Tag Archives: food

Is There Such a Thing as Food Addiction?

As one of the featured Mental Health and Addictions experts on www.ChooseHelp.com, I’m frequently asked about such issues as depression, panic disorders, alcoholism and drug addiction. Today, I was asked about addiction to sugar. Right down my alley.

(The author is a psychotherapist who lost 140 lbs. when he discovered Therapeutic Psychogenics,  and he’s kept it off for over 25 years. Read about his method of fast permanent weight loss and the clients who have used them by clicking on the menu above.)

Here is the question that was posed: “Can people really get addicted to sugar? I swear if I try to go a day without sugar I am craving like crazy for it, but I never thought that it was like a real addiction, like cocaine or heroin etc. If it is a real addiction, do you have to give it up to get sugar-sober, like an alcoholic?”

Here’s my answer: Trust your gut on this, food addiction is real and sugar is the worst.

While I have expertise with other mental health issues and all addictions, food addiction and weight control are my specialties, so I’m going to give you a thorough answer.

Food addicts have been telling people about food addiction for years and have been largely rejected by everyone, even addiction “experts”. However, the evidence is in and it is overwhelming. People get addicted to food. Brain imaging scans show that the brain activity that occurs with sugar is the same activity that occurs with cocaine and heroin. The activity that occurs with sugar thoughts and cravings is the same that occurs with cocaine thoughts and cravings. It isn’t your imagination. It is real.

However, even though some people needed pictures of brain activity to be convinced, anyone paying attention to clinical diagnostics and the experience of compulsive overeaters and binge eaters should have seen the obvious ages ago: some people have the same addiction experience with food as you see with addictive drugs.

Here’s the list of criteria that’s used to diagnose substance dependence in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the official publication of the American Psychological Association. Substance Dependence is the clinical term for addiction:

  1. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: (a) A need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or the desired effect or (b) Markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.
  2. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: (a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance or (b) The same (or closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
  3. The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended.
  4. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.
  5. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance, use the substance, or recover from its effects.
  6. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use.
  7. The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance (for example, current cocaine use despite recognition of cocaine-induced depression or continued drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by alcohol consumption).

One must have three of these things occur in a one-year period to make the diagnosis. Many “foodies” have had more than three of these things for years, continuously. Food addiction is real and it is common. The foods that are most often cited are sugar, salt, and fatty foods. We are prone to get addicted to anything highly pleasurable or palatable.

Now, to the more complex part of your question: Must one abstain totally from the addictive food to solve the problem, as one does with alcohol or cocaine in order to recover?

It’s impossible. Refined sugar would be possible to avoid, but sugar is a naturally occurring nutrient that exists in many foods. You can’t eliminate it completely unless you stop eating all together! Adding to the complexity is that we are hard wired to experience pleasure when we eat, regardless of the food. The pleasure centers of our brain are activated when we eat or do anything that feels good, which is why people get addicted to lots of things like gambling, sex and video games, to name a few, not just drugs. In fact, some people are addicted to food, regardless of what’s in it. It’s not the sugar, salt, or fat. It’s the chewing and swallowing of any food that they are addicted to.

This is why overeating is the trickiest of the addictions to recover from. With drugs, we lock the beast out, but with food, we let it back in every day.

People who have a particularly difficult problem with a particular food (you know what they are) will need to eliminate them from the house and their routine, but that won’t solve the food addiction problem. There will still be problems with other foods. If you eliminate refined sugar, things will be better, but the addiction will remain.

Successful therapy for food addiction targets management, not total abstinence. My successful therapy for permanent weight loss is based on the addiction model, but our goal is not abstaining. It can’t be. Our goal is a managed behavior, and we are successful with a highly structured program of eclectic therapy, more than we can describe here. You can learn more about it at my website, http://www.TheAndersonMethod.com .

In Behavioral Medicine, the traditional way to extinguish addictive substance use behavior is to totally shut down the experience of reward with the substance, to totally abstain.  Then, the flame that drives the addiction dies off. Need, cravings and obsessions die away. That’s why they call it extinguishing. But with food, this is not possible. So with food addiction, another solution is needed. That’s what The Anderson Method is, radically different, a way to change the addiction to overeating to an addiction to healthy eating. Rather than trying to abstain, we are learning a new way to partake.

So the answer is yes, you can be addicted to food. And no, successful recovery is not a matter of abstaining completely, as it is with alcohol and cocaine. It’s more complicated than that. However, you can live with your food addiction, master it, and free yourself from its grip and the weight problems it causes. I was out of control with food and an obese diet failure for 25 years until I found the answer. Then I lost 140 pounds and I’ve maintained my success for over 25 years. Now I teach others. You may be a food addict, but you don’t have to be a slave to the addiction.


How do You Kill a Craving?

I’m the psychotherapist who discovered Therapeutic Psychogenics, a remarkable method to permanently lose weight,  when I solved my own 320 lb. weight problem over 25 years ago. I lost 140 lbs. for good after 25 years of obesity and failure with diets and exercise schemes. Now I teach The Anderson Method (www.TheAndersonMethod.com) to clients and other therapists, and I’ve helped thousands to solve their weight problem. Many clients have asked me “when did you stop having cravings and urges?” They think that because I have maintained my 140 lb. weight loss for 26 years, I must have found a way to eliminate the urges to eat.

Not so. What’s happened is that my response to urges and cravings, one of the techniques of Therapeutic Psychogenics, has become habitual, second nature. Now it is my habit to think in ways that reduce and kill cravings and urges. That’s one of the objectives of The Anderson Method. It has become so ingrained to think and act in ways to stay successful that it’s almost become easy. I’d say easy, but there is definitely a lot of work to be done to make success “easy”, and there will always be work to stay successful. However, like a job with huge rewards, it’s worth it. It’s even become fun, like a game I play and win at every day.

First, understand that for this method to work, all the pieces of the puzzle must be in place. Like a car made of many parts, you need all the parts in place for it to work. Leave out pieces like a wheel or a battery, and you’ll get nowhere. When you engage in the training that my book talks about, you’ll have put many important pieces in place before you would use the technique I’m going to describe. By itself, this technique has only a fraction of the power it has as a part of the whole. By itself, it will not cause you to lose weight. It will help, but there are other things you must be doing.

When you read about my method, you’ll learn that I have a “safe house” with none of the addictive snack or trigger foods that would call my name. Also, I have an effective plan every morning of what to eat that day, and a routine that I have thought about in the morning that accommodates my need for a satisfying eating experience, that provides pleasurable eating at my most vulnerable times. These are some of the techniques that are in place because of the method, that have become habitual,  just the way that I live today.

Now, when an urge pops up, I talk to myself, out loud if I’m alone, or in my head if I’m with people. I’ll say “Stop! that’s not in the plan. That would be overeating.  It would cause tight clothes and reflux that I hate. I don’t want that. I’m fasting until the omelette (or whatever your next meal is). I’m fasting, burning fat and losing weight, my clothes getting looser, moving toward my goal weight. If I give in to the urge, I’ll miss out on the good things that are happening. I’m going to hold off and keep burning fat.”

This “self-talk” is actually an application of several very sophisticated  cognitive, cybernetic and self-hypnotic psychotherapeutic techniques.  It seems childishly simple, but it’s actually state-of-the-art psychotherapy.

Every time I beat an urge, I congratulate myself. I realize that in the old days, I’d already have eaten the thing by the time I realize I passed on it. If I had let myself think about eating it for even a moment, instead of saying “Stop…”, I would have added another glob of fat to my stores, and have made things worse. So, I’m very happy that I beat the urge, that I’m still burning fat, and I dream about continuing to lose weight and enjoying all the things that the weight loss will bring, like looser clothes, being more active, being happier, etc.

This entire pattern of thinking and acting is a very carefully constructed pattern of behavior that kills cravings and creates motivation and drive to behave in ways that causes success. It may seem like child’s play, but it is actually time-tested powerful psychotherapy.

I also use “covert sensitization”, an aversive technique related to the self-talk where I associate the overeating with the negative properties of tight clothes, reflux or stretch marks, etc.  If I was tempted by a Big Mac for instance, instead of linking it with kids having fun, I’ll remember the workers in the back of the place spitting and piling snot on the burgers before they put the bun on top. Associating something negative or disgusting can kill the craving just enough to get by it and continue on your path to loose clothes and the next healthy meal you’ve planned on. And that’s all you need to succeed, success right now. It can become a habit, and when it does, your success is permanent.

You may need to do it again in five minutes, but the more you do it, the more it becomes your habitual way of thinking and acting, and with the rest of the pieces of The Anderson Method in place, it’s even fun, much more enjoyable that the old way. The food tastes better, no guilt, you feel better about yourself, and you enjoy all the benefits of success that you’ve been dreaming about.

For more information about my method and my book, go to www.TheAndersonMethod.com