Phil Werdell: "Everybody pretty much accepts that food addiction exists now"

Today’s guest is a hard-working visionary in the field of food-addiction recognition and treatment. He is the co-founder of Acorn Food Dependency Recovery Services, the driving force behind the food addiction institute, and a key figure behind the only med school-sponsored conference on food addiction anywhere, which will be in its third year this fall. This is an edited version of a video interview that you can watch here.

Phil Werdell, visionary and leader in the field of food addictionName Phil Werdell
Born, when and where? Oak Park. Illinois on April 2, 1941
Were there any unusual circumstances regarding your birth? ”There was a rumor, never completely confirmed, that I actually was born on April Fool’s Day, but it was very late and my mother got them to say it was April 2nd.”
April Fool!! Where do you live now? ”I live in Sarasota, Florida.”
Family circumstance ”Well, I am in my second marriage. In my first marriage I had two step-children, Sheila and Maureen, who are in their 50s. My adult children are absolutely delightful on the West Coast and I am newly married to Mary Foushi. We began as recovery buddies and then founded Acorn together and then found out, by golly, we were in a relationship and we have been for about 20 years, but only married for two.”
What did you want to be when you grow up? ”Until I went to college, I wanted to be Robert McNamara. He was a brainy president of a motor company and then a brainy defense secretary. That he later was a major influence in taking us into the Vietnam War, that embarrasses me.”

Your first paying job ”National director of cultural affairs at the U.S. National Student Association. I started the first student film festival at UCLA and Lincoln Center. I carried on the Saturday Review literary magazine contest, wrote a couple of books. When Berkeley exploded on the West Coast, the student movement there, I became the de facto national director of Educational Reform.”
At the National Student Association? NSA? ”Yes. I was also there when we discovered that our international wing was funded by the CIA. It was a very scary period, but the secretary of state, Dean Rusk, admitted it was true and the CIA apologized and then we got through it on the other side. That was pretty amazing.”
Some wisdom your retain from that job? ”People can take responsibility for their own learning, and recovery, if they do it with other people in a community.”
A significant struggle you had growing up ”The way it looks now, I was an overachiever because I thought I was an ‘under human being.’”
I do think that’s a line I’m going to repeat, but did it completely answer the question? A significant struggle you had growing up. ”Well, my struggle was always to get better grades, get more merit badges, make more money, invent new things, doing a record, have a band, do something new, and I could never do enough to be satisfied and I didn’t even know that that focus on doing was in the way of me having a full experience as a human being.”
Your 10-word take on food addiction ”It really exists. It’s really treatable. It’s much more difficult than most people think and we need to have enormous support for recovery for food addiction like we do for drugs and alcohol.”
Ok. Now, you’ve alluded to this, a lot of people say it doesn’t exist. How do you know it does? ”Well, first of all I know that I became powerless over food. I was a high achiever. High will, high motivation, high brights, and I was never able to control my food and diet. Finally, I didn’t know this at the time, it got to the place where the disease took me down and made it even impossible for me to work anymore. Much like alcoholism and drug addiction does. That’s how I learned. Then I learned that you could recover from it if you treated yourself as a food addict. That proved it. Whatever they called it, I was going to do that and then I found we could teach that to other people who were having trouble, and then the science came out. It’s an enormous body of science. I think that’s easier to convince other people who are not themselves food addicts in recovery. But I’m convinced because of my own experience in recovery.”
Can you talk a little bit more about that? ”It turned out that scientists were not looking for food addiction. I think that they were looking for the basic idea of what was going on biochemically around obesity and they discovered addiction almost by default. It kept showing up from all different angles — genetic research, rat research, human brain research, endocrinological research. The thing that seems to have convinced the scientists the most is that they did a series of tests on food addiction, just like they had done on alcohol and drug addiction, and these are the types of tests you have to do to have a medicine approved. So they were gold standard trials with all the bells and whistles and it turns out it was positive on all levels. Sugar was just as addictive, sometimes more so, than cocaine, alcohol and other addictive drugs and then part of that research was to start doing brain scans of the rat brains. Then that was moved into scans of human brains. And it turns out that brain scans of people who are out of control eating look exactly like those of an alcoholic or a drug addict and that seems to convince a doctor in a second.”
Is there a compendium, either a book or a place people can go, to to read this research? ”Yeah. I worked with the international advisory board of the Food Addiction Institute and we have a paper on the Food Addiction Institute website called “Physical Craving and food Addiction,” a survey of the research and it covers all of what I said and more. It’s well documented, well footnoted, and pretty readable.”
How did you get into treating food addiction? ”I was unable to work. I was fired from McDonald’s and I found a place that was a treatment center — I didn’t know [centers] existed for food addiction — a very excellent one, Glenbeigh Psychiatric Hospital of Tampa. They hired me as a frontline counselor, so I considered it a recovery job, just like an alcoholic might work in a treatment center after getting a couple of years of recovery. It turned out I was good at it.”
How many clients have you treated? ”I really stopped counting. We counted up over 4,000. Those are middle- and late-stage food addicts, but I think it’s up over five [thousand] now.”
Something basic that, as a body of people, they have taught you ”One is that when they get completely abstinent of all of their binge foods — that’s sometimes easy, sometimes difficult — they have withdrawal and then the cravings go away. Second, that very few people can, at the level of the disease that I have, do this without what Mark Cheren calls extraordinary support. The 12-Step programs can provide that if you learn how to use them well. And third, the phenomenon of food addiction denial is extraordinary.”
Something that has changed faster than you expected ”I was surprised that all of a sudden when the science was kind of put out, everybody started using the [term] food addiction. I can still remember about six or seven years ago, I’d never heard the word food addiction used on television, and all of a sudden everybody was using the word. It’s good is that everybody pretty much accepts that food addiction exists now, but the bad news is they don’t really understand what that means or how to treat it.”
Something that has changed slower than you would have expected? ”It’s this issue of food-addiction denial. I’m working on a book now, I should plug. I’ve got a book out on food-addiction food plans and I’ve got one inventorying food slips coming out and a couple of others plus our book “Food Junkies” with [Dr.] Vera Tarman. But there’s no research on food-addiction denial. I just find that incredible.”
Is there research on alcohol-addiction denial or other substance-denial? ”I don’t even know that.”
Something obvious that too many people miss? Things that even food addicts miss? ”The thing that even food addicts miss is that when they’re binging— in my case on 79 specific foods — there were only 4 substances involved in all of them (sugar, flour, excess fat, sometimes caffeine and sometimes artificial sweetener). It was real obvious. The easiest way to understand food addiction is to identify the foods, get them out, and if the cravings go away, you are now on track to deal with the underlying problem.”
Something about you that would surprise your associates ”I’m a jazz pianist. I love jazz. I listen to it and play jazz piano.”
Tell me something you’re a little sheepish about ”I was always shy — partly because I was fat, partly because I was such a nerd.”
Something you think you should have done better ”I don’t know if I could have, but I think I should have learned to be able to be more honest, more direct, more vulnerable, and be able to work with people more.”
Something you’re really proud of ”I think right now it’s this series of publications. I’m working on a series of eBooks, there will be about 10, they are built kind of as the next step after “Food Junkies,” which is a general introduction to food addiction: dealing with food plans; what to do if you have a break in abstinence; how to be effective if you’re in a 12-Step organization.”
Something you still struggle with ”I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I struggle with my work addiction. I think I have trouble being rather than doing. I’m 75 now and I’m still acting as if I’m a 20, 30 or 40 year old. Thinking I’m going to keep going into my 80s and 90s, and I might. But my eyes are failing and lots of health problems are emerging and I have less energy. I can’t stop working too much, which, in fact, is against my own health. I get addicted to adrenalin and I have an arrogance about not being willing to have other people guide me and direct me in what I should and shouldn’t do.”
I wondered about that when I heard you listing off all the 4-volume thing and the 10 eBooks., etc. ”Part of the problem, I should say, is not just me. It’s that when major insurance companies pulled out of food addiction and there was really no money for the level treatment that I do, we built an organization that does a workshop model and in residential workshops, but it’s outside the funding system of health insurance. The combination of the fact there was no health insurance and the fact that most food addicts started having problems with money, has meant that we’ve had to price our work at a level which has been hard to make a living. We’ve done it and I feel very grateful for that, but I get scared that we weren’t able to save enough money for health things. I’m not able to earn enough money to get help on these final books that I need. I just learned that funding for our friend Nicole Avena — she’s the leader in animal research on food addiction and has had government grants of over $100,000 every year so she gets her mice laboratory going, or whatever she calls it — stopped. It stopped. She’s starting to do research on issues of child obesity, the passing on of obesity and food addiction from mother to child, very critical stuff, and I’m thinking that I have to join the work to find a way that she can get her $100,000 a year so that can go on.”
While you’re still doing your 10 eBooks and your 10-volume and your funding for the institute and your own retirement? ”Yeah. Obesity is at least one-third, probably more like two-thirds, a problem of food addiction. Obesity can cause diabetes and can break the health system. It’s very important to figure out how to treat food addiction well and on a mass scale. There’s no interest in that just as a problem, except our little gathering of people in the Food Addiction Institute, that puts real pressure on everyone that’s doing the best work.”
Let’s shift gears a little bit. We’ve still got a few questions to go. A guilty pleasure? ”I would say food. I eat absolutely no sugar, no flour, every meal weighed and measured for 29 years. my weight is within 3 pounds after I lost over 80, but food is my greatest pleasure. After food, oh, my newest one, I’m really proud of this actually. I’m reading mystery novels and I love them. Sometimes I’d rather do that than do my work or even watch TV or something.”
Someone who deserves more recognition? ”I’m embarrassed because the first person who came up was me, because we were talking about this. But the answer is Ashley Gearhardt [of the University of Michigan], and Nicole Avena. She is a world renowned researcher, excellent presenter, who has really put herself out in this area. She’s written a textbook on how to do research on eating disorders and food addiction. You still can’t mention food addiction in the title, but it really is both, and she and Ashley need recognition.”
Someone who deserves less attention? ”Someone that I think needs less recognition, until he gets clearer about what food addiction really is, is Dr. Phil. Great journalist. Really good on eating disorders. But doesn’t get food addiction and doesn’t treat it seriously. We’ve talked to his people and they thought we were doing great work and we never hear from him.”
You called him a journalist. I don’t think that’s true. ”Yeah. Reality show host.”
What’s the question I should have asked you? ”You should have asked ‘How do you really communicate about food addiction?’ I would have said ‘I don’t know.’”
Last question. What’s the one thing you wish everybody would just get right? ”I think that my mission is to say not only does food addiction exist, but you’ve got to put abstinence first, you’ve got to have a support system and the medical system has to include treatment at the level we have for drugs and alcohol. It’s like the environment. It’s a scientific issue now but we aren’t doing anywhere enough about and it could take the country down. It could take the health system down.”
How do you know that a third of the people are obese, overweight, or food addicted? ”That’s what David Kessler’s numbers come out to be. He says that half of the people that are obese, a third of the people who are overweight and 20 percent of the people that are at healthy or normal weight are actually food addicted. Meaning, they have physical cravings and are losing control increasingly, in terms of dealing with food.”
Who is David Kessler? ”Wow. He’s a doctor and he was leading the Food and Drug Administration when we took on the problem of nicotine addiction and smoking and labeling cigarettes and all of the stuff that followed. He was [dean] of Yale Medical School. He’s written a book recently, two books, one on overeating, about this issue. It doesn’t say it quite with the edge I say it about food addiction. He’s looking for a language that people can understand, but a great man. A great man and a person to be taken seriously.”

Werdell had full approval of the edits constituting this post. You can always view the complete interview, if you have any concerns.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
make investments in employee wellbeing that pay off in corporate success.
Video | Services | Clients