This I Believe

Michael - Arlington, Massachusetts
Entered on March 20, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: addiction, change

I believe that food addiction exists.

I believed it first because of my own experience, though it took me better than 30 years of obesity, including vast swaths of time over 300 pounds, to get beyond the notion that I was fat — and clueless, and lonely, and miserable — because I was a bad person.

To get there, I needed the love, tolerance, and intervention of friends and family, which led eventually to 9 weeks in the eating disorders unit of an accredited psychiatric hospital on Long Island, where I was treated with the same methods they used in the drug, alcohol, and gambling wards elsewhere on the campus.

This was 1991, during a different era in healthcare, when insurers were far more willing to support such treatment. Then twin tourniquets clamped down on the funding: While managed care began making every decision dicier, a handful of lawsuits against weight clinics doubled the scrutiny on the field.

I was lucky, though. I got in under the wire, and I left the hospital not only a few dozen pounds lighter, but far more importantly, I left with the understanding that if I was so smart, how come I’d ended up in a mental institution? I also had a new willingness to listen to others who had more training and experience than I.

That willingness is still at work in my life today, which, along with therapy and group support, explains how I’ve spent the past 18 years in a normal-sized body.

A few years ago, I started looking for research that could buttress what I know in my gut to be true. Though you could hardly tell it by what you hear from mainstream medicine or popular culture, more than 2,000 peer-reviewed papers have been published touching on the question of food addiction. Dopamine receptors, brain imaging, rats on sugar — legitimate research by accomplished clinicians.

It’s important to say plainly that not all the people who are overweight or obese — in America, that’s about 145 million adults — are food addicts, any more than all the people who sometimes drink too much are alcoholics. Some people have bad habits, but others cross over into habitual use, and it’s a one-way ticket.

People used to think that drunks were just lazy sots who ought to straighten themselves out, but very few people today doubt that alcoholism is a disease that requires, and responds to, treatment. That transformation is coming to obesity, too, and soon.