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Why Does Everyone Want To Be A "Food Addict?"

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In my work, I find that one of the most common explanations people give for their struggle with diets and with obesity is “I’m a food addict.” When asked what this means, most people explain that their inability to maintain the weight lost from diets and the fact that most or all of the weight eventually returns is proof of their “food addiction.” Additional evidence they cite is that their eating is “all or nothing,” that they can completely avoid so-called “forbidden foods” or binge on them with regularity, but nothing in between.

This kind of reasoning is called reasoning from the converse. This is where you have a conclusion or an end state and you then go backwards to explain the cause and use the existence of the end state as proof of the cause. This invariably leads to circular logic that goes nowhere. Here’s how it works: “I am a food addict which explains why I cannot moderate my intake of certain foods, and my inability to moderate my intake of certain foods proves that I am addicted to them and am therefore an addict.” But does it? There is actually another, more accurate explanation.

There are three facts that must be considered:

1) 95% of people will regain most or all of the weight they have lost on a diet within five years.

2) Many, if not most diets teach avoidance of “forbidden foods,” not moderate consumption of them.

3) Very few diets or weight loss regimens are successfully maintained indefinitely.

These facts are very important to our discussion because they are true for almost EVERYONE who has tried to lose a significant amount of weight. Therefore, either everyone who has failed to keep their weight off following a diet or eventually resorts to eating “forbidden foods” is a “food addict” or there are other explanations for this phenomenon.

But why is it that so many of the people I meet are eager to call themselves “food addicts?” Most people are uncomfortable acknowledging that they are addicted to alcohol or illicit substances such as cocaine or heroin, so why is being a so-called “food addict” easier to acknowledge? I believe it is because the label “food addict” removes the feelings of guilt and shame that so many people experience when they regain weight after all of the work they expended in losing it. It is absolutely heartbreaking to lose the weight, have people notice that you’re thinner and then a year later you’ve regained the weight and everyone knows it. It would be very tempting to blame this on a disease called “addiction.” “It’s not my fault that I regained the weight and am obese again…I’m a food addict.” I can certainly understand the desire to be free from responsibility from your obesity or weight regain; however, it’s not necessary to fall back on the explanation that you are a “food addict.” Perhaps if we looked at the facts about weight loss, there would be no need for all of the guilt and shame and the resulting need to explain it away by calling it an addiction.

Review the facts that I mentioned earlier. The overwhelming majority of people regain the weight they have lost from a diet, very few diets teach moderate eating of “forbidden foods” (so you’re left with only knowing how to eat them or not eat them), and most people find it very difficult if not impossible to stay on a regimen of controlled eating for extended periods of time. These are the problems faced by almost all human beings who try to lose weight, not just those who are “food addicts!” So what is the explanation when someone actually succeeds in losing weight and keeping it off? Great question…and the answer is not that these rare souls are not “food addicts” or that they are “recovered food addicts.”

The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is an organization that keeps tracks of “successful weight losers” who have lost 30 pounds or more and have kept it off for at least one year. What should immediately catch your eye is that “success” is defined as losing 30 pounds and keeping it off for one year. So if losing 30 pounds and keeping it off for one year is considered “successful,” if you’re morbidly obese and manage to lose 100 pounds and keep that off for several years that would be incredibly successful! Extensive research has been done on these folks over the years and the most recent study has discovered 7 common habits which most of the 6,000 people studied have in common. 6,000 participants in a study is a strong number of people and one where the conclusions drawn are likely very robust.

Interestingly, the researchers noted that 90% of the folks in this study who finally lost the weight and kept if off had a previous history of losing weight and putting it back on. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of people were not successful on their first try. The seven habits of successful “losers” were: 1. Engaging in 200+ minutes of exercise of moderate intensity per week, 2. Limiting TV watching to less than 10 hours per week, 3. Eating a low-calorie, low-fat diet with less than 30% of calories from fat, 4. Consistency – relatively little food variety and the same daily pattern of eating, 5. Eating breakfast, 6. Avoiding emotional eating and binging and limiting consumption of fast food to less than once weekly and, 7. Monitoring yourself such as documenting calories and/or fat. Notice that every one of the seven habits is just that…a pattern of behavior. There is no mention of the characteristics of the 6000 people. It’s not about who they are, but rather what they did and continue to do.

So what do we make of this “food addiction?” Neuroscience is recognizing the difficulty human beings have in resisting certain foods that we can call “engineered foods” that are high in sugar, salt and other additives. These foods are designed by fast-food companies and food manufacturers to be irresistible because they cause certain reactions in the brain that make it hard for us to say no. But these are challenges for us all. In fact, mass consumption of these “engineered foods” is likely one of the great contributors to the obesity epidemic. They explain why we, as a society, are getting fatter. Perhaps we will discover that some individuals (for neurological or other reasons) have a more difficult time resisting these “engineered foods” enriched with sugar, salt and other additives, and that these individuals are the true “food addicts.” But what would knowing that you are one of these individuals change? What would a “food addict” do differently to lose weight and keep it off?

The addiction model says that the addict should completely abstain from using the substance or drug. Should “food addicts” avoid all food (impossible) or just the ones they are “addicted” to? And how would we know which ones those would be? The most commonly cited addictive “substance” in food is sugar, but we’re not at all certain. There is also another problem. Much of the research on binge eating indicates that designating certain foods as completely “forbidden” and avoiding them results in feelings of deprivation and their becoming even more desirable which often results in binging on them when you finally give into temptation.

Perhaps someday there will be treatments for true “food addicts” if “food addiction” actually exists. What is more likely however; is that these folks will simply have to work even harder than most of us to stick to the seven habits that are detailed above. In the meantime, consider giving up the label of “food addict” and instead, recognize that losing weight and keeping it off is a tremendous challenge, but an achievable one. If you’re thinking of beginning to address your own personal “battle of the bulge” either for the first time or the twentieth time, or if you’re feeling hopeless and thinking there is no point in even trying, fear not…most successful losers apparently made several unsuccessful attempts before they finally got it right. And if you are thinking of starting yet again…the seven habits detailed above are a great blueprint to follow.



I can only speak for myself, but I am most certainly a food addict. I don't think or see why anyone would "want" to be a food addict. I think it takes a lot of guts and courage to admit any kind of addiction.

In the simplest form, the reason I know that I am food addict is that here I am, I'm intelligant, I know exactly what causes me to be morbidly obese, I know exactly what ill effects this weight causes my body, intellectually I know what I can/should do to correct it (and have done it to the tune of 1,000 (yes, one thousand) pounds over 50 years (my parents took me to a diet dr. when I was 7), and yet here I am....powerless over food....and still morbidly obese.

I was very beautiful, and all this weight distorted my looks and robbed my self esteem. It has caused isolation and insecurity that I cannot even describe. I am invisible to most of the world. It is no fun not to be comfortable in your very own skin.

Yet, I'm am SO extremely scared to have any kind of weight loss surgery, I'm on the fence about having any at all. Close friends and relatives are scared for me have surgery, due to the inherent risks and complications. It is a HUGE decision. I am not overexagerating when I say it is the biggest decision I'll ever make and I am not making it or taking it lightly.

If other types of behaviors are addictive - such as illegal and prescription drugs, alcohol, smoking, gambling, sex, just to name a few - why not food?? It doesn't surprise me one iota. I live it everyday and so do lots and lots of others. It is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. It has basically ruined my life.

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On the other hand I choose to beat myself up for a lack of self control and willpower, believing using the term "food addict" to be a major cop out and avoidance of responsibility.

I really believe that for me - my bad eating habits stem from laziness, not caring about the consequences of indulgence at a particular point in time, and not being able to say no to overindulging in the wrong foods when the opportunity presents.

I mean, do I gorge on lettuce till I feel sick or eat enormous dinners? No. But I gleefully lick the cake bowl until I feel nauseous and then regret it. That's not an addiction, its stupidity.

I would hesitate to say there's no such thing as food addiction because I cant speak for others' experiences. But I know in my case and for many others, I'm just a piggy. I dont eat from the rubbish bin or eat til I vomit or truly binge.

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I agree with many points in your article, including the importance of an obese person taking responsibility for eating behavior rather than excusing it as a symptom of food addiction. But science is showing that certain food substances act on the brain the same was as some drugs do, and it's also showing that obesity is caused by a number of factors totally outside the person's conscious control. So I believe that food addiction exists. Maybe it needs a different label. What would you suggest?

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Good article and a lot to think about. I sometimes think about what I seem to experience as out of control. But the truth is I need to more fully concentrate on what is in my control.

Again, good article. A real thinker for me. Thanks.

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Admitting an addiction doesn't absolve you of responsibility, it simply means that you have greater self awareness. I personally don't have a problem with "Certain Foods", I have a problem with ALL foods. Did it occur to you that those "7 Habits" were simply the tools they used to battle their addiction, much as an alcoholic will use a 12 step program to battle their addiction?

Besides, if having to have WLS and and your GE system altered (band, sleeve, GB) to finally gain some control over my excess weight doesn't classify me as a "food addict" then I don't know what does. ;)

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Well Warren PhD..here I am..a BONIFIED sugar addict! full responsibility & no guilt, just fact. scientific actually. Great Doc I had.

MY PhD and I have worked very hard to come to the finale, the finish line if you will. it will never end, but I know where the line is now.

I had (and still do) trigger foods, and triggered sweets. Long long story short..We, together discovered my triggers, which lead to other triggers, which lead to other triggers. Once established, she left it up to me, to either disregard the Pasta's,breads & chocolates (refined carbs) altogether, or learn discipline and moderation. I chose to not have sugar or process flour products in my life. That's discipline, not willpower.

You are right about the 7 rules. . 6 out of 7 I do religiously, and I am also a case study in my area for a nation wide obesity study. My surgery was 3/1/2010-Gastric. I wanted my sugar/pasta 'addiction' under my control before I had my surgery. If having a 'politically correct' word for food addicts makes you PhD's feel self important for coining a new phrase for the Webster dictionary, by all means, give a prettier name. But I know what I am, I have live it for a very long time. Now I don't, but it will always be there with me, just like an alcoholic or a drug or sex addict.

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Doctor, this is an informative article. I totally agree that overeaters need to take responsibility for their habits and behaviors and not resort to excuses. But what of the OA model based on the 12 Steps? I know that doctors are scientifically minded but many appreciate and recommend this program for drug addiction, alcoholism, and many other addictions as you know. "food Addiction" does often exist in the form of compulsive overeating where not willpower is called to be employed, but surrender to the fact that food addicts are powerless over their "drug of choice"--food. How to perform this tricky feat when we all need food to survive? The 12 Steps are a prescription for living that indeed any individual can use to create a better quality of life. In my own experience, having the VSG done is only one of a variety of tools I use to treat my disease of addiction. I use a spiritual connection, a community of like-minded individuals in recovery, and abstinence from the thoughts and behaviors that cause me to overeat---not just avoiding triggers. It's work, yes--difficult, but doable, and only one day at a time. I personally have to "abstain" from certain foods, yes, but also from my tendency to eat over stress, celebration, depression, what have you. I can no longer use food as a substance, not unlike a drug, to avoid feeling. Not if I want to survive, have a good life, and enjoy good health. So, the points in your article are great, especially those 7 things successful people do to maintain weight loss. However, I feel that addressing the underlying causes of overeating (including the engineered foods that foster addiction outright) as well as the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings are key to not only losing weight but keeping it off and managing addiction. Addiction will always be with me, but I can live my life not being controlled by it any longer. I just have to pick up the tools and use them.

That's just my two cents! Thanks for the article.

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I am a binge eating addict. food addict for short. I am in remission because I have changed my behaviors and because my band helps with the physical hunger.

I am recovering in OA just like a gambler recovers in GA.

I don't "want" to label myself a food addict, but there you go.

I'd lost 130 pounds many years ago but couldn't keep it off. The reasons behind me reaching for food were never addressed. And the one year definition of success? I call BS on that. I'll battle this addiction my whole life.

It gets easier the longer I practice new habits and don't indulge in binging or sport eating, as another BP poster calls it. But that draw will ALWAYS be there for me. And once I indulge it, I slide down the slippery slope, and it becomes almost impossible to halt. That's addiction, sir.

I found this article insulting and aggravating because it does contain helpful behavioral techniques. So I'll take what l liked and leave the rest.

With all due respect, I find this to be an oddly contentious article to have been posted here on BariatricPal.

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I wonder if the good doctor has ever been fat. Has he ever struggled to not eat what he knows is not good for him? Sort of like an alcoholic knows a drink is not good for him.

My eyes (and brain) light up like the Empire State Building when I pass a restaurant and think about the wonderful things cooking away in it. I have no issue walking past a liquor store, a casino, or saying no thanks to a friend passing the weed...

Shall I continue?

I take full responsibility for my situation. So much so that I talk to my therapist about it constantly. This does not mean I am not a food addict. Substitute food for any other addiction, and that's me. Eating in secret? Not being able to stop even when you know you are so full that you want to throw up? Eating things that will keep you up at night with GERD and having your throat burn with it? If that's not addiction, I don't know what is.

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Great article. Informative and 100 percent accurate. I used to smoke. 25/day.

I would pick cigarettes off the ground, in ashtrays and from the garbage in my numerous attempts to quit. I quit 2.5 years ago, thank Goodness. and I still

dream about them. not THAT is an addiction. Not food.< /p>

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food addiction is a way of saying you have an eating disorder. Is bulimia or binge eating made up? Mine isn't.

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I appreciate the article and realize that changing behavior and consequences really is about making better choices that become habits. But the definition of an addiction is when something sincerely interferes with your life functioning and you want to stop but can't. That is how food can be with me. My knees hurt and I want to lose weight but hard to implement hours on the treadmill when one's mobility is so limited. I think and hope that the sleeve will give me a great tool, that will set me up for about 6 months of good habits and then after that it is up to me not to go down the slippery slope. And actually I had a dear friend who I found out had been an IV drug user for 30 years. They really wanted to quit and had wanted to for several years, but they didn't have the tools. I connected them with the tools and they quit. Not cold turkey mind you but they did it. My friend also quit smoking as well. I was so proud of my friend, but then realized that I needed to focus on me and my own recovery from my addiction.

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