(First published in The Huffington Post)
Have you ever thought of yourself as a food addict? If so, you are not alone.
Ask yourself these questions:
1) Do you find yourself craving and eating certain foods even though you’re not physically hungry?
2) Have you tried to have just a bit of something like ice cream or chips and find that you can’t stop, sometimes eating the whole box or bag?
3) Do you think about food constantly?
4) Do you try to cut back or abstain from overeating, repeatedly fail, and feel guilty or ashamed because of it?
5) Are there times when “too much is not enough” and you just can’t get enough?
6) Does your overeating cause you significant problems, yet you continue to do it, and can’t help yourself?
7) Does your eating get worse if you are stressed, anxious, angry or hurt?
8) Do you often feel angry or anxious if you try to limit your eating?
If you answered “yes” to more than a couple of these questions, you are like most of the clients who have come to me for help to lose weight. Like me, they had been told that diet and exercise were the answer to their weight problem. However, they just could not get themselves to diet and exercise for very long, if at all, before going back to their old ways. If they were able to lose a significant amount of weight, it wasn’t long before they put it back on.
Relax. You’re normal. You’re OK. But you might be a food addict.
In fact, it’s normal to be a food addict in America. Approximately 70 percent of us are overweight and 35 percent of us are clinically obese. And it’s not like we want to be. If fact, we spend billions on weight loss because we hate it. Yet we are still overweight and it’s getting worse.
In addiction counseling, there are often disputes with clients about whether or not they are an addict when they swear they are not. When I first started treating addictions, before I solved my own food and weight problem, an old alcohol counselor gave me his definition of an addict: An addict is a person who, when they indulge, it causes problems, yet they continue to indulge.
You see, if a person is normal and mentally healthy, and they find that some behavior is causing big problems in their life, they just stop, or change it so it no longer causes problems. For example, if you discovered that you were suddenly allergic to shellfish or peanuts and got sick every time you had it, you’d stop eating whatever you were allergic to. You don’t keep touching a hot stove.
But addicts don’t stop. They keep drinking or using even when it costs them their job, family and health, even when they try their hardest to stop. They keep smoking even when they know its damaging their lungs, even after they’ve tried to quit dozens of times. That’s the “insanity” and power of addiction. It prevents a person from stopping something they know is killing them. They are powerless. And often the addiction clouds their mind so they live in denial. I had a smoker on oxygen once tell me, “it’s not that bad” when we were talking about his COPD. An alcoholic told me he only had a “touch” of cirrhosis. I had one in jail on his third DUI tell me his drinking was really not a problem. If they were in their right minds and able to exercise their will and self-preservation instincts, they’d quit those addictions in a heartbeat. Normally, if you find that something you do is ruining your life and happiness, you stop. But addictions have a power over a person’s will and even their insight.
In America, we have a food addiction problem. It’s exacerbated by a culture that is in denial about it. We promote eating as a pastime and as a form of entertainment and important part of socializing and networking. We’ve convinced ourselves that enormous portions are normal and that overindulging is lighthearted fun. Meanwhile, the fact is that it is killing us.
I grew up overweight and spent years failing at diets. Like 35 percent of us I was obese, actually way more than obese, and I had every one of those behaviors I listed at the beginning of the article. I often joked about being addicted to Doritos and Oreos, but it was not until I started working with addicts and studying addictions and how to treat them that I realized I really was a food addict. And treating my problem as an addiction with behavior therapy finally solved my weight problem.
If you are a food addict, the routine approach using diets and exercise is not going to solve your problem. Neither will surgery. They won’t change what has to be changed because yours is not a weight problem. It’s a behavior problem, an addiction problem. And it won’t get fixed until you treat it as such.