The Sisterhood of the Shrinking Jeans LLC – Eating Right Because Our Jeans Are Too Tight


Anyone who has  tried to leave a bag of Oreo cookies untouched in the cupboard, or hasn’t been able to stop eating a delicious restaurant meal, even after they’re full, can affirm that it certainly feels like an addiction. What else could account for otherwise smart, reasonable people wanting desperately to eat when they don’t need to? Or explain why overweight diabetics would continue to sneak sugary snacks when they are fully aware of the health consequences?

Science isn’t completely sold on the idea yet, although more and more brain research is showing many similarities between what certain types of food and drugs do to our brains. The basic idea behind addiction is that particular areas of the brain are activated by a substance (the trigger), release pleasure hormones (most research focuses on dopamine) and then develop a tolerance to that trigger. Sugar ingestion lights up the same neuronal pathways in the brain as heroin and cocaine. To make matters worse, hyper-palatable foods*, high in sugar and fat, reduce the sensitivity of the dopamine receptors in the brain, which means that over time, you need to eat more and more sugar and fat to get the same amount of pleasure. Sure sounds like an addiction, doesn’t it?

Some aren’t convinced. One group arguing against the idea of food addiction is the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is financed by the restaurant and food industry. “People aren’t holding up liquor stores to get their hands on Twinkies,” said Rick Berman, executive director of the CCF. The restaurant and food industry is vehemently against any suggestion that they may have culpability in American’s weight problems by feeding them highly addictive combinations of sugar and fat.

People might not be holding up liquor stores to get Twinkies, but that could be only because they don’t have to. Access to junk food is extremely easy and cheap. Also, eating sugar and fat, while pleasurable, doesn’t lead to the consciousness alteration that alcohol leads to, so fewer jobs are lost and fewer families destroyed. Those behind the addiction model of overeating, though, argue that food addiction can result in severe health consequences and mental health problems, including depression.

Other groups that are against the idea of food addiction are afraid that if too much emphasis is placed on the addictive qualities of overeating, it will overshadow socio-economic contributors to obesity, such as poverty and education levels. While obesity is definitely a complicated issue, when you look at the density of fast food restaurants and the scarcity of healthy food in the higher poverty areas, it makes sense that obesity would be greater in these areas since we’re making addictive substances so easy to get. Grocery and health food stores are harder to get to, but fast food and liquor stores are on every corner.

Most of us are familiar with the basic tenets of traditional addiction recovery – complete abstention from the problematic substance is necessary for recovery. Unfortunately, we can’t abstain from food. But some groups believe that certain foods are particularly problematic, and should be eliminated. Food Addicts Anonymous prescribes a diet completely free of sugar (including artificial sweeteners), wheat and gluten. They suggest that by abstaining from these three groups, most cravings are eliminated, and therefore, most compulsive behaviors halted.

There are several groups that use the 12-step model from Alcoholics Anonymous to address food addiction: CEA-HOW, Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous treat food addiction like a drug or alcohol addiction, although their ideas of what constitutes abstinence vary.

If you want to read a more in-depth analysis of research on food addiction, including the success rates of different programs, take a look at The Food Addiction Institutes’ Physical Craving & Food Addiction – A Scientific Review. Although some of the research they review is their own, and they have a bias towards supporting the food addiction model, it’s a good summary of the research in this field so far.

*For more on  food companies’ use of hyperpalatable foods, read Dr. David A. Kessler’s “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite” (Rodale). Dr. Kessler is the former head of the Food and Drug Administration.

Tags: addiction, featured, MIND IT

Category: MIND IT, Psychology of Weight-loss