addiction, Diet, disordered eating, Food addiction, Eating Disorders, Recovery, Gluttony, Health & Wellness

Food as a Drug: The Addictions Model of Weight and Disordered Eating

By Pamela K. Orgeron, M.A., Ed.S., BCCC, ACLC

“Food addiction is the hardest addiction to overcome,” psychologist Kathryn B. Sherrod, Ph.D. said to me during a therapy session about 25 years ago. “With alcohol and other drug addictions, a person can learn to live without the substance whereas food is necessary to sustain life.”

Similar to alcohol with an alcoholic, food also may be an addictive agent in the life of an individual. Minirth, Meier, Hemfelt, and Sneed (1990, p. 60) give six steps in the downward spiral of developing an addiction. Figure 1 below depicts this process.

The Addictive Cycle

When does eating become an addiction?

Enjoying good food and looking forward to an excellent meal is certainly not a bad thing, in fact it is part of a quality life. But if we find ourselves obsessively thinking about our next meal, eating faster than those around us, choosing certain places to go solely for the food, and placing ourselves at risk with extremes in weight, then our obsession with eating is dysfunctional and addictive and ultimately creates health and body image problems. (DeGoede, 1998, p. 65)

Food Addiction and Drug Addiction Similarities

Oxford (2001), Holden (2001), Hammersley and Reid (1997), Weiner (1998) and Poston and Haddock (2000) reported similarities between food addiction and drug addiction. Similarities reported by Oxford include: with food and drug addictions, a formerly pleasurable behavior has become a must; strong cravings accompany the experience; and, “despite the many harms that it has brought, neither the exercise of reason nor encouragement from others have been sufficient to bring about control.” (p. 16)

Holden (2001) and Hammersley and Reid (1997) presented biochemical evidence linking food and drug addictions. Holden reported that compulsive overeaters and drug addicts both display dopamine deficiencies. Hammersly and Reid reported both physiological and psychological reasons for food and drug addictions.

“The same personality factors that place individuals at risk for substance abuse are often found in individuals with eating disorders.” (Weiner, 1998, p. 163) Such personality factors include impulsiveness and low self-esteem. Comorbidity of eating and substance abuse disorders also is common, according to Poston and Haddock (2000).

Rogers (2017) also reported similarities to food and drug addiction. These similarities summarized without going into details are:

  • “Behaviourally at least, the appetiser effect [eating increases appetite], although relatively small, is similar to what is referred to in the literature on drug addiction as priming effects, and the fact that this also occurs with food is noted in that literature (e.g., de Wit, 1996).” (Rogers, p. 184)
  • Both food addicts and drug addicts experience cravings.
  • Woods (1991), as cited by Rogers, reports a clear link exists between drug and food tolerance.
  • Withdrawal occurs in both food addicts and drug addicts.
  • Both food addicts and drug addicts go on binges.
  • Reducing food and drug intake leads to compensatory overindulgence of the substance.

 Arterburn and Felton (2001) described “addiction as idolatry . . . . The worship aspect of addiction is easily seen in the lives of most addicts.” (p. 91) Arterburn and Felton reported a common element among all addicts is that they worship the process and the outcome. They exemplified this concept through the following story of someone addicted to food:

 An extremely overweight friend of mine would not stop eating excessively, even for the sake of his family. He loved food and had some with him most of the time. He could go hours during the day without touching food, but when he was home in the evenings, he spent most of his time eating—a reward for his hard work. It compensated for his deprivation as a child. He lived to eat.

It didn’t matter that he embarrassed his children. It was insignificant that his cholesterol level shot up into dangerous levels. He didn’t react when his wife threatened to leave if he refused to lose weight. Food was too much a portion of his life to do without. He was always thinking about what to eat next. While he was eating, nothing mattered but how good he felt. No follower of any religion had a more devoted member than this man who served the god of food. (pp. 91-92)

What qualifies me to speak on this issue? In agreement with Arterburn and Felton (1991, 2001) that both food and drug addictions are idolatry, I overcame my addiction to food. How? I tried everything to overcome my addiction, my sin of gluttony, but nothing worked until I gave my appetites to God through prayer and leaning on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In closing, for those struggling with either a food or drug addiction, I encourage you to give your appetites to God where He can heal you. He healed me! He can heal you too!

References

Arterburn, S. & Felton, J. (1991, 2001). Toxic faith: Experiencing healing from painful spiritual abuse. Colorado Springs, CO:  Waterbrook. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Toxic-Faith-Stephen-Arterburn/dp/0877888256

de Wit, H., 1996. Priming effects with drugs and other reinforcers. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology 4(1), 5–10.

DeGoede, D. L., & Drews, D. (1998).  Belief therapy: A guide to enhancing everyday life.  Lake Elsinore, CA: E. D. L. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Belief-Therapy-Guide-Enhancing-Everyday/dp/0966374509

Hammersley, R., & Reid, M. (1997). Are simple carbohydrates physiologically addictive? Addiction Research, 5, 145-160.

Holden, C. (2001). ‘Behavioral’ addictions: Do they exist? Science, 294, 980-982. Retrieved February 19, 2018 from http://www.biology.ucr.edu/people/faculty/Garland/Holden2001.pdf

Minirth, F., Meier, P., Hemfelt, R., Sneed, S., & Hawkins, D. (1990, 2004).  Love hunger.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Love-Hunger-Frank-Minirth/dp/0785260234

Oxford, J. (2001). Addiction as excessive appetite. Addiction, 96, 15-31. Retrieved February 19, 2018 from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6f86/454a8b25bc797a3b13e515f79068882bc999.pdf

Poston, W. S. C., II, & Haddock, C. K. (2000). Food as a drug. New York: Haworth. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Food-Drug-Walker-Carlos-Poston/dp/0789009773

Rogers, P. J. (2017). Food and drug addictions: Similarities and differences. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, 153, 182–190. Retrieved February 19, 2018 from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091305717300035

Weiner, S. (1998). The addiction of overeating: Self-help groups as treatment models. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 54, 163-167.

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