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Guest Post: Treatment For Addictive Eating: Many Shades of Grey

Pam Peeke MD, MPH, FACP Food, Mood, Addiction Expert and Author

Pam Peeke MD, MPH, FACP
Food, Mood, Addiction Expert and Author

Continuing with the theme of food addiction, here is another guest post – this one by Dr. Pam Peeke, a Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition, Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland, and Senior Science Advisor to Elements Behavioral Health, the USA’s largest network of residential addiction treatment centers. She is author of the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix: The Three Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction. Her website is http://www.drpeeke.com/

For years, the popular culture has embraced the relationship between food and addiction. It permeates our daily vernacular— “I’m hooked on bread”, “I need a candy fix”, “I can’t get off the stuff”, “I’m a carb addict”. Grocery store shelves are filled with colorful cereal boxes labeled “Krave”, as the food industry capitalizes on the consumers’ never ending hunger for another fix. History was made when a major weight management company aired its first Super Bowl commercial, choosing a “food as drug” theme, narrated by Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul. Close your eyes, listen to the words, and you’d never guess that food, not drugs, was the focus. Companies and communities, however, cannot validate the phenomenon of addictive eating behavior—only science can do that.

Heeding the call to arms, nutrition and addiction researchers, led by Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, have spent the past ten years generating a critical mass of valid and credible science associating specific food products and addictive eating behavior. A tipping point was reached in 2012, when the peer reviewed and edited professional textbook Food and Addiction was published. A month later my consumer book, The Hunger Fix: The Three Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction, was released and the single most common response from my readers was “What took you so long?” We needed, and finally benefited from, new groundbreaking research.

We now know that certain foods, namely the “hyperpalatables”–sugary, fatty, salty food combinations— affect the brain’s reward center in a way identical to drugs and alcohol, triggering an abnormally high level of release of the pleasure chemical dopamine. Repeated hyper-stimulation of these reward pathways can trigger neurobiological adaptations that can lead to compulsive consumption despite negative consequences.

In 2009, Yale researchers developed the first assessment tool, the Yale University Food Addiction Scale, or YFAS, to identify individuals who demonstrated an addictive response to specific foods. Subsequent studies using the scale have shown that there is a wide spectrum of people who present with addictive eating behavior, especially in those who are overweight/obese, female, over 35, or who have existing disordered eating patterns such as binge eating disorder or bulimia. Ongoing investigations have noted that among women, there is a 90 percent association between food addiction and prior history of abuse, especially in childhood and adolescence. As well, the incidence of addictive eating in women increases with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

As scientific evidence continues to mount clarifying the connection between food and addiction, attention is now beginning to focus on treatment options. Treatment for addictive eating behavior is of particular interest to me as a scientist and a clinician. I recall one of my patients, a former alcoholic with a disabling sugar addiction, declaring, “If drinking is black and white – I drink or I don’t– sugar is more shades of grey than there are books.” Indeed, in contrast to drugs and alcohol, treatment for the psychobiological challenges of addictive eating is far more complex. In a prior blog, Dr. Vera Tarman addressed abstinence as one treatment option.

Who is the target treatment population? It’s not just obese, compulsive overeaters. It also includes thin, average and mildly overweight men and women experiencing a full range of eating disorders (ED), mood syndromes and substance abuse. Within these groups there are numerous intricate interconnections, interrelationships and co-occurrences. For instance, current research suggests that approximately 50% of those with an ED are also substance abusers, including 57% of men with binge eating disorder experiencing long-term drug and alcohol abuse. Cross addictions abound as people transition from drugs to cupcakes, from alcohol to sugar, and from bariatric surgery to alcohol. This complicated web of interrelationships is one reason that determining the precise prevalence of food addiction is such a challenge.

In essence, the larger the treatment population, the wider the spectrum of therapeutic modalities required, and thus, the greater the need to individualize and customize treatment for addictive eating behaviors. To address this challenge, I have created the Integrative Nutrition and Holistic Lifestyle Program at Malibu Vista in California. This women’s residential treatment program treats women, many of whom have co-occurring mood and food conditions, specifically addictive eating. This pilot program has garnered national attention including a recent NBC Today Show segment.

The program’s blueprint is based upon my three pronged, customized approach to: 1. mental/spiritual wellness (MIND); 2. whole food nutrition (MOUTH); and, 3. physical activity (MUSCLE). Therapists use a wide range of cognitive psychotherapeutic methods to treat mental health conditions including trauma. Body movement modalities include yoga, tai chi, and meditative walks to foster an improved mind-body association. Nutritionally, the chefs have eliminated any refined or processed foods, including table sugar and artificial sweeteners. Our culinary nutritionist, who is both a certified chef and registered dietitian, assesses each woman. This includes completion of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a metabolic evaluation, and documentation of any history of substance abuse and disordered eating. An individualized plan is created and refined during the typical 4-5 weeks in-residence. Through hands-on cooking lessons and nutrition education sessions, individuals can reframe and redefine their relationship with food. Group fellowship is critical to ongoing support and success. Continued coaching continues upon discharge. For example, Sandie, featured in the Today Show segment, is now off her anti-anxiety medications, no longer binges, has halved her diabetes medication, and has thus far removed over 50 pounds of excess weight.

In honoring each woman’s unique story and the complexities of treating addictive eating behavior, the Malibu Vista team draws upon elements found from a multitude of resources, including but not limited to 12-step programs. Individualized strategies are designed to use a wide range of interventions to optimize body-brain-mind healing. The end goal is to help each person manage the triple challenge posed by the food-mood-addiction triad, and in doing so, create a blueprint for long term recovery, and success in navigating addictive eating’s many shades of grey.

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Does Food Addiction Require Abstinence?

food junkiesRecently, I had the opportunity of meeting Vera Tarman, a Toronto addiction physician, who is also a self-proclaimed “food addict” and author of the book, “Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction“.

It is fair to say that talking to Tarman and reading her book (of which she happily gave me a copy) has definitely given me food for thought.

To start with, her book “Food Junkies” is not a typical diet book or even a treatment guide to food addiction.

Rather, it is a rather compelling treatise in support of the existence of  a discrete and definable subset of obese (and non-obese) individuals who may well be considered “food addicts” and for whom the only viable treatment is complete abstinence from their respective trigger foods.

To put things simply, Tarman (and her co-author Philip Werdell) describes three categories of “eaters” (the following words my attempt at paraphrasing the central ideas as I understand them):

Normal Eaters: this is by far the largest group of individuals with obesity, who may overeat for no other reason than that they like food, are surrounded by food, pay little attention to food, let themselves go hungry, have food pushed on them, and/or really don’t obsess or worry about food at all. Normal eaters can learn to control their eating through education and coaching and by changing the circumstances that foster poor willpower: better sleep, stress management, improving social skills, changing their personal food environment, etc.

People with Eating Disorders: for this group of individuals, obesity is not the primary problem, rather it is just another symptom of the underlying emotional disturbances that drives their “pathological” eating behaviour. The “spectrum” of these disorders ranges from rather mild “emotional eating” to full blown “binge eating syndrome”. The primary driver of their overeating is psychological (e.g. trauma, grief, abuse, etc.). Once the psychological problem is identified and resolved (or managed, e.g. though cognitive behavioural therapy), they can gain control over their eating behaviour, which in turn can help them control their weight problem.

Food Addicts: this group of individuals is literally “addicted” to certain foods (usually foods high in sugar, flour, fat and/or salt) in the same manner that a drug addict would be considered addicted to their drug, with the same clinical signs that range from denial and loss of control, to physical symptoms on “withdrawal” and relapse that can be prompted by minimal exposure, even years after being “clean” or “sober”.

According to Tarnan and Werdel, this grouping has important implications for clinical management.

While a “normal eater” and someone with an “eating disorder” can eventually learn to practice “moderation”, this is virtually impossible for the true addict – the only viable strategy for them is complete and lifelong abstinence (best coupled with a 12 steps program or something similar).

For the true “food addict”, no amount of education, psychological counselling or attempt at “moderation” will ever lead to success. Any attempt to get the “food addict” to learn how to “use” their “drug” in moderation will be as futile as trying to get a drug addict to learn how to use alcohol or heroin (or any other drug) in moderation (the vast majority will fail).

As to how the “food addict” can practice abstinence, the Food Junkie acknowledges that this is difficult but achievable. Obviously, the goal will be to completely eliminate and abstain from the “trigger foods”, which will vary from individual to individual (and people may well bounce around from one food to the next). Nevertheless, a good place to start is probably with foods that contain sugar, flour, are highly processed, high in fat or otherwise “addictive”.

For some it may mean a low-carb, for others a paleolithic diet, or simply a fruit and vegetable-based high protein diet with some fat thrown in for satiety – here Food Junkies discusses the various options, while acknowledging that there is no hard and fast rule – only, that it can be achieved (a point that the authors illustrate using their own stories and those of their patients).

All of this said, the authors are the first to acknowledge that there is much about food addiction that we don not yet know or fully understand.

For one, making the diagnosis is anything but easy – often, this “diagnosis” can  only be made when all attempts at “moderation”, despite best efforts, fail.

The authors also accept that we do not know the prevalence of true food addiction – only, that it may be higher than we think.

If nothing else, the book is a quick and fascinating read for anyone interested in the issue – patient or professional.

It certainly has got me thinking about whether or not “abstinence” may indeed be a viable approach for some of my patients.

For anyone, who has questions regarding this concept, Dr. Tarman has kindly agreed to address these in a subsequent guest post on these pages – so please send me your comments/questions.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB

 

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Does The Media Depiction Of Obesity Hinder Efforts To Address It?

sharma-obesity-stop_hand

A study by Paula Brochu and colleagues, published in Health Psychology, suggests that the often unflattering depiction of people living with obesity in the media (as in the typical images of headless, dishevelled, ill-clothed individuals, usually involved in stereotypical activities – holding a hamburger in one hand and a large pop in the other or pinching their “love handles”), may well play a role in the lack of public support for policies to address this issue.

The researchers asked participants to read an online news story about a policy to deny fertility treatment to obese women that was accompanied by a nonstigmatizing, stigmatizing, or no image of an obese couple. A balanced discussion of the policy was presented, with information both questioning the policy as discriminatory and supporting the policy because of weight-related medical complications.

The findings of the study show that participants who viewed the article accompanied by the nonstigmatizing image were less supportive of the policy to deny obese women fertility treatment and recommended the policy less strongly than participants who viewed the same article accompanied by the stigmatizing image.

Given that negative and stigmatising images of people with obesity are the rule rather than the exception in media reports about obesity, the authors suggest that simply eliminating stigmatizing media portrayals of obesity may help reduce bias and foster more support for policies to address this problem.

Readers may wish to visit the Canadian Obesity Network’s image bank Picture Perfect At Any Size of non-stigmatizing images of people living with obesity that are available for free download for educational and media purposes.

@DrSharma
Copenhagen, DK

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Pom Pom A Flightless Bully Tale Takes Flight

Pom Pom A flightless bully tale coverToday’s post is to announce the arrival of my daughter Linnie von Sky’s second children’s book, “Pom Pom A Flightless Bully Tale“, that hundreds of you helped fund by pre-ordering your copy(ies) about 12 months ago – your books are in the mail and should be there in time for the Holidays (a big THANK YOU from me for your support!).

To those of you, who are new to these pages, Pom Pom is the story of the slightly rotund little penguin Pomeroy Paulus Jr III., who simply hates it when people call him “Pom Pom”.  Like any boy his age he’s busy trying to impress ‘the birds’, particularly one bird: Pia. Pomeroy dreams of a pair of orange swim trunks; the ones that Pete, Pucker and Piper own. The same ones Pia said she loved. There’s just one little hiccup. The antAmart doesn’t carry them in his size.

The story tells of how mom helps Pomeroy get his own pair of orange swim trunks and how Pia saves the day when she steps up and puts bullies in their place.

Here is what Linnie had to say about the reason for writing this book in an interview with Lindsay william-Ross for VancityBuzz:

“When you talk about bullying you have to talk about how much it hurts. Kids understand that,” says von Sky, who hopes her stories ignite conversations. Of “Pom Pom,” von Sky remarks: “I think it’s an encouragement to talk about emotions. What triggers certain actions, what makes somebody want to hurt someone else. Are they hurting?”

For von Sky, whose protagonist in “Pom Pom” is picked on because of his size, the pain of bullying in the story echoes the passion she first tapped into working with the Canadian Obesity Network. “Weight bullying happens to be the one thing I’m extremely allergic to,” affirms von Sky.

For any of you  who would like to order your own copy of this delightful little children’s book about bullying, friendship, respect, sadness, empathy, standing up for friends, antarctica, penguins & above all, love (for ages 3 and up) – click here.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB

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Guest Post: Emotional Distress And Weight Gain

Erik Hemmiingsson, PhD, Obesity Research Centre, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

Erik Hemmiingsson, PhD, Obesity Research Centre, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

Today’s guest post comes from Erik Hemmingsson, PhD,  a Group Leader at the Obesity Center, Department of Medicine, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden. His group studies the role of psychological and emotional distress in weight gain and obesity by mapping life events that influence stress, metabolism and body weight. Erik has a PhD in Exercise and Health Sciences from the University of Bristol (2004) and a PhD in Medicine from Karolinska Institutet.

I work as a researcher in a specialized obesity treatment center at a university hospital in Sweden. My job is to develop new and more effective treatment and prevention methods so that we can hopefully confine obesity to the history books some day.

For many years I mostly did studies on behaviour therapy combined with low energy diets. Since this did not result in any major breakthroughs, I decided to try something a little different.

I had been aware of that many of our patients had experienced difficult childhoods. There were so many sad stories, but I didn’t fancy doing any research on the topic, it was too painful. But then my attitude gradually started to change about a year ago. It was clear that our current treatment methods were woefully ineffective, but I also became more receptive to all those troublesome stories from the patients. Enough was enough, it was time act. So, like Neo in the Matrix movies, I decided to take the red pill, and delve deeper into the very uncomfortable subject of childhood abuse and adult obesity.

I searched the literature and quickly saw that there were more than enough studies for a systematic review and meta-analysis. I enlisted the help of Dr Kari Johansson and Dr Signy Reynisdottir, and got to work.

What we found very much confirmed all those clinical observations, i.e. there was a very robust association between childhood abuse and adult obesity. The association was also very consistent across difference types of abuse, with an increased risk of about 30-40%. There was also a dose-response association, i.e. the more abuse, the greater the risk of obesity.

While this study confirmed something very important, it was also clear that not everyone who suffers childhood abuse develops obesity, or that all obese individuals have suffered childhood abuse, or the effects would have been even more pronounced. But for me, the study proved that stressful childhood experiences can easily manifest as obesity many years later. This led me even deeper down the rabbit hole. I wanted to know why.

I decided to try and piece together different ideas about how obesity develops in relation to stressful life events. This resulted in a new conceptual causal model consisting of six different developmental stages. Like many diseases, obesity development is more likely when there is socioeconomic disadvantage (applies mainly to Europe and North America). Socioeconomic disadvantage can very easily trigger a chain of events that include adult distress, a disharmonious family environment, offspring distress, psychological and emotional overload, and finally disruption of homeostasis through such mechanisms as maladaptive coping responses, stress, mental health problems, reduced metabolism, appetite up-regulation and inflammation.

Much more research is needed to validate the model, but if there is some truth to this theory, which the childhood abuse meta-analysis clearly suggests that there is, then my hope is that we can use this information to develop more effective treatment and prevention methods.

My other hope is that some of the truly horrendous stigma, shame and discrimination that the obese experience can gradually be alleviated, since there is clearly a lot more to obesity etiology than the commonly held preconception that obese individuals are merely lazy and overindulgent.

After having done all this work on obesity etiology, I would say that my top-3 reasons we have an obesity epidemic (in no particular order) are socioeconomic inequality, the junk food invasion, and psychological and emotional distress patterns (usually established at an early age). And when you combine all three you have the perfect storm for weight gain.

You can find more information at my blog at www.holisticobesity.com

Erik Hemmingsson,
Stockholm, Sweden

References:

Hemmingsson E, Johansson K, Reynisdottir S. Effects of childhood abuse on adult obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews (epub 15 August 2014).

Hemmingsson E. A new model of the role of psychological and emotional distress in promoting obesity: conceptual review with implications for treatment and prevention. Obesity Reviews 2014, 15:769-779.

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