Assumed: Food addiction exists

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This is another entry in my “assumptions” series, in which I state one of my underlying assumptions definitively, so the next time I feel the need to veer away from a post’s point at hand to provide full background, I can just link to the full thought and let others veer, if they choose to.

The assumption here is that food addiction exists.

Even five years ago, I might as well have been advocating that dinosaurs have two heads, for all the support that food addiction had in science, never mind popular culture. The science has moved a lot closer, thanks to the work of Bart Hoebel and Nicole Avena, Ashley Gearhardt and Kelly Brownell, Nora Volkow, and many others.

Pop culture, not as much. For so many, it seems, accepting the idea is a moral issue, that it’s just plain wrong to concede that there might be physiological reasons to explain why some people eat so out of control. Part of this refusal comes from misunderstanding the complexity behind obesity, so here are a few clarifiers:

* ”Food addiction” is a lousy term that allows the scoffers to scoff, because of course, no one is addicted to all foods. Anyone can form an addictive relationship with any food, but by far, it is highly processed foods, most often different combinations of fat, salt, refined grain (aka flour), and refined sugar, that bedevil food addicts.

* In no way does “allowing” food addiction to be real assert that all obesity is explained by food addiction. Food addiction is one reason, substantial but still only one.

* Other reasons for obesity include unresolved trauma, the relentless marketing of hyperpalateable foods, government subsidies of foods that promote obesity, and others. It is very complex.

* Just because someone is subject to any of these factors does not preclude that they are *also* subject to others. It is not either/or.

* Some of the others can lead to food addiction. Although the principle is the same, this easier to explain in the alcohol model, because many people grasp it better. At one point in some drinkers’ lives, they’re drinking, and sometimes suffer for their actions (late for work, bad hangover, whatever), but they still have the option to walk away from alcohol — say, a teenager who spends the summer before college drinking more than ever before, just out of circumstance. But then she recognizes it’s a dead end and decides to limit drinking to just a couple of beers on one weekend night. And that works out so well for a few years that when circumstances present themselves again — say winter break senior year, when most of the heavy lifting has been done — she decides to go wild for a couple of weeks. Except this time, inexplicably, there’s no going back. For her, drink has seized a new, gotta-have status, and no amount of wishing or struggle will change that. Maybe she always had the biochemical disposition, but had never drank enough to push herself over a line she didn’t know she had. And then, there’s no going back.,

The same process, triggered by trying to paper over the unresolved trauma, or the oversupply of most-often-addictive concoctions, could develop with food.

* Here’s a big one: Claiming addiction is not a way to avoid personal responsibility. That’s like saying that someone who says he has cancer is no longer responsible for getting better. Once he accepts that he has a condition that is *not* a function of weakness but *is* beyond his control, he then can embark on the path toward health, a path he probably wouldn’t have chosen under other circumstances.

Now, if someone proclaims having a disease but refuses to get help for it, that’s definitely someone who is not taking personal responsibility. But that person doesn’t exemplify the lie of food addiction; he exemplifies what a sick person shouldn’t do.

For the life of me, I don’t see how the existence of food addiction threatens anyone. Meanwhile, the full richness of my life didn’t develop until I accepted that I was a food addict and took the obvious next step: If I have this thing, I had better get help for it.


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