Food Junkie

The emerging science of addictive overeating

Is Food Addiction Real or Bogus?

A View Through the Eyes of an “Addict”

     This is a guest post by author, speaker, and real-life recovering food addict Michael Prager. Read on to hear about Michael’s fascinating experience trying to get help with his obesity, discovering his addiction to food through treatment, and how it changed his life.

I have been explaining and advocating for the concept of food addiction professionally for a number of years, first (and still) one-to-one, but also by writing a book and speaking to various groups.

But having been lent this platform for a day, I thought I’d try a different approach: Let’s say food addiction doesn’t exist.

That is, after all, the prevailing position in mainstream medicine, even if the shift toward the point of view I hold is evident, and gaining. Additionally, it would be folly for me, a journalist by trade, to argue science with an audience of highly trained readers.

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The authority I bring to the discussion is experience: I have been maintaining a 155-pound weight loss for more than 20 years, after three decades of “fatitude” that peaked at 365 pounds in 1991. To achieve this recovery, I didn’t have surgery and I didn’t go on a diet, though I did have to change how I eat. I attribute my success, which includes not only a smaller body but strides in accomplishment, interpersonal connections, and happiness, to paths consistent with addiction treatment.

For me, this direction began with a visit, urged by my boss, to my company’s employee-assistance program. I was first advised to seek inpatient eating-disorder treatment, to which I said no. So next they directed me to therapy instead, which turned out to be a slower route to the same destination. After a break-in (breakthrough?) period, my counselor Robert Deutsch of West Hartford, Conn., first encouraged me to attend support groups, which I did for a while without any tangible evidence of movement. Eventually, Deutsch identified and recommended to me an eating-disorders unit at a Long Island psychiatric hospital.

To be clear, I wasn’t, and never have been, diagnosed with an eating disorder. Though binge-eating disorder enters the DSM next year and I would have qualified for that diagnosis in 1991, the best they could come up with was a diagnosis of OCD, which was both true and a sham. True, because I self-identify as a compulsive eater, and compulsion is, of course, the “C,” but a sham because I was 33 years and no doctor had ever suggested or even inquired whether I might have OCD, until I wanted to enter a psychiatric hospital and a DSM diagnosis was needed.

The nine-week (!) treatment was addiction model down the line, including Twelve Step meetings and step discussions on the ward and evening trips to meetings in the community.

Due to Deutsch’s preparations, I went down to Long Island intent on “getting what I came for,” even though I didn’t know specifically what that meant. When I left, I had become far more willing to take the suggestions of others, both peers and professionals, instead of believing I had all the answers: “If I’m so smart, how did I end up in a mental institution?” I know now that that’s what I had come for.

Under this guidance from others, I returned to Deutsch before transitioning to a therapy group and dived into various support groups as well. When I was hired to edit at the Boston Globe, which I’d delivered as a child, I carried those supports to a new city, and I have largely thrived ever since.

In addition to professional success, I finally was able to begin meaningful romantic relationships — literally, my first came at age 36 — and at 46, I married. At 52, I became a dad, a path I’d never expected.

Having said all of this, let me return to my supposition about the nonexistence of food addiction, which I define as a biochemical sensitivity to some food substances and behaviors. I don’t believe it, of course, but since so many cling to it, let’s say it’s all a crock.

I’m still left with my experiences. Before, I’d always been overweight, notably so, despite being put on the Stillman Diet at 10, being sent to fat camp for three straight summers as a teenager, and becoming a patient of Dr. Atkins in the early ‘70s. I lost weight at the camps all three years, but was heavier both times I returned. And I dropped more than 130 pounds twice on Atkins, only to gain it all back and more both times.

Not only were those experiences not solutions, they were destructive and demoralizing. The only thing that has ever worked for me, and is still working after more than 20 years, are the ideas, attitudes, treatments, and practices that have been helping alkies and others recover for better than 75 years.

Compared to that outcome, only one reason remains whether it matters that food addiction is real or not: Sustainable change didn’t start taking hold for me until I began opening to the idea that I might need to rearrange more in my life than just my menu. Without the suggestion that I had a serious illness, I might not have.

 

Prager is the author of “Fat Boy Thin Man,” and blogs at michaelprager.com. He speaks to audiences about sustainable personal change.

 

Nicole Avena, Ph.D. is a research neuroscientist and an expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction.

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