Hey, Church! Stop Joking about Being Addicted to Food
Here I am again listening to another Christian speaker, patting his belly and talking about how he needs to work on his addiction to food. I hear these things all the time.
Preachers sharing their weight loss “success” stories.
Ministry leaders sitting at a table of teens talking about their “new diet.”
People joking when I tell them that I work with eating disorders: “Oh, I need to have an eating disorder!” or, “I have the opposite of an eating disorder.” As they pat their tummies.
What on earth does that even mean???
But the comments that really bug me are the food addiction jokes, mostly because:
These jokes aren’t funny.
Food addiction is not a thing.
Let me explain.
Jokes about food addiction aren’t funny because they are making light of a very real and very felt experience. Many people do feel out of control around food, and that feeling is debilitating and constant.
I want to honor anyone who has experienced this. I have clients who have lived a lifetime feeling like they are addicted to and can’t be trusted around food. They often feel immense shame. They go to bed each night promising themselves tomorrow will be different. They are living their lives “on hold” waiting to get this food and body thing “under control.”
This brings me to another reason food addiction terminology and jokes frustrate me: the idea of food addiction perpetuates a continual myth that actually causes the very problem it promises to solve.
Science has shown us that the most likely determinant of whether a person will feel out of control around a certain food is whether they have restricted that food or not. Restricting a food can occur when we are dieting or when we are mentally holding on to food rules that harm or damage us. So restriction can be actual and physical (think “cutting carbs”) or mental and emotional (eating a food but mentally beating yourself up for eating it).
One of the hallmark studies that reveals this natural behavior was The Minnesota Starvation Experiment. This study revealed that the more nutrient-deprived a brain is, the more a person thinks about food. Haven’t we all experienced this? When you are dieting your thoughts are often consumed by the very food you are trying to avoid.
The problem with the addiction narrative is that you can avoid drugs and alcohol but you can’t avoid food. The more you try to not eat sugar, the more your body will want it. This is because your body is very smart and wants to keep you alive. This is a natural biological response to deprivation.
In my work as an eating disorder specialist, it is astonishing how many hours a day a client will spend thinking about food. Often they can recount every bite of food their friends ate at lunch. Often they even bake or cook for their families but won’t eat the foods they make themselves. This hyper obsession with food is the bodies attempt to signal the brain that food is needed to survive.
Clients who struggle with an out-of-control feeling in their relationship with food take this food obsession as a sign that they lack willpower. Which is so damaging.
Often, people will quote to me documentaries, health food articles, podcasts, or books written by some person claiming to reverse health conditions using a diet that eliminates certain food groups. Often these books quote rodent studies where rats behaved in an “addicted fashion” around certain foods. I most often here these studies unfairly demonizing sugar.
These studies are rife with problems. First, rats aren’t humans. That’s obvious. Second, these results didn’t account for deprivation—mostly because we don’t normally feed sugar water to rats in studies. However, studies show that if the rats had constant access to sugar water, their behavior around sugar normalized. Somehow these findings are never quoted. Third and most problematic is the wild claim that eating sugar causes the same reaction in rats as cocaine or heroin. The problem is actually the reverse; drugs steal the natural pleasure pathways that the body uses to keep a person alive.
This response is normal and responsible for keeping us motivated to engage in a ton of beneficial behaviors.
These same pathways help us snuggle and feed our babies. These same pathways make us have a healthy sex drive. These same pathways light up when we listen to music, buy someone a great gift, do a nice deed for a friend, help an older person cross the street, feel satisfied at earning a good grade. Interestingly, there are no frightening documentaries about how addictive those behaviors are.
Which leads me to the last point: shame. We as a culture feel so much shame around food and our bodies, and that shame is only destroying our relationships with food and our bodies.
The concept of food addiction is harmful to people. You cannot heal a broken relationship with food by having more food rules and restriction.
When I encounter clients who struggle in this way, I try to honor their feelings and help them process through them. We talk about eating habits and where they are learned. We dig into a deep exploration of the person’s lifelong relationship with food and their body. Then we work to normalize foods and food behavior. It is deep and rewarding work. It is difficult work.
Food addiction language is, at the least, too simplistic and, at most, devastatingly harmful.