This post was originally published on November 27, 2014.
The Star recently published an article that questioned whether food addiction and eating disorders were actually real diseases. “Testing surrounding the topic,” it said, “has been inconclusive and food addiction is a fad-related term.” To further support this claim, they pointed to an international study conducted at numerous hospitals which concluded that “’food addiction’ is a misnomer…we instead propose the term ‘eating addiction’ to underscore the behavioral addiction to eating.” This, of course, opens the door to calling it a behavioral problem, not a disease.
Still No Official Label
Whether or not food addiction is a disease has been an ongoing dilemma for many of us. If you subscribe to the dogma of a 12-step program, then you probably have been indoctrinated into the concept that you suffer from a disease. For a lot of us, it is a little more comfortable to say, “I’ve got the disease of alcoholism” instead of saying “I can’t stop drinking because my behavior sucks.” And it is the same with those of us that suffer from eating disorders.
Yet no one in authority can agree on just how to actually classify eating disorders. The Food Addiction Institute makes the bold statement that “food addiction[s]is not just…one bio-chemical illness but rather…a cluster of several different chemical dependencies and other disorders.” Yet Dr. Lance Dodes, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard, states, “Addiction has very little in common with diseases. It is a group of behaviors, not an illness on its own.” (That being said, Dodes has made a series of controversial—some might say ludicrous—claims about addiction while promoting the book he wrote with his son.) Even the diet organization Weight Watchers, when pressed to say whether eating can be an addiction, takes the fifth by saying it’s still “under active investigation.”
Yet the brunt of the Star piece is devoted to Dr. Vera Tarman, co-author of the book Food Junkies. “Food is addictive,” Dr. Tarman says. “There is a subpopulation who, when they eat…it takes over their life…It can be even more addictive than substances like cocaine.”
So here we are back to the same old question: what is addiction and is it a disease? Well, the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as: “A primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” And The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary defines it as a “Habitual psychological and physiological dependence on a substance or practice beyond one’s voluntary control.”
Confusing? Hell yes it is. But the underling factor in all of this is that I suffer from a problem that is very real, no matter how it is labeled. The “experts” can disagree all they want. Is it a disease, is it just behavioral, or am I simply weak willed? It doesn’t matter. I know that I can’t stop eating because I obsessively desire food to such an extreme that it is unhealthy. All I can do is seek whatever help I can and not worry so much about defining it.