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The Parallels Between Food Addiction and Drug Addiction

When I landed in recovery five years ago, I was not only an addict desperate for help, but I was 150 pounds’ overweight. It didn’t occur to me that the excess weight was part of my condition. I had to deal with the most damaging behavior first: my addiction. I attacked 12-step fellowships like my life depended on it, because, frankly, it did. But two years into my recovery, I was still largely overweight and miserable. Not to mention lethargic, and physically exhausted.

That changed, I learned about my disordered relationship with food, I lost 50 pounds, and – most valuably – gained an understanding of the beast that I suffer with (addiction) and all that it encompasses.

The Role of Eating in Recovery

We are now reading of the parallels between drug addiction and food addiction – it’s a hot topic in recovery publications, as those in recovery realize the importance of fueling your body positively.  I wish I knew about the role of eating well at the beginning of my recovery. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache, disordered eating and created masses more energy. This is where I feel the 12-steps fall short: there is no emphasis on healthy eating.

In fact, AA publication Living Sober, positively encourages the replacement of alcohol with sugar. “We can only pass on the word that thousands of us – even many who said they had never liked sweets—have found that eating or drinking something sweet allays the urge to drink,” it says.

I recall asking Holistic Nutritionist about this type of advice, and whether it was a helpful strategy. She said, “I don’t recommend this approach; it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire…most alcoholics have issues with blood sugar regulation and struggle with sugar cravings. Increasing sugar consumption makes this worse and sets them up for weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, inflammation, mood swings, and even cardiovascular disease.”

I can certainly relate to that experience: I recall suddenly consuming copious amounts of breads, pastries and cakes like I used alcohol. I couldn’t get enough and I was never satisfied. And yet, I couldn’t understand why I was unable to stop binging in this way. I felt horrific. My mood was all over the place, from hyper to the depths of depression. My skin was terrible; I was bloated and my cholesterol was high. I had zero energy and took cabs everywhere. When I finally got help with my disordered eating, I came to some pretty eye-opening realizations.

Making the Brain-Body Connection

I discovered that our bodies react to certain foods – sugar and refined carbohydrates – in the same way as drugs and alcohol; releasing the same feel-good chemicals in the brain: dopamine and serotonin. It makes total sense that when we put down the drugs and alcohol, we notice the deficiency in our mood and seek alternative substances to fill this void – sugar, candy, cakes, pastries, ice cream – this is known as addiction transfer. That was my pattern and I continued to binge on these foods for the first two years of my recovery.

It makes total sense that when we put down the drugs and alcohol, we notice the deficiency in our mood and seek alternative substances to fill this void – sugar, candy, cakes, pastries, ice cream – this is known as addiction transfer.-Olivia Pennelle

What’s more, the pleasure seeking, hedonic, part of the brain can override the rational part of the brain and motivate you to seek foods or substances that release those chemicals. This is how addiction works in its most basic form. Whether it is drugs, alcohol, or food, many of us are all motivated in the same way and many of us react in the same way, which is why it is common for most people in recovery to discover that they have issues with food.

I learned that the food industry doesn’t help people like me, either. We live in a day where food has been manipulated to become what is known as hyper-palatable – which simply means laden with fat, sugar, and salt to be irresistibly appealing. In fact, scientists have engineered these foods to trigger emotional cues that signal to your brain to eat, even when you are not hungry. Once you take a bite, the food sparks the brain’s reward system, which motivates you to eat more of it. Have you ever opened a packet of cookies and suddenly realized you have eaten at least half of the packet, if not more? This is why. These types of foods are highly addictive and, if you want to feel better in your body, they are best avoided.

It was only in discovering this information that I was able to stop blaming myself for a lack of willpower. I stopped fighting myself and calling myself names, like glutton – I went as far as listing this as a defect of character. My brain was deficient in these chemicals – I needed to seek alternative means of producing those chemicals and stop the reward seeking behavior. And that is exactly where I started: getting help by eating the right foods to fuel my body, and using exercise to boost my mood and self-esteem.

Eating to Fuel the Body

It hasn’t been an easy journey. It took a long time to retrain my brain to stop going for the quick fixes; and the instincts are still there today, especially when I am tired and want a quick boost of energy. Then there is temptation: I worked in offices with a constant supply of candy, cakes and treats. Ironically, meetings – the place where I am supposed to get well and I have spent most of my time – had an abundance of donuts, candy, chocolates and cookies on offer, which made it even more difficult. Old-timers positively encouraged me to eat it all and seemed shocked with my trying to avoid temptation. Their view was that I had stopped the more harmful substance; they couldn’t see that eating the treats was addiction transfer.

Today, I have a much healthier approach with food. I eat to fuel my body (more on this in my next post), rather than to change the way that I feel. I rarely eat refined carbohydrates and I don’t eat processed hyper-palatable foods. I cook my own meals and eat regularly. I exercise daily. Most of all, I look at why I want to eat and ask myself what it is that I am trying to feed: Is it my mind? Am I actually hungry? Or do I need some self-care and downtime?

Images Courtesy of iStock

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