How can people possibly recover from food “addiction” given that they have to eat? This is one of the major points of contention used to invalidate food addiction as a disease. Food addicts are forced to use the very substances that get them “high.” How can that be a good thing in recovery? Food, these naysayers contend, cannot be both life-sustaining and a drug. And if it is true, what can you eat if you’re in recovery from food addiction?
Phil Werdell, a Florida-based food addiction counselor who also is a food addict (and a contributor to my book, Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction, responds to this question by using an analogy to alcohol and alcoholics. “Recovering alcoholics still drink,” he says, “they just don’t drink alcohol.” Similarly, food addicts have to consume food, but they don’t have to eat foods that trigger their disease. Most of these problematic foods are sugar-laden, highly-processed and nutritionally lacking. Some professionals hesitate to call them foods at all.
What the Research About Food Addiction Says
A new study released in early 2015 suggests that Werdell is on the right track. Published by the journal Cell, and later highlighted by MIT News, lead author Kay M. Tye reports there are separate neural circuits that control sugar cravings and healthy eating. “Our study … identifies a neural circuit that selectively controls compulsive sugar consumption without preventing feeding necessary for survival,” she writes.
This is exciting news. If science can find a way to throw a monkey wrench into the gears that grind the life out of food addicts, we have much to celebrate. Any research that gives credence to the physiology of food addiction provides welcome relief to the baffled overeater, full of self-blame and loathing, driven by a condition not treatable with willpower.
But before we break out the bubbly, let’s take a closer look at what Tye and her colleagues are really saying. And what are the implications of her findings? Tye, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, is intent on proving there are different areas in the brain involved in the motivation of eating behavior. She posits that there is one for compulsive eating (eating sweet foods even when sated) and another for need-based eating (eating when hungry) circuits. Her research team was able to find and track the “motivational switches in the brain” using laser light. The scientists wanted to explore the mechanisms that drive compulsive and addictive appetites and to see if they may be de-linked, disentangled, from those mechanisms that prompt healthy eating.
“Imagine if I told you that in the future, we could change the way our neural circuits communicate in a way that I did not want to binge on sweets, but still allowed me to eat healthy foods when I’m hungry,” she told the Boston radio station WBUR. “Obviously, there is a ton of work that needs to be done to make this vision a reality, but our study suggests it is possible.”
“We need to study this circuit in more depth,” Tye explained to MIT News, “but our ultimate goal is to develop safe, noninvasive approaches to avert maladaptive eating behaviors.” Presumably one line of therapy would address those who struggle with circuitry aberrations at the appetite/hunger center of the brain. Another type of intervention would address the circuitry overwhelmed with sweets. The latter would be ideal for food addicts, while the former for any number of other (non-addiction) conditions that foster overeating.
What about trigger foods other than sucrose (sugar)? Is there a plan to investigate overeating of non-sugar foods? As any food addict knows, there are several foods groups that can prompt out-of-control eating. These include foods that are high in fat or salt (think potato chips and other fried foods), or those that consist primarily of simple carbohydrates (white breads and pastas).
In short, while many questions remain unanswered by Tye’s study, her work provides us with two key requirements needed to tackle food addiction: solid scientific data and a clear direction toward the development of a good food addiction recovery-protected eating plan.