Food addiction treatment on "Nightline"

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The boomlet in mainstream media attention to the legitimacy of food addiction continues tonight on ABC’s “Nightline” program when its cameras follow Laurie U., a binge eater, into a treatment center devoted to eating disorders and then into her transition homeward afterward.

Martin Lerner, CEO and clinical director of Milestones in Recovery, the Cooper City, Fla., center where treatment was given, said he was approached by the show, and he put out a flyer asking for a volunteer. “It would be quite an invasion of privacy, and was quite a service” that someone came forward, he said.

Lerner said the show “tries to communicate the idea that defining food addiction based on what someone looks like isn’t a very accurate means of doing that.” Laurie, he said, looks neither overweight nor anorectic, “but is a bona fide binge eater, pretty dramatically.

"She’s been struggling still, even with treatment. Every time she leaves here, she goes back into binging. For a lot of people, relapse is part of their journey, whether we like it or not," Lerner said.

He explained that he involved Milestones because “it allowed the cameras to document how someone in treatment is learning how to eat abstinently, preparing foods that are sugar- and flour-free, practicing portion control by weighing and measuring, and living in a community that’s practicing food-addiction recovery. Also, how difficult it is to trying to do that in society, when they’re just caught up in regular living.”  

Oprah Winfrey’s new network, OWN, which is to debut in January, is currently casting "Inside Rehab," which would show people in food-addiction treatment, and I was recently asked by a television producer to participate in show built around people in a compulsive-eating support group. I asked Lerner to explain the uptick in attention:

“For whatever reason, there’s a shift in the media and culture from religion to looking at spirituality. Likewise, a lot of self-destructive illnesses are starting to be looked upon as addiction processes instead of characterological failures or psychiatric illnesses.

“When you look at Tiger Woods, for instance, there was a recognition of the possibility of sex and love addiction, even though it stoked a lot of criticism over whether it was a copout. That’s reminiscent of how people looked at alcohol.

“Obesity may not be the disease but the symptom of one. And the media has picked up on this,” he said.

The medical establishment, meanwhile, hasn't picked up on it. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association is currently being revised for a fifth edition, and there appears to be no prospect for its recognizing food addiction. It does appear to be poised to recognize binge-eating disorder, to join anorexia and bulimia. 

"I don't think the professional community is ready yet, but we're inching closer. Maybe by the DSM VI or VII," Lerner said.

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