A food addict is distinctly different than a normal eater or an emotional eater. A food addict has a chemical dependency like an alcoholic or drug addict. Specific foods or food in general can trigger a process of physical craving. The food addict often thinks this is hunger, but it isn’t. It is more like the experience of starvation; the food addict thinks that s/he has to have more food, even if she is physically full and nutritionally satisfied. Sometimes s/he thinks life will not be worth living without a specific food or that s/he’ll die if s/he doesn’t get more food. Neither is true, so the experience of physical craving is actually like having a “false starving.” It is typical once the disease has progressed for the food addict to think s/he will have just one of a food or just one serving, but then once having started eating it wanting to continue to eat more and sometimes start bingeing out of control. For the food addict, craving is often misunderstood as hunger. Hunger and craving are very different.
A normal eater gets hungry when it is time to eat. It is a body signal like a sense of being too hot or too cold. If you do not eat when you are hungry, it feels uncomfortable – just like a person is uncomfortable when the room temperature is too hot or too cold. An important difference between hunger and craving is that the normal eater can live with the discomfort of being hungry just like most people can live with the temperature being a little too cold or a little too warm.
Craving has an urgency to it. When craving strikes food addicts they have to eat. It is like a drowning person under water struggling for breath; there is a sense that one might die if one does not get to the surface and get some air. Food addicts frequently report they have a feeling that they will die if they don’t get to their binge foods. Craving is a distortion of the mind at an instinctual level. The food addicts’ impulse to eat their addictive foods is crossed with a survival impulse: “This has to be done now!”
We call the physical craving of the food addict “false starving.” Unlike hunger, there is this deep urgency and sense of impending danger if craving is not responded to. But when the food addict eats this often does not satisfy the hunger. Rather the craving continues – sometimes even intensifies. It isn’t a real body message, because the person has usually eaten fairly recently and shouldn’t even be hungry, much less starving. The fact that it is a false starving is emphasized by the fact that eating itself can often trigger the craving.
When truly starving people are interviewed, they report a preoccupation with thoughts of food, a compulsive drive to have one or more particular foods, and a willingness to abandon civil and moral rules to obtain food. When food is delivered to true starving communities, there is often a need for police or army guard to keep the starving people from hurting, even killing, each other for food – even when there is obvious assurance that there is enough food for everyone.
Food addicts report lying to parents, close relatives and friends about their eating. Like with alcoholics and other drug addicts, there is a impulse to”protect their stash” at a deep instinctual, often unconscious, level. Food addicts have stolen food as children they have been told not to touch, as babysitters from the family’s home, as school children out of other’s pockets, and as adults off other’s plates. They have eaten possibly spoiled food, food off the floor, food out of the garbage can. They have stolen money from their parents and others to buy food.
Food is so plentiful that these crimes of food addicts are not seen as being as serious as those of drug addicts and the lengths they go to – like holding up a store or stealing a relative’s TV – to get money for their drugs. But the feelings and thoughts inside the minds of food addicts in later stages of the disease can be just as strong, intense and serious to the food addict as ithey are for the heroin or crack addict.
One way to look at this is that there is a simple but important disconnection between the nervous system and the brain like in the experience of dyslexia or being colorblind. A person who is dyslexic sees a word in their mind the opposite way it is printed on the page. The word “was” is seen as “saw” or the word “raw” is seen as “war.” There is nothing that can change this misperception. It has to be identified, accepted and adjusted to. Colorblindness is the same; the colorblind person sees both the color red and the color green as green, for example. This is a reason why we always put the red light on top of the green on traffic lights; people who are colorblind can tell whether ort not to go by checking if the light that is shining is on the top or on the bottom. As with dyslexia, color blindness is sometimes a nuisance, but other times it is really dangerous, and there is not much you can do about it except learn to compensate.
The phenomenon of craving in the food addict is exactly like that. The food addict will really believe s/he is hungry – or, closer to the point, often think s/he is really hungry –when, in fact, his/her body needs little or no more food at all. If s/he is not aware of this, s/he will eat more, often a lot more, than is needed, and, while this might not be much of a problem if it occurs very infrequently, if it becomes more frequent or pronounced it can cause a lot of problems. The first, obviously, is that s/he puts on unwanted weight, and has trouble keeping it off even after serious dieting. Second, the obesity – and often the shift away from good nutrition – put him/her in danger of lots of other health problems over time: diabetes, high blood pressure, joint and back problems, strokes and heart attacks to name just a few. Third, problems with weight can affect one’s self-esteem; repeated failure at dieting can lead to guilt, shame and/or depression. Finally, experiences of eating out of control can negatively affect one’s deepest attitudes and spirit.
For the food addict, all this comes from simply not knowing that you get “false starving,” i.e. that you often think that the most important thing in life is to eat when your body is not even hungry. This is an experience that normal eaters or emotional eaters do not have.
© Phil Werdell, M.A.