What's Under My Fat? (The Series) - Week 1: Addiction

I sit in my Drug & Alcohol group therapy on another Thursday morning. I was in for abusing booze, not an uncommon phenomena in the Australian dominant culture, having decided that I no longer wanted to have such an unhealthy relationship with the substance. Today feels different.

My breath quickens by the second, my heart is racing, my mouth gets tacky and sour. I press my feet into the floor and practice breathing. I listen to people checking in with as much attention and respect as I can possibly muster. "Katie?" says the facilitator. I take one long, deep breath in. Then one long, deep exhale out. I sit up straight.

"I am a food addict," I say in a strong and shaky voice. "I have a binge eating disorder." I don't know how exactly to say what I feel so I keep going with the descriptors. "I am a compulsive eater. I cannot control my relationship with 'highly-palatable' foods." I throw in some air quotes, trying in vain to explain things I have been reading over the past week and feeling for the last 15 years. "How most of you talk about alcohol is exactly how I feel about food."

Feeling utterly spent, relieved, and confused all at once, I look at my chipping toenail polish for a breath then chance a look at the familiar faces around the room for a reaction. I see the most beautiful things. Direct eye contact and quiet smiles. Relief. Understanding. A collective exhale, including mine.

And such was my first small step towards recovery. You see, for me, food had become an addiction. I turned to it for everything. I found comfort, an escape, a constant thing in a constantly shifting life. I found everything that an alcoholic finds in booze. That a heroin addict finds in heroin. That a smoker finds in a cigarette. Right down to the physical dependence and the neurochemical fireworks (one of many articles relating to this here).

Luckily, the Drug & Alcohol group I was in was forward thinking enough to embrace my identification of food as my substance of choice and let me continue attending. I went to my first OA (Overeaters Anonymous) meeting that night, too.

It is a slow process but what I do know so far is that there is far too little easily available information about food addiction. It has yet to be classified by the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a real thing. It's first appearance coming in the form of Binge Eating Disorder (BED) which only takes into account the compulsive behavior of a binge and leaves out dependence, abuse, neurochemical, and socio-cultural factors.

The DSM-5 outlines the following 11 criteria for substance use disorders:

  1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than the you meant to

  2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to

  3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance

  4. Cravings and urges to use the substance

  5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home or school, because of substance use

  6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships

  7. Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of substance use

  8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts the you in danger

  9. Continuing to use, even when the you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance

  10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance)

  11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance

If you fit 2-3 of these criteria you are classified as having a mild substance use disorder, 4-5 is a moderate, and six or more is severe. Food or specific types of food are not included in the substance list yet, but you can see how all of these things could fit. For myself, it's sitting at around 9. I optimistically assume it's only a matter of time before food addiction is acknowledged and classified in this category.

I don't know, nor would I assume, that every obese person has a food addiction. What I do know is that the possibility that many of us do deserves a hell of a lot more attention, research, and consideration by both professionals and individuals. With any luck, classification as a disease will help remove some of the discrimination and stigma and pave a road for food addicted individuals to find the right kind of help.

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