Addictive Behavior

“Hi, I’m Bill. I’m a food addict.” Is this a statement of fact, of theory, of wishful thinking, or merely an attempt to avoid responsibility for overeating and being fat? The answer depends on the person’s psyche and physiology … there are no simple miracles.

I saw first-hand the addictive potential of certain foods when I helped a very large woman check into the same obesity clinic I had signed up for. My job was to ensure that she hadn’t smuggled in any food so she was to unpack under my scrutiny. I’d noticed that her suitcase was unusually heavy but was astonished when the weight turned out to be a dozen boxes of Argo cornstarch concealed beneath the clothes. She explained that she used the cornstarch like talcum powder to reduce the irritation from chaffing between her thighs. This made sense to me, but as required, I reported the boxes to a staff member. He told me she had amylophagia, a condition where people eat cornstarch to relieve stress. For certain physiologies, highly refined carbohydrates such as sugar, flour and wheat can, like opiates, induce temporary euphoria and become addictive.

I don’t crave cornstarch, but I routinely overeat foods made from refined carbohydrates like bread and crackers. I have control over most food groups but not this one. Luckily, I’ve never much liked sweets but it’s easy for me to wolf down a box of crackers. I got it. I lost 240-lbs over the eighteen months.

Addiction is defined as psychological and physical dependency on any chemical introduced into the body or produced by it. The latter explains addictions to compulsive gambling, sex, running, and shopping. For some, these produce chemical responses in the body like an adrenalin-rush, similar to cocaine or other stimulants. Others produce a euphoric downer-response as opiates do.

I can hear the “personal responsibility” crowd groaning now, but there is recent hard science supporting this theory of addiction. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, does brain-imaging on addicts, showing conclusively that addictive behavior is neither a moral failing nor a character flaw but the result of pathological changes to brain structure induced by certain foods, chemicals and behaviors.

Think of the addictive cycle when you next go shopping. You’re stimulated by all the things available to buy, so you buy something and experience elation. But your purchase soon loses its thrill and you’re left only with more credit card debt – not so different from a spiritless sexual conquest, gobbling a box of cookies, doing drugs or gambling.

70% of the American economy is driven by consumption – not production. Convenience stores offer junk food, alcohol, tobacco and gas. Retail marketing thrives on our vulnerability to addictive behaviors.

The clinic taught me a lot about addiction. So this New Year, instead of again resolving to lose some arbitrary number of pounds, I’ll simply ask myself which of my behaviors are wholesome or generous, and which are compulsive and addictive.

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