Rhona Epstein, Psy.D.
“You can’t help someone who won’t help themselves.”
While the above statement can be applied to many situations, it is a bit misleading to apply it to situations of addiction. When a person is addicted to something, their brain chemistry is altered. They are scientifically proven to be less able to make clear – let alone good – decisions, and thus cannot simply be left alone to their own devices. They require outside help in order to change.
People readily believe in alcohol and drug addiction. Why then is it so difficult for people to accept that food addiction is legitimate – that it presents the same challenges and problems as any other addiction?
A major part of the problem is the normalization of indulging in sugary and addictive foods in Western culture. Think about it. From the time children are born, they are bombarded with commercials of sugary cereals, sweet indulgences, fast food chains. You can’t step out your front door without being presented with an opportunity to buy addictive foods – they’re at the pharmacy, the office supply store, even at department stores like Macy’s where they sell Godiva gift sets. These are cultural norms, and indulging in these foods is therefore considered culturally acceptable.
In his new book The Case Against Sugar, bestselling author Gary Taubes goes into the science that proves just how dangerous such cultural acceptance of addictive eating patterns really is. He says, “Sugar induce[s] the same responses in the region of the brain known as the ‘reward center’ – technically, the nucleus accumbens – as do nicotine, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol.”* He proceeds to go into the consequent effects on health that sugar consumption leads to, especially when viewed over time: “Fifty years ago, one in eight American adults was obese; today the number is greater than one in three.”
In light of this evidence, how can we then say that food addiction isn’t real? What’s more, how can we ascribe to cultural norms that perpetuate such behavior? In order to deal with the health problems that accompany sugar and food addiction, we must first recognize that it is just that: an addiction. A problem that requires the help of intervention, a problem that requires significant lifestyle changes.
Of course, just because the consumption and availability of sugar is rampant does not mean that every American is a food addict. There are plenty of people who can look at a candy bar and not be tempted, or just have a small portion and be able to stop. However, for a food addict, this type of suggestion will never work. Would you tell an alcoholic to just practice moderation? Of course not! Most people can eat sugar in moderation, but for those who can’t stop, it is literally killing them – and we can barely stand calling it an addiction. Just because sugar is a readily available and advertised substance does not mean that it is not just as addictive as cocaine or hard liquor (in fact, science shows that sugar is actually eight times more addictive than cocaine). Not everyone is addicted to it, but we must approach the issue incredibly seriously for those that are. We cannot blame the overweight food addict and simply insist they enjoy their sugar in moderation. We have created an obesity epidemic that requires thoughtful and informed action.
Because we live in a society that loves sugar, we often can’t imagine asking a person to simply put it down. How, then, can we help? We must take a step back and consider doing what is not necessarily comfortable, but is completely necessary for our clients. We must consider the option of suggesting complete abstinence from sugar. Again, I am not suggesting that every person in America is addicted to sugar. If your client is merely emotionally eating, moderation may indeed work. But, if it is food addiction, we need to consider the full bent of our client’s problem. A good way to know the difference between emotional eating and full on addiction is to measure the behavior the same way you would any other addiction – if your client is having obsessive thoughts about food, or losing their mind from food obsession, or filled with depression and self-hate. Once we have established that food can indeed be an addiction and then applied the metric of diagnosing said addiction, we can then begin leading them in the path to health and freedom. We can show our clients that freedom is possible, that cravings can vanish, and that their minds can be free from obsession. Abstinence from addictive foods may be key along with a very satisfying and healthy hearty food plan that does not feel like a diet. One bite of sugary foods can be like one drink to an alcoholic for a food addict. Help your client understand their life is worth more than what they are getting from their food fixes. If cookies and cake are literally robbing them of their life (whether through literal health defects or mental and emotional preoccupation), we must gently lead them toward a better way. Furthermore, support is absolutely crucial for long-term change. There are many groups online and in person that are available to provide this necessary assistance.
The problem can only be diagnosed insofar as it is recognized – the first step to freedom for your client is recognizing that food addiction is real. The second is showing them where to go from there.
*Taubes, Gary. The Case Against Sugar. Portobello Books Ltd, 2016.
Rhona Epstein, Psy.D., C.A.C., is a licensed psychologist, certified addictions counselor, and marriage and family therapist in the Philadelphia area, and the author of Food Triggers: End Your Cravings, Eat Well, and Live Better (Worthy). For more than twenty-five years, she’s lead seminars, conferences, and therapeutic workshops to help people overcome food addiction and its underlying issues. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from Chestnut Hill College, and her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Temple University. She’s passionate, from her own personal experience and recovery from food addiction, to address the needs of the whole person (mind, body, and spirit). Visit her web site at www.rhonaepstein.com