I am so delighted to share my collaboration with Dr. Vera Tarman, expert in food addiction and author of what I think is the best book on the subject, Food Junkies. I’d like to start this article with this interview my mother, Marion Kane did with Dr. Tarman a while back which is both entertaining and informative:
What follows is an excerpt from chapter two of Food Junkies wherein Dr. Tarman shares her own story of food addiction and outlines her theory on food addiction. I highly recommend you buy this book as there is so much more in it that can help you if you struggle with food addiction.
EATING, EATING, EATING: WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH ME?
It is 1979, late at night. I have been awake for sixteen hours and I’m exhausted and agitated. I pace between my bed and my desk. Should I write my term paper, go out for a run, or recalculate my daily allotment of calories to see if I can afford just one more slab of chocolate? Or just go to sleep, if that’s even possible.
I am twenty-three years old and experiencing something I have in common with 25 percent of the female population at Canadian universities — an obsession with weight and food. I am beside myself. My mind is scurrying between one option and another, all in an effort to feel better. I cannot settle. I cannot sit for one minute. Each of my options implies relief, but I know in my gut that none will last beyond even one half hour. Thirty short minutes. How will I ever make it through the night, filled with so many half hours?
If I can just make it to the morning, daytime will bring the relief of distractions, a break from this incessant ruminating. Meanwhile, I feel as if there is a creature inside me, breathing heavily, filling up my insides like a balloon getting bigger and more menacing. It wants to eat ferociously, but if I give it food, even the smallest bit, it will rear up and demand to eat everything in sight. It does not care whether I am full or if my stomach is engorged with food, gas, terror. In that moment, I am just a thin layer of skin containing this monster. It paces and with every slight movement I feel gut-wrenching pain and excruciating anxiety.
I just have to make it to the morning.
Forty years later, having been at this juncture too many times to count, I have found a way to quell the beast. It came only after repeated trial and error to control my urges, by creating rules such as eating junk food only on Saturdays, or eating only low-fat, low-calorie items or eating only in the company of others.
Eventually, I found a solution that tamed this creature inside. It was the most effective, yet it was the very last thing I wanted to do. I had to stop eating my favourite foods, the ones that provided immediate relief: the doughnuts, the croissants, the ice cream. Just stop. Whenever I lapsed and tried to revert to what I thought of as the “common sense” notion, that I just needed to learn how to eat properly, I soon slipped back into the same obsessive unmanageability. I would try to have just one smallish dessert each night with a nutritious meal. It might take one night, or it might take three weeks of white-knuckling it, but eventually I gave in to the same old pattern of voracious eating.
Today, I say that I am an addict. A respectable addict, of course. Not like the desperate addicts who have cashed in their mortgage, the last of their retirement savings, even cigarette money to get their drug. After all, my drug is cheap, the cheapest of all drugs: a bag of day-old doughnuts and a case of root beer cost less than five dollars. And, almost everyone I know abuses food in some way, although if I suggested it they would say, “What, me an addict? No way!”Today, whenever I tell myself that I can share one small sugary dessert with a dinner companion, I think, Who am I kidding?
This is my story. Is it yours? Have you ever wondered why you automatically reach for the chips instead of the celery to munch on while watching TV? Or felt guilty that you wanted more cookies and ended up polishing off the bag after planning to eat only two or three? You are not alone. As the food industry is well aware, most people are vulnerable to these temptations.
What can explain this phenomenon? When we consider that more than 60 percent of the population is overweight, it is clear that there is something happening on a grand scale that is affecting a majority of people. Is it simply poor willpower? A psychological maladaptation to previous trauma? Or, is it something in the food?
Certainly, the quality of foods that we have been eating has changed over the last thirty years. Much of what we eat contains more sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and salt than ever before. with immediate energy as well as storage for anticipated spells of famine. We areprogrammed to like sugar and fat. We are at the mercy of our evolutionary heritage, even though famine is no longer the norm. Food is abundant; in fact, it is too readily available, especially artificially created, energy-dense food — junk food.The food industry is skillful at maintaining this deadly dynamic; it’s their business and they make good profits from our vulnerabilities.
Food addiction clinicians believe there is something more fundamental than external or even psychological pressures at work here. Don’t get me wrong – those are dynamics can also be at work, and a person can have two troubling disorders – an eating disorder anda food addiction. What distinguishes addictive behaviour is its extreme nature: the degree to which a person is compelled to eat, is obsessed with eating.
As humans, we all sit somewhere on a continuum, with desire at one end (with binge eating disorder somewhere in the middle) and addiction at the extreme other end. Some of us eat for health reasons — for nutrition, as part of social interaction and, yes, for pleasure. Others eat because they are driven by an insatiable need to eat, regardless of hunger or health. A need that is beyond willpower or common sense. When an eating behaviour leads to a self-destructive end point, when there is a desire to eat that has no “stop” switch, that trajectory points to the dynamic of addiction.
Dr. Vera Tarman, a medical addictions physician in Toronto, works with people who want to break their dependence on unhealthy foods. Over the last 20 years, she has been the medical director at a clinic that has served more than 10,000 patients, including 1,000 with food addictions. She is the author of Food Junkies – Recovery from Food Addictions (Second Edition). Her audiences have included more than 50,000 health care experts, medical professionals and people who learn how to break their food addiction through community and peer support. As a recovering food addict, she has maintained a 100-pound weight loss for more than 12 years and has been “clean” from sugar and flour for eight years.