Dr. Mark Hyman does not speak in polite euphemisms, but titles an essay in the bluntest terms, “Food Addiction: Could It Explain Why 70 Percent of Americans Are Fat?” Yes, it could! This is what Dr. Pretlow has been saying all along. There really is such a thing as food addiction, and the sooner we catch on to that fact and act accordingly, the better.
Borrowing a phrase from Michael Pollan, Dr. Hyman endorses the idea that food “made in a plant rather than grown on a plant” can be biologically addictive. In agreement with Dr. David Kessler and Dr. Pretlow, he believes that certain kinds of ersatz food are intentionally and clandestinely engineered to be as addictive as possible. Dr. Hyman says,
In his book The End of Overeating, David Kessler, M.D., the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, describes the science of how food is made into drugs by the creation of hyperpalatable foods that lead to neuro-chemical addiction.
Dr. Hyman is also certain that nobody sets out wanting to be an addict of any variety, whether the substance is alcohol, heroin, or pseudo-food made of fat, sugar, salt, and chemicals. He dismisses as humbug the notion that all food is created equal. Likewise, the “Just say no” approach is refuted.
Also, the “personal responsibility” jive that the food industry tries to lay on us is perceived as the same rationalization given by the most predatory of crack dealers: “Nobody forces them to buy the stuff.” Dr. Hyman asks us to perform a thought experiment:
Imagine a foot-high pile of broccoli, or a giant bowl of apple slices. Do you know anyone who would binge on broccoli or apples? On other hand, imagine a mountain of potato chips or a whole bag of cookies, or a pint of ice cream. Those are easy to imagining vanishing in an unconscious, reptilian brain eating frenzy. Broccoli is not addictive, but cookies, chips, or soda absolutely can become addictive drugs.
Exactly as Dr. Pretlow did in Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Hyman points out an interesting fact related to the childhood obesity epidemic. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, familiarly known as the DSM-IV, enumerates the criteria for addiction. If a patient has a certain number of these traits, the patient is diagnosed as addicted. We can’t help but notice how closely the characteristics of food addiction conform to those accepted signs of addiction, the ones that apply when the substance is something other than food.
When kids write in to the Weigh2Rock website and talk about their unhealthy relationships with food and eating, the feelings and behaviors they describe are the same that would be ascribed to addiction, if they were talking about some other substance. In fact, the kids come right out and say the A-word, frequently. This means it would be helpful to look at childhood obesity through the Psychological Food Dependence-Addiction Lens.
Dr. Hyman’s article is like a pocket guide to the territory of food addiction. He offers some of the questions from the quiz developed by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Find out if you are an industrial food addict! Most of us are, the author says. Then, he gives us a roundup of the important studies that all point to the same conclusion: Food can be addictive.
The sociological and environmental considerations are also examined: food deserts, nutritional wastelands, school vending machines that dispense junk food, and numerous other elements that surround us. Also, advertising — the relentless merchandising of stuff that makes us fat and sick.
Here’s an interesting digression: a piece by Lea Rittenhouse about technology addiction among college students. Rittenhouse draws heavily on the ideas of Dr. Hilarie Cash, who is executive director of reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Center. Located in Fall City, Washington, conveniently close to Microsoft HQ in Redmond, reSTART treats a variety of Internet-related addictions including video-gaming. The therapists are of course prepared to address the underlying problems that contribute to the development of addiction. These are startlingly reminiscent of the difficulties that lead to food addiction: “family problems, divorce, childhood trauma, depression, anxiety…”
For all addicts, there is hope. As Dr. Hyman says,
We can alter the default conditions in the environment that foster and promote addictive behavior. It’s simply a matter of public and political will. If we don’t, we will face an ongoing epidemic of obesity and illness across the nation.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Food Addiction: Could It Explain Why 70 Percent of Americans Are Fat?,” The Huffington Post, 10/16/10
Source: “Addiction in Student Life,” PatriotTalon.com, 11/22/10
Source: “Our Mission,” reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program website
Image by Ivan Walsh, used under its Creative Commons license.