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Guest Post: Food Abstinence for Food Addicts: Deprivation or a New Freedom?



Dr. Vera Tarman, Addiction Specialist & Author, Toronto

Dr. Vera Tarman, Addiction Specialist & Author, Toronto

Today’s guest post comes from Dr Vera Tarman, addictions specialist and Medical Director of Renascent, Canada’s largest drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. She has spoken internationally on the subject of food addiction and is the co-author of Food Junkies: The Truth about Food Addiction (reviewed here). Her website is addictionsunplugged.com.

Countless times during my public talks, the question comes up: “You have to eat! If food is addictive, what can you eat?”

“Yes”, I agree. “ You do have to eat, but not desserts, bagels, pastries, or any junk food. You don’t need sugar, honey, maple syrup or molasses to survive.” How about vegetables, fruits, meats and fish? For most people, even end-stage food addicts, these foods are not addictive. Food abstinence is not about being on a diet, restricting calories, counting points, eating specially packaged foods – it is a recommendation that we eat the foods our body was metabolically designed to eat and enjoy with satisfaction.

Our evolutionary hormonal and neurochemical “checks and balances” have been designed for the natural foods of our ancestors. In other words, we are programmed to desire food when we are hungry and are satisfied when we have sufficient energy reserves from that food. In a perfect nutritional ecosystem, most people can stop with satisfaction when they are full. Willpower, the front-lobe strongman of the brain, is actually quite short-lived and fragile, but works sufficiently well under normal conditions.

The food industry has created foodstuffs that provide an highly efficient delivery system to our brain’s reward center. This manipulation gives us a copious amount of delight immediately: the quick fix. The fiber from fruit and vegetables has been peeled away, the hovering bees that discourage an overly eager hand from taking gobs of honey have been removed, the bark of a maple tree or sugar cane that would have made it impossible to get more than a lick of sap or sugar have been stripped. Our primal brain which is accustomed to moderate pleasure is overwhelmed with the euphoric bliss of highly palatable foods. Willpower sags under the strain.

This is why you choose the apple cheese cake over the apple. Foods have become irresistible, even to a normal eater. To a food addict, they are the kick-start of a downward spiral to endless overeating, misery and self-loathing.

The question that typically follows is, “If you restrict your foods, aren’t you encouraging abnormal eating behavior? Aren’t you depriving people so they will just want those foods even more?” Terms like orthorexia or anorexia are thrown about. Following a meal-plan abstinent of sugar, flour and processed food (which by definition contains sugar, salt, fat) is seen as pathological. The accusations are that a person could become orthorexic, developing the obsessive need to eat biologically healthy nutrition, possibly engaging in multiple cleanses, fasts, or juicing. Or they could become anorexic, with an obsessive focus on weight and food restriction to near starvation levels. Bulimia could also develop as a person stops their favorite food – getting thrown into withdrawal led by mammoth cravings that bring on the next binge.

Food addiction practitioners share the same concerns about these destructive behaviors. These obsessions are viewed as a form of addiction in and of themselves and are seen as replacing food for obsessive food behavior. The food addict is encouraged to stop these behaviors alongside abstaining from their addictive food triggers.

While a non-addicted eater may be able to ‘relearn’ how to curb the use of their favorite foods, the food addict cannot. For those in the population who are more vulnerable to the ‘quick fix’ potency of processed foods – foods that act as if they are a drug – eating a favorite food, however small the portion, is a trigger, a tease. The food addict’s ‘stop’ switch has become battered. In the same way that a type 2 diabetic has developed insulin resistance, the food addict can be regarded as having developed a dopamine resistance. Relapse inevitably follows.

So what would food addiction treatment look like? A meal plan of healthy vegetables, protein, fats and fruit. One excellent example can be found in Dr. Pamela Peeke’s The Hunger Fix: The Three Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction which covers a wide range of nutrition interventions, addressing the normal eater who wants to know how to manage addictive foods, as well as the food addict who cannot eat particular food products for fear of relapse. Dr. Peeke will follow up with a post to provide a successful example of this approach currently being piloted in residential treatment centers in the USA.

A food addiction treatment plan may also include ample amounts of food so that the person does not over/under eat. To this end, it may even be necessary to weigh and measure foods. This is not about calorie counting or food restriction, it is about keeping the food addict safe by controlling the amount and type of food choices. The result of such a plan is not deprivation. It has given many a new freedom from the compulsion to compulsively overeat that some of us have lived with for too many years.

Now let me ask you a question. Why do some view meals that are abstinent of sugar, flour, or the practices that ensure that a person eat a healthy amount of food, considered unhealthy? Who is benefiting from this mythology that we are all eating “normal” foods in today’s food environment, with willpower to match what is beyond many people’s capacity to resist?

The food addicts who feel shamed out of their vigilance or medically mandated to “eat all foods in moderation” like everyone else are not being served. Further, I am even concerned about the normal eaters. My prediction is that many ‘normal’ people may follow the same trajectory that the recreational drug user or alcohol drinker might. If they are given increasing amounts of their favored substance over a prolonged period of time, they too could succumb to the disease of addiction. We are creating food addicts in our current food environment.

8 Comments

  1. Yikes!! I subscribe to Dr. Sharma’s blog because he seems to be a voice of reason in the ‘diet world’…or at least, he asks very important questions about the stuff others are publishing. Recently, I started in a group at our local hospital with the goal of managing a Binge Eating Disorder. Recent studies show that there are no real addictive foods rather the addiction is the behaviour, the act of eating. For me, the jury is still out. Now I am really confused! This guest post leaves me feeling more confused and quite frightened. I don’t think my BED can be cured…I will be satisfied if I can manage it most of the time. Will be interested to see what the future brings.

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  2. Agreed. Behaviours and food can both be addictive.
    But Sue, BED exists as a separate entity from food addiction or even compulsive overeating. Very confusing – and often neither condition can be cured, just managed. If what you are doing is working for you, keep doing it. That is the best sign that you are on the right track.

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  3. This blog describes my personal experience with food, and my frustration with the medical community, perfectly. Continuing to tell someone that they have should not restrict anything from their diet, in other words learn to eat everything in moderation, when food is something they have no control over is just a little nuts.

    When the evidence shows that someone like me for instance who has spent years, decades, trying over and over again to diet, restrict etc., including bariatric surgery, and coming away with alcohol dependency problem from that, as well as regaining most of the weight, just maybe it’s time to say “uncle” and eliminate the foods that are problematic. How could that possibly be so radical to consider?

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  4. As a recovering food addict, what Dr Tarman says rings absolutely true for me. I would add, that avoiding sugar, flour & concentrated carbs, I have lost my taste for them. Sweet stuff now actually turns me off. I never thought this could be true. I think my brain is on my side. When I found the willingness to give up sugar, my body supported me in helping to remove cravings & making sugar unpalatable.

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  5. On May 23rd, 2010 I attended a meeting for food addicts. The person speaking said, “I’m allergic to flour and sugar and I don’t have an off button.”

    I realized I was home with people who were like me. It took 3 weeks of being exceptionally tired and at that point my cravings left and I had more energy than ever before.

    Now 4 years and 9 months later I’m close to 100 lbs. thinner, have oodles of energy, feel great and look gorgeous. This program of not eating flour and sugar saved my life and I am forever grateful.

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  6. Sometimes when I look at what we call a muffin today I think about how Laura Ingles in the Little House on the Prairie would call that a birthday cake. They would get this kind of thing a few times a year. Now this kind of “food” is a daily thing.

    I have a little sugar of any kind and I can’t stop. Thank you to the authors who are putting forward the idea of food addiction.

    I can now see the difference between real food and manipulated food. It is a relief.

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  7. “Our primal brain which is accustomed to moderate pleasure is overwhelmed with the euphoric bliss of highly palatable foods. Willpower sags under the strain.” Whatever else one may feel about this article, this much is undeniably true. We have constant access to what was once labeled “treats” for a reason.

    I think many people will relate to the points made here, and maybe even find the inspiration to make a change in their lives. There are many paths to a healthier lifestyle.

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