, Dr. Robert Lustig of UCSF. He made that argument, that refined sugar is not a food. It is an additive and additives are regulated by the FDA in a way that sugar wouldn’t be. "Yeah it’s in the brain reaction. You know, you just connect those two dots. You connect the processing of the food and the brain reaction and, it’s very hard to wrap your mind around it, but you have an addictive substance. Now it’s no longer a food. Without the processing, yes, it could be a food, but once you processed it, it’s no longer a food, it’s an addictive substance. It’s over here with cocaine, heroin, alcohol."
There are people who are going to see this and say ‘These people are just around the bend. I have sugar. I’m not an addict. I like sugar. It tastes good and I don’t rob people to get money and I don’t break into houses. What are they talking about?’ "Because the substances are legal, people don’t attach that big negative effect that you’re talking about. But if you look at actually the mortality figures, processed foods are killing a lot more people than heroin. A great analogy, I think, that helps us understand this situation is to tobacco. In 1964, the Surgeon General issued his opinion that tobacco was harmful. For 45 years, Congress did nothing and then Kennedy got the Family Tobacco Act passed. We’re just in that stage of learning how damaging processed foods are."
How many food addicts do you think there are? "There are now 2 billion overweight and obese people on the face of the earth. In my doctoral work, I did correlate obesity with severity of addiction. It’s not perfect. It’s not a great correlation, but there is a correlation there."
Describe your Facebook group, please. "This has been incredible. I’m editing a text book on food addiction and to do that, two years ago, I started catching up on the new research. What I saw was a lot of cognitive impairment, inability to learn, to make decisions, to exercise restraint, to remember, to experience satiation.
"It’s like the researchers turned en masse to this topic of what is going on in the brain of obese people. What they discovered is pretty horrific and, of course, the media ignores it. What I saw was that, we have on the one hand, you can call it brain damage. It’s reversible. You can restore the brain. The brain is very responsive to restoration efforts, but, I think, it’s appropriate to call it brain damage.
"The nature of the brain damage is such that it is particularly pertinent for food addicts because we have to learn something. We have to learn how to make meals. We have to learn how to shop. We have to learn how to teach our household members not to leave processed foods around. We have to work with our colleagues in our workplace. So there’s a lot to learn, to remember.
"Every time you go into the grocery store, you have to make dozens and dozens of decisions and I thought, oh my goodness, this is a breakthrough on understanding how to help people with food addiction. And I thought, you know what, Facebook is a great way to teach because you can put on very short messages, you can repeat them, you use pictures. There is natural built-in support.
"I started the group a year and a half ago. I watched it over the year, and then decided, this is not enough. So, I started small, confidential groups, called intensives food-addiction intensive. After watching that a couple of months, I said, no, this is still not enough. I remembered that maxim from the 12 Step groups, 90 meetings in 90 days, so I started a nightly phone call. The replays of the nightly phone call are available to members of the Intensives and boom, people started turning around reliably. That’s the piece that I was really looking for.
"Something happened in the beginning of June. People started pouring into that group and now we are adding about a thousand people every 25 days. So, it’s not exactly viral, but people are pouring into that group and it’s very gratifying."
How many are in the group? "Last night [early August, 2016] we turned 6,600. We’ve added 2,600 people since June 2nd."
What drives you? "I got out of this mess and the suffering is so severe. Because I have an answer — it’s just an answer in my personal opinion — I want to make that answer available. The difference between being in the addiction and the pain of the addiction, versus this kind of simple way of getting out of it is … it’s huge!"
Something that works really well "Looking at pictures of clean meals. My understanding of the disease is that this is a disease of environment. We caught it from watching television, advertisements for addictive foods, over and over and over again. To promote recovery from the disease, we are creating a new environment at Facebook in the intensives, lots of pictures of clean food, lots of kind people, friendly supportive people.
"It’s also the education. What we’re really trying to do is persuade the brain that we have moved to a new tribe. We’ve moved to a new country. These are the customs of this country.
"It’s a very slow process, analogous to putting together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle where you’re just putting in maybe one little piece this week. Next week you might consider putting in another piece. But it has to be done very slowly and caringly. You have to be kind."
How do members help each other? "I think the primary reason that the groups are working is the kindness. Members help each other by being kind and by sharing their experiences, by sharing the information. [Also,] we do have a very, very clean food plan in the food-addiction-education group, in the intensives, and I think that when members can explain to one another why certain foods are off our lists, its really helpful."
How does one join? "Go to Facebook, do a search for “food addiction education,” (or, click here) and click on “join group.” We have monitors who will admit the person right away. The other good place to get help is foodaddictionintensive.com and you can register for the intensive there. Our fees are very, very low. If there is an income in the household, it is $15 a week. If the household is on assistance of any kind, it’s $20 a month and if the person on assistance is supporting somebody else, the fee is waived and we will always work with people. I’m about to open a new website called Food Addiction Books, so that’s another resource."
Something about people that you find surprising "How well they get well, how quickly, when they give up the processed foods."
The last book you read "Oh, gosh. … The last book I finished is an exquisite book called 'A Little Life.' Right now I’m reading a book about the end of the Vietnam War called 'The Sympathizer,' both very powerful books."
Something you do for fun "I walk. … I have a new rule; I am not allowed to open up my computer until I have been for my walk. My other fun thing is Luminosity, a brain training website. There is published research on its efficacy and I’m shocked that at 64, my brain is working as well as it is."
Someone who deserves more credit than they get. "Well, this is not the answer that you’re looking for, but let me try it out on you. I think that the neuroscientists who work for the [food] industry should get more credit for the mess than they get. I think these individuals deserve a lot of credit for creating the obesity epidemic and they don’t get it."
If you needed one now, what would your epitaph be? "A lover of food addicts."
A question I should have asked you? "You should have asked me about the text book."
Please tell me about your text book. "Thank you, Michael. I have a contract with Taylor & Francis CRC to edit this text book. I am very grateful to the neuroscientists who have contributed chapters.
"It will have three parts. First will be the foundation, the scientific foundation of the disease.
"The second section will be on assessment and I will be using the DSM assessment criteria that are used for alcoholism. They fit food addiction incredibly well and I think that section of the book, particularly, will illustrate the nature of the disease to health professionals. There is a great deal of confusion out there about whether we have a substance use disorder or a behavioral disorder.
"Because substances are involved, for which there is evidence of addictive properties, in my opinion, we have a substance use disorder. I have invited food addiction professionals to help me develop the evidence for that section and it’s going extremely well. It’s very, very powerful and I have learned things that are shocking to me in the course of developing that section.
"The third section is very exciting. Doug Ziedonis, who is the chairman of the psychiatry Department at University of Massachusetts, is collaborating with me on it and it is the treatment section. We are using a lot of classic addiction-recovery techniques and adapting them to food addiction. He’s being super helpful. I feel very hopeful that this could help health professionals become comfortable with looking for the disease and then applying appropriate treatment, because this is not a weight-loss issue. I’m especially hopeful that health professionals will start to look for food addiction in children."