Different triggers, remedies for overeating

Some people I know — including myself, of course — self-identify as food addicts. Other people I know have many of the same symptoms and problems, but they self-identify as compulsive eaters. There are lots of other names, too: problem eater, emotional eater, night eater, binger, grazer, and so on.

The question is, are they all the same thing, or even the same thing “more or less,” and the answer is a strong, declarative “no.” The great distinction among all these is that food addicts have a physical component to their problem that the others don’t: Just like alcoholics and drug addicts, food addicts are more likely to ingest substances that threaten their long-term health when they have recently ingested them.

Let’s get that really straight: Other factors being equal, a drug addict who has been clean for an extended period is less likely to pick up than someone who shot up or snorted last night. An alcoholic who drank yesterday is more likely to drink today than someone who’s been on the wagon for a decent interval. Same with food addicts, of course, though yes, that condition is complicated by food-specific factors I don’t want to sidetrack into right now.

Not all troubled eaters, of course, are food addicts. Some people merely have bad habits. Others are covering up a trauma, either from childhood or more recently. There are other reasons for obesity, I’m sure.

The good news for the former group is that if they change their habits — having an occasional dessert instead of after every meal, for instance — they can leave the problems brought by the bad habits behind.

The good news for the latter group is that if they work through the trauma, instead of covering it up with a substance, they too can escape the problems their actions were bringing while continuing to eat the full range of foods they used to. If they were obese, then yes, they’ll have to control their portions better, but that issue is separate from substance control.

But the prevailing opinion about addiction, which is certainly reflected in my evaluation of my experience, is that once someone identifies a substance or substances as being addictive for them, there is no going back. Better habits can help, but they won’t make the substance “unaddictive.”

Here’s a prime point that I wish I’d not taken 380 words to get to: People who have biochemical sensitivity to some foods or food products or volumes of food — food addicts — can ALSO a) have bad food habits and/or b) eat over trauma. Being a food addict doesn’t inoculate me for compulsive eating, for example.

Say I’m the latter, that trauma underlies my overeating AND that I’m a food addict. Unlike other “trauma eaters,” (that’s not a term; just made that up), I can work through my trauma in therapy and still have biochemical sensitivities. This is no more controversial than saying that I have black hair and a winning smile — two traits that can exist in the same person, with different though possibly related implications.

Additionally, one of these non-nutritional eating triggers could lead to developing an addiction. This is analogous to someone drinking occasionally, with varying intensity, over months or years, and then discovering that they can no longer stop when they want. This is where substance abuse becomes substance addiction.

How does one know which one, or which combination, one has? Well, first, by acknowledging that one’s actions are having unplanned, unwelcome effects and beginning to ask the questions. Then, there are plenty of groups that address these very questions. Many are listed in the resources section of my book’s website: fatboythinman.com/resources.


Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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