Regulating Addictive Food: A Lesson in Futility

by Bill Brenner on January 25, 2010

As an obsessive-compulsive binge eater, the author feels it’s only proper that he (cough) weigh in (cough) on the notion that regulating junk food might help. Here’s why the answer is probably not.

Since I know what it’s like to be deep in the muck of a binge-eating addiction, my wife thought I might find interest in an article from The Environment Report suggesting that the regulation of foods that are bad for you — same way as with cigarettes — might help some sufferers.

The cattle prod for this item is a new book called “The End of Overeating.” The author is David A. Kessler, MD, and a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. I actually have a lot of respect for this guy, whose tenure included the successful push to enact regulations requiring standardized Nutrition Facts labels on food. That, in my opinion, was a huge win for those of us who want truth in advertising.

In “The End of Overeating,” Kessler makes a compelling argument: Foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain’s chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat. “Much of the scientific research around overeating has been physiology — what’s going on in our body,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying in the story “David Kessler: Fat, Salt and Sugar Alter Brain Chemistry, Make Us Eat Junk Food.”

The real question is what’s going on in the brain, Kessler says.

His theory on food as an addictive substance is as on the mark as you can get. Trust me. I’ve lived it. Binge eating is all about addiction for me. It’s tied directly into the same corner of the brain where my OCD resides.

He is also right that sugar, salt and fat are addictive substances, though for a lot of people, the components of our poison boil down to sugar and flour. Of course, most of the food that has flour and sugar also tends to be high in salt and fat.

The first and most important tool in my OA recovery program is a plan of eating. Flour and sugar are off the table — period. Almost everything I eat goes on a little scale. 4 ounces protein, 4 ounces raw vegetable, 6 ounces cooked vegetable, 2 ounces potato or brown rice, etc. Every morning at 6:15 I call my sponsor, someone who hears my food plan for each day and gives me the necessary kick in the ass.

But salt and fat are not forbidden for me. In fact, I’m allowed to substitute 4 ounces of meat with 2 ounces of cheese or nuts.

To some, this may sound like a typical fad diet, but people in OA have used a plan like this since the beginning. And the plan isn’t the same for everyone. If you have diabetes, for example, removing every scrap of flour from the diet isn’t usually an option. No matter. The only requirement of the program is to stop eating compulsively, no matter how you get there.

This isn’t something I pursued to drop 65 pounds, though I did lose that amount pretty quickly. This is a food plan for life — a key to my getting all the nutrition I need and nothing more. Just as an alcoholic must put down the booze or a narcotics addict has to put down the pills, I have to put down the flour and sugar.

This is the plan that got me out of the darkest days of addictive behavior and I’m a true believer.

Flour and sugar mixed together becomes a toxin that knocks the fluids in my brain out of balance. Kessler’s research is definitely in line with what’s happened to me.

But the idea of regulating food the same way as something like cigarettes? It won’t do much good.

It certainly couldn’t hurt. The nutrition labels at the very least gave us an education on what we put in our bodies, and it’s been especially helpful to parents who are trying to raise their kids healthy. Regulating cigarettes has certainly made it harder for minors to buy them.

But for the true addict, regulation is a joke.

Knowing what’s in junk food won’t keep the addict away. I always read the labels AFTER binging on the item in the package. And the labels have done nothing to curb the child obesity pandemic.

If you smoke, it’s certainly more expensive to buy a pack than it used to be. But if you crave the nicotine, you’ll find a way to get your fix. It’s the same with drugs, and with food.

I’m going to read Kessler’s book because it sounds like he hasĀ  some breakthrough findings that can help make people better.

But when someone suggests regulation as a solution, don’t ever believe ’em.

A suffering brain will always find a way to disregard the rules for the three minutes of rapture that follows the binge.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin Brenner January 27, 2010 at 5:44 am

I don’t think regulating junk food will stop people from eating it. I do think, though, it’s a reasonable source of revenue for educating the public and running programs for those who are addicted. Taxes on cigarettes do the same. No, a few extra cents don’t stop someone from smoking (hey, making certain drugs illegal doesn’t stop people from taking them). But if you’re doing to do these things that are universally accepted as bad for you, then it should hurt in the wallet — and benefit the community as a whole. Especially since down the road, your addictions are going to hurt the community as a whole.

The biggest problem with food addictions is our society doesn’t recognize them as such. It’s acceptable to gorge on junk food. We have holidays and events (Christmas and the Super Bowl come to mind) that ENCOURAGE this behavior. To change society’s attitude, we must educate them with the facts. And science must keep discovering those facts. Those things take money and time.

If we could do it for smoking, drinking, and other addictive behaviors, we can do it for eating. I’d support a junk food tax that benefited the community as a whole and addicts specifically.

io_saturnalia June 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Salt and fat are critical nutritional components, but white flour essentially turns to sugar in the body, so the more people can minimize (or abandon) the latter two substances, the healthier they’ll be. And, of course, alcohol is essentially a sugar, too.

There is a certain price point (via taxation) that seems to prompt many smokers to quit, though food — even bad food — is a nutritive substance, so that might be a tougher trick. Better than taxation would be regulations based on behavior modification (like banning smoking in restaurants forces smokers to decide whether it’s worth standing outside in the elements to light up). Banning the carb delivery systems (i.e. vending machines that proffer chips, sugary treats, soda and, yes, juice — often more sugar and calories than sugared soda! — from public schools would be a good start. Also, towns could legitimately ban drive-through restaurants, making it necessary to actually stop, park, lock the car and move one’s butt into a given temple of overeating, which could make a dent in poor eating habits of many people.

It’s true that the profoundly addicted will find the road to caloric ruin, but it is possible to remove signs pointing to the path of destruction and, in the interruption of vice, healing may have a chance to begin.

ICNRELTE June 23, 2012 at 6:24 pm

You and I can so relate to the perimeters of OA and the only way to have peace from this compulsion is to abstain from our trigger foods. Easier said than done but the trick is to not allow our digressions from our best laid plans to be our reason to trash our programs or our lives. Progress and self awareness are the keys to our successes. Self love and accepting that not all our medical professionals are willing to listen to us be that steroid injections may treatment of choice but for me this will mean insatiable hunger and they laugh you off with oh that amount of steroid shouldn’t bother anyone. The point they fail see is we’re not anybody, we have food addictions and are over eaters.
When I’m told I’m not overweight I can’t be an over eater I want to leave them some literature but realize how futile this would be since some professionals still can’t understand any anorexia or obesity.

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