The best treatment for food addiction – there is no straight answer to this question

With food addiction becoming widely recognized as a type of physical illness, more questions about treating people who suffer from such an addiction are being raised.

Even though food addiction is still not officially a medical diagnosis, a study at Harvard Medical School found that there are actually physical and chemical changes in the brain’s reward and craving system when “bad” carbohydrates are consumed, which, according to the Doctors in the study was very similar to the changes which occur in patients with other addictions.

Watch the episode “Sugar – A Sweet Addiction” from the series “The Skinny on Obesity”:

The problem with treating food addiction is that the person suffering from it cannot fully abstain from eating, as opposed to alcoholics who can abstain from drinking any kind of alcohol, or drug addicts who can abstain from any kind of illegal drugs. The thing is, people need to eat in order to live, so full abstinence from eating is not an option for those addicted to eating. Eating in moderation or replacing the foods which cause cravings and binging with healthier choices which don’t are some of the options for treatment.

Some people have claimed to have overcome their addiction to food by eating according to a diet plan in moderation and exchanging “bad” foods for “good” ones, just like heroin addicts exchange heroine with the “better” alternative methadone.

Others decide to handle the problem physically by undergoing Bariatric surgery like: gastric bypass or ring surgery to physically stop the organism from accepting more food than what is enough, just like some alcoholics choose to have antabuse implanted, which causes nausea when alcohol is consumed.

Some nutritionists and psychologists actually advise their patients suffering from food addiction to actually keep the foods they are addicted to in their diet, in order to avoid feeling deprivation which can cause them to relapse and slip back into the cycle of binge eating and other problems associated with this type of addiction. They focus on treating the psychological motivation behind the binge eating or eating unhealthy food, and try to teach the patients to change the unhealthy foods with healthy ones.

These programs, usually involve some sort of “reward system” where the person gets to treat himself or herself with a reward often consisting of a forbidden food, for certain goals accomplished, such as reaching a certain weight.

The fact is that there is no one right way to fight food addiction. There are psychologists, who are specialized in dealing with patients suffering from such problems as compulsive eating or other problems associated with being addicted to certain types of food or to eating.

Just like AA, there are programs like Food Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters anonymous and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, who all encourage their members to follow the 12-step program used for resolving all other addictions, but the first group also requires their members to follow a diet plan abstain from problem foods, including refined flour and wheat as well as sugar, or as they have put it: “We ask for help from our Higher Power to abstain from those substances we find ourselves craving, ever mindful of our addiction to sugar, flour and wheat. Feeding our bodies with a plan of sound nutrition will allow us freedom from the insanity of this disease. With honesty, an open mind, and willingness to share our experience, strength and hope, we can recover from this disease – ONE DAY AT A TIME.”

And just as with all the other addictions, there are specialized rehab and treatment facilities for people suffering from food addiction, to help them overcome the withdrawal and the controlled diet plan and all the physical and emotional challenges involved with treating it.

So, one key question is – does beating food addiction require full abstinence, or can food addiction be cured through moderation? And more importantly, can eating in moderation be an option for a person known to suffer from food addiction?

First of all, we need to keep reminding ourselves that food addiction is really an addiction, just like: alcoholism, drug abuse or gambling. And just like those types of addiction are known to be best treated through full abstinence in most parts of the world, probably the same thing goes for food addiction too.

More experts, programs and food addicts themselves have found that moderation is not a solution to the problem, so they choose to treat food addiction through full abstinence from the unhealthy foods triggering the problem. The Food Addiction Institute absolutely dismisses the idea of treating food addiction through moderation, because according to them like all addicts, food addicts tend to lie about their addiction and “abuse”, and it is very likely that a person who is suffering from food addiction will lie to their doctor or councilor about the actual food pattern they are following and the emotions they are feeling during therapy. Another argument against treating this disorder through moderation, according to the Institute is the fact that often food addicts have lost hope that they will ever be cured, so they quickly lose faith and slip back to the addiction, and their third argument against the moderation treatment is the fact that the sponsors – those recovered addicts and people who have actually truly beaten this addiction are the greatest inspiration and support for those starting the 12-step program.

Once again, the problem is that food addiction still is not officially accepted as a disease, just like gambling wasn’t a couple of decades ago. We will have to wait for years for this to happen, the problem is that the percentages of people suffering from food related disorders and obesity is growing globally and the mortality rate related to this has increased. According to Addiction Hope, over 70 million adults in the US suffer from food addicition, and most need help, no matter the treatment they choose.

Most probably, just like with any other addiction, the “best treatment” will always cause disputes and arguments amongst addicts and experts.

The one thing we probably all will agree upon is that this type of overeating can lead to serious consequences (physical, emotional and psychological) and something has to be done to help people suffering from food addiction. But whatever treatment they choose, the first step will always remain – realizing that they have a problem, and willingness to resolve it. Often this means admitting it to themselves and to others.

9 thoughts on “The best treatment for food addiction – there is no straight answer to this question

  1. Here’s something which (generally speaking) seems to work for some people – instead of eating from a dinner sized plate, eat from a bread and butter sized plate. That way you must eat less. Just don’t pile it high and don’t go back for seconds.

  2. In my small opinion, the only thing that is going to fix the obesity epidemic is each individual person. No one, not the restaurants, doctors, dietitians and certainly not the Government, is going to change someone’s habits, feelings, dependence, misinformation and completely out of control eating than the person who is doing it. They have to want to change and they have to find out what is making them use food as a crutch in the first place.

  3. I’m in my late fifties, when I was growing up we always had portion sizes, just as we still do in our home. We grew up with this as most of us did, this is nothing new. Remember the 1/2 c. size dessert dishes for pudding or ice cream servings?

    We ate what we wanted but in portions and it was all real food, homemade food. We slowly ate and enjoyed it, no one wolfed their food down. We played outside, worked, did chores and kept moving. Peoples houses were cleaned, yards kept up and no one was lazy, we were busy living life and participating fully in it, not pretending to as a lot seem to do these days.

    I rarely ever saw a heavy person in those days, it was such an oddity mothers would tell their children don’t stare, it isn’t polite and you don’t want to hurt their feelings, we were also told that the person most likely had a medical problem that causes them to be this way because it was so rare.

    As an adult I’ve had to watch my weight and work at it to not let it get out of hand. It isn’t easy but it is a choice we all make, to do something about it or not.

  4. I am addicted to sugar, but not really the sweets and candy type. I could truly take or leave the sugary sweets. I am addicted to CARBS!

    When going out to eat, the main dish is not what I am salivating for… no, no, no… it is the bread that they put in front of you before you even order!

    I am all about the pastas, breads, tortillas,etc. I am week 3 of eating Paleo and that is definitely the hardest part of the diet. I have faltered a few times, but I continue to get back up and try again.

    I will beat this processed, sugary food addiction! I DO NOT eat breads, starches, and simple sugars!

    1. Bready carbs are definitely addicting! From a Italian who eats Paleo, I know exactly what you mean.

      I try to remind myself that it’s not actually the bread that I like as much as the texture of the bread with the flavors of the various oils, butters and sauces that go with it.

      Of course that sentiment doesn’t always hold up to a warm loaf of fresh bread from my local Italian market. Oh well.

      1. Try making your own bread, with spelt grain (or another older grain – the newer grains have much of the goodness bred out of them for the sake of longer shelf life, increased resistance to disease and weather, etc.), grinding it yourself and using raw (unpasteurised) honey as the sugar to go with the yeast. I promise it will satisfy your craving for bread and you won’t be able to overeat it!

  5. The US government actually set artificial quotas on the amount of sugar that can be imported for the benefit of a few domestic sugar farmers, thus raising the price of sugar which is another reason why companies go with the cheaper HFCS.

    It is one of the reasons you can get a “real” sugar coke in Mexico and not in the US.

    Regardless, reduced sugar in any form should be a priority for anyone looking to get healthy. I have cut out a lot of sugar, but I do have to admit though I have an addiction to Watermelon especially this time of year.

  6. I consider myself a sugar addict and I have been this way since I was a kid. I don’t know where to begin with this. I’ve eaten healthy before, I went about 80% paleo for a month about a year and a half ago and I went down to 135 lbs. I am now 170 lbs. I keep telling myself I can change, but don’t do anything to make it happen.

    I am constantly thinking about changing my diet and lifestyle for the better. And the more I think about it the more stressed and anxious I become so then I go to sugar to feel safe again. I use it as a way to cope with change.

    It feels like I’m in a fog. Like I don’t see things clearly when I’m eating all this sugar. I justify it by saying to myself “My situation is not that bad, eating healthy is not that important.”

    Long story short: it sucks!

    I will use the tips in this article to reduce my sugar intake. I will especially will be mindful of WHY I choose to give in to my cravings and figure out what emotional need I am trying to meet.

    Thanks for the article.

    Amelia C.

    1. I really resonate with what you describe about feeling stressed and anxious about changing my diet and turning to my old ‘friend’ sugar for comfort. Often, despite good intentions I don’t manage to engage my brain until I’m staring at the empty wrapper, then I feel so ashamed and hopeless the whole cycle starts again.

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