Anna Greenwood 21st February 2018
Binging on junk food is regarded as something of a casual joke for a lot of people.
Jokingly tweeting about how you “can’t stop eating Mexican food” or about how “Pringles are so addictive” is supposed to be a laugh but, for some people, genuine food addiction and binge eating is an everyday reality that’s anything but funny.
Some believe food addiction should be recognised as a specific type of eating disorder or that it should be treated like compulsive drinking or gambling. It’s estimated thousands, or even millions, of people in the UK are addicted to eating junk food — in 2015, 58% of women and 68% of men were overweight or obese. While being overweight is not always caused by junk food, for a lot of people it’s a major contributor.
“What we treat is addiction,” explains Eytan Alexander, chief executive of UKAT (UK Addiction Treatment Centres,) where various addictions are treated, across the UK. His philosophy is to treat all addictions in the same way, through group therapy.
“I’m in recovery myself, and we look at it as it doesn’t really matter if it’s drink, drugs, gambling, food, sex, it’s all the same thing: a compulsive obsessive disorder to do the same thing over and over again, and think that it’s all going to be okay,” he said.
Alexander describes how all addictions can be treated in the same way, as they originate from a need to escape or change the way one feels.
He said: “You have an emotional void, which you need to go and fill.
“You fill it with whatever your particular addiction is, because you want to change the way you feel.”
It’s easy to stop, staying stopped is a whole different ballgame
He argues food addiction follows this same pattern, and if beaten without examining the mental problem at hand, will simply be swapped for another vice.
“It’s easy to stop, staying stopped is a whole different ballgame.
“If you imagine an iceberg, there’s a big piece sticking out of the top, and everyone is pointing at it saying ‘oh no, that’s a problem.’
“For the addict, the problem is the massive bit that’s hidden under the water, which is ten times the size of the bit sticking out of the top.
“If you chop down a tree it grows back. Why? Because the roots are there, so you need to look at the root causes,” he says.
Jay Bee was diagnosed with binge eating disorder, but also self-identifies as a food addict. Alexander’s statements resonate with Jay, who feels his food addiction stems from issues with mental illness.
Bee says: “I know for me the food addiction and the binge eating disorder comes from growing up with severe depression issues, and I have a blend of panic and anxiety disorder.
“I know that it’s rooted in that, so I felt like when everything fell through [with his mental illness], I just fell off the edge of that, and just plummeted deeper into everything. I was already very heavy, so then I was just gaining even more weight.”
When you have a food addiction it almost doesn’t feel like it’s you
Food addiction is now a huge part of Bee’s life, a compulsion that he describes as controlling him.
“When you have a food addiction it almost doesn’t feel like it’s you — it’s like there’s two of you, that’s the way I describe it.
“There’s you that exists, and then there’s the you that is the food addict, and the addict can take the majority of the control.
“For me, it’s kind of like this compulsion, more than a want. When you’re like compelled to get something it’s like a fabric of your being, it’s almost like your soul is involved,” said Bee.
Since food addiction specifically is not yet recognised as an eating disorder or a mental condition in the US where he lives, he is unable to get specific treatment for this condition, despite it drastically affecting his health and having the potential to kill him.
He says: “I’ve had multiple emergency room doctors tell me that I’m going to die if I don’t turn something around ASAP.”
Bee admits that he has tried a number of crash diets through the years, and while they have sometimes worked for him, he invariably puts the weight back on, sooner or later.
Across three years, he lost and regained a total of 500 pounds.
I have, from such extreme weight loss and gain, accelerated my body’s mortality basically
“I’d do really drastic weight loss diets and just kill myself with it, lose massive amounts of weight, but then it all comes back slowly, because you’re never fully fixed.”
“I have, from such extreme weight loss and gain, accelerated my body’s mortality basically. I’ve pushed it and given myself issues that elderly people get.”
Bee admits that he often allowed his doctors to “pigeonhole” him into other diagnoses, to allow him to get a treatment that would help him. While many doctors and therapists are understanding, there are still those who don’t believe junk food addiction is a real thing.
This included him going to a drug addiction support group, to fight his addiction.
He has also had help for his binge eating disorder, which helps with his food addiction issues, but does not solve them.
Bee’s frustration stems from the one factor which distinguishes food addiction from most other vices — you have to eat to live.
A big part of food addiction is also part of the fact that the stuff is designed to addict you
He said: “A big part of food addiction is also part of the fact that the stuff is designed to addict you, it’s created to hit your pleasure centres in the same way that drugs do.
“With drugs if you need to avoid them you typically know how to do that, if you develop an issue with alcohol, you do have to operate with blinders on — driving by an area with bars for example.
“When you go to the grocery store, you know there’s an aisle or two you have to avoid, and you just walk straight past.”
In order to raise awareness for his addiction, Bee began the Me Against Me project three years ago, which he has restarted this year, in an attempt to document his battle against food, and the progress he is making.
He says: “I’m through trial and error trying to figure out the best way to do this project but what I do know is it’s going to be chronicling me, trying to show what I go through, and anything that I do therapy and dietary wise that helps me.”
For people like Bee, understanding the difference between enjoying the occasional burger and dangerous binging means that they’re able to get help — but, because junk food addictions are not as well known as alcoholism or gambling addictions, for example, many people still suffer in silence.
Anna Greenwood 21st February 2018