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Food addiction: fact or fiction?

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Elisa Zied is a nutritionist whom I just located through the great blog on obesity called Weighty Matters, authored by an Ottawa-based physician and obesity specialist named Yoni Freedhoff. Through this article on food addiction on Zied’s personal blog, I discovered this other post on the topic on a different website. From that post comes the following:

According to Sunny Sea Gold, author of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug, “Food hasn’t been proven to be addictive in the same way drugs are; the science isn’t quite there yet.” But Gold, who overcame binge eating disorder, does believe that people can use food just like they would alcohol, drugs, or sex. “They can become dependent on food as a distraction, as a coping mechanism, and as something they comfort themselves with…I know I did” she adds.

I don’t have any doubt that certain people do have full-blown addictive behaviours around food. I know that I have had them in the past. Also, the author’s assertion that the science isn’t quite there yet is, I believe, now incorrect. Recent research using functional MRI has shown that the same parts of the brain light up in obese subjects when they consume extremely calorie-dense foods that do in drug addicts when they get high themselves. From that, I infer that food can incite similar neurochemical reactions in certain people that narcotics or opiates do in others.

My personal experience has been that when food has become a truly addictive substance in my life, I’ve needed to abstain from it as I would any other drug. Of course, you can’t abstain from food per se, but you can certainly undergo a nutritional detox wherein you eat whole, unprocessed foods with no added sugar, excess salt or fat for a number of days to see what happens to your body.

Whenever I’ve done that, I’ve undergone genuine withdrawal symptoms such as severe headaches, irritability, and even some joint pain. But the feeling that comes after even a few days of eating no added sugar, fat, and salt can be pretty remarkable. I feel uncommonly refreshed and well-rested when I awaken in the morning, and it doesn’t take me a half-hour of slow movement to work the stiffness out of my joints. My mind is clearer and sharper throughout the day, and I just feel better generally.

For someone in the throes of their addiction, this exercise is much easier said than done. That’s why psychotherapy can play an important role in this process. I’m sure it’s rare that someone who is addicted to food hasn’t developed their addiction through mindless eating behaviours tied to various emotional or psychological precursors. Some form of inward-looking talk therapy—or even substantive personal journaling—is required to break up the mental logjam in our minds, and to develop authentic awareness around the reasons why we’re overeating in the first place.

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