An 18-year veteran of at least ten diet programs, Joy actually referred to herself as a “professional dieter.” Having lost several hundred pounds over the years, Joy had the weight loss part down pat. Her trouble, like everybody else, was staying there. Following one successful diet, Joy’s group celebrated her success for reaching her weight loss goal of 65 pounds in just nine months. Joy received congratulations all around and felt a flush of pride at her accomplishment. Of course, she would keep the weight off this time—she had worked so hard, right down to the last two days before the weigh-in when she ate nothing but crackers and tea in order to make her goal. As Joy left the meeting, a thought struck her, Why not stop at the bakery? I’ve been so good. A donut won’t hurt. I deserve a little reward. The next thing she knew, Joy was sitting in her car in her driveway, shoving donuts into her mouth, swallowing them so fast she thought she might choke. Finishing the 12-pack, Joy knew she was addicted to food. She couldn’t find any other explanation for her behavior.
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Some people sure act like food addicts. Maybe you’re one of those who’ve earned the diagnosis. But, recall the research with starved normal weight volunteers that showed that these thin individuals experienced total preoccupation with food as well as other symptoms typically experienced by dieters, like cravings for fat producing foods, general apathy and depression. It appears that starvation provokes serious physical and psychological symptoms and that you can actually produce the symptoms of “food addiction” in people who are not and never have been addicted to food, by starving them for a while. If one definition of addiction focuses on the development of withdrawal symptoms, then really, wouldn’t we all be considered food addicts? Certainly, everyone would suffer withdrawal if food were withheld. And wouldn’t just about anyone who was half-starved, when food was finally there, be liable to overeat, even binge?
How did the idea of food addiction get started? It is a relatively new notion. The term didn’t exist until dieting took a firm hold on our culture. Today, food addiction is a favorite term overweight people and even professionals use to diagnose people who eat too much, binge, and choose all the “wrong” food. Many of us have been taught that obese people eat too much because they are addicted to food, unlike people who don’t eat too much. Although it’s a handy diagnosis to use to explain seemingly inexplicable behavior, food addiction is a misleading idea. The term is especially useful for thin people who have never experienced the typical diet cycle and all the crazy, compulsive eating that go with it.
Sally had dieted off and on for nearly 14 years. She was positive she was addicted to chocolate, and to sweets in general. Whenever she went through a disappointment, emotional struggle or frustration, she found herself eating boxes of chocolate chip cookies, pints of ice cream, candy bars and M&Ms. With the help of multitudes of diet gurus and movie star bingers, she concluded that she was a classic emotional overeater.
Multitudes embrace this false explanation for overeating, including famous people. The theory behind emotional overeating seems logical because bouts of bingeing are often accompanied by emotional distress of some kind. But do heavy emotions and excessive eating really have a direct cause/effect relationship? Just because they show up at about the same time doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other. Well, what about the multitudes of testimonies about emotional upheaval and terrific binges? Just one visit to any diet support group will convince you that there is indeed a relationship between these experiences. Most dieters will attest to a tendency to overeat under stress or heavy emotions. The evidence is so overwhelming, how can anyone deny it?