Food “addiction” isn’t a new topic, but one that resurfaces periodically when there appears to be nothing else to blame for a person’s weight struggles. These days, as faith in low-carbohydrate diets waxes and wanes, it seems that people are almost looking for another carbohydrate-free code that will explain their seeming inability to eat certain foods without overeating them.
While it seems so common sense, what escapes most people is that trying to avoid specific foods – as well as keep calorie intake low – sets us up for overeating those foods and anything else that’s in our line of sight when we’ve gotten too hungry.
An experience this past weekend seemed to confirm this. I sat next to an acquaintance at a dinner party; I knew she was a former Atkins dieter who wasn’t being so successful with it these days. She’d aged a few years, which had taken her into perimenopause, when no matter how hard you work at it, some of us find our bodies getting a little larger. (The experts don’t really know why, but it’s not uncommon for women to gain 5, 10 or even more pounds during perimenopause and/or menopause. I believe there’s definitely more to it than women just getting older and slowing down – which is what you will commonly read is the cause of the weight gain.) She made a few comments about her struggles; I talked a little about the non-diet approach, and we left it at that.
During the meal, however, I couldn’t help but noticing how she ate. We both ordered steak, and with it came salad, mashed potatoes, green beans and bread. She had missed the cocktail portion of the party and was hungry, so proceeded to eat all her salad, steak, and green beans. But she didn’t touch the potatoes or bread.
Okay, I saw what was happening – she was still trying to cut carbs, a holdover from Atkins. But then the dessert came out – a cake that was very pretty but wasn’t very tasty. I took a few bites and that was enough. My tablemate, however, proceeded to eat not only her piece, but also her husband’s, laughing guiltily all the while.
Someone who believes in food addiction might say this woman was addicted to sweets. She couldn’t stop at a few bites. But I saw something entirely different. If she’d eaten other carbohydrate foods, and didn’t have a lingering belief that she shouldn’t eat sweets, she might have found she didn’t want as much cake as she ate.
There are times when food addiction could be considered a real phenomenon. But those times are not really about the food – they’re about using food as a salve for difficult emotions. Someone has turned to food to bury those emotions, much like someone would turn to alcohol or drugs. Even in this case, however, I’d prefer not to call this an addiction. Because the very word “addiction” implies that a person is at the mercy of a substance.
Instead, I’d rather help people empower themselves by believing that they are the ones in charge, and if they deal with the real problems, then the food struggle can disappear. That is, if it isn’t compounded by notions of good and bad foods, diet “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”, etc., etc. — all those notions that take us outside of using common sense to feed our bodies in a supportive manner and our internal cues that are fully capable of guiding us in choosing the right foods for us.
Bottom line: It doesn’t seem to be helpful to categorize foods as addictive, and it’s certainly not helpful to confuse a person’s misuse of food for emotional purposes with diet-induced cravings for specific foods.
In fact, if we could all step back and think about food a little less emotionally and use common sense when it comes to making food choices, we’d probably find the subject less noteworthy, and we could get on with the really important things in our lives.