Dirty Secrets from Eating Clean: Food Addiction, Part III
To read the whole series in order, start here:
I love this: Just as I begin working on a series about food addiction, the New York Times goes and scoops me. (I’m totally okay with this, however, because that means these theories are FINALLY gaining some mainstream acceptance!)
“Eating disorders are addictions. You become addicted to a number of their effects. The two most basic and important: the pure adrenaline that kicks in when you’re starving–you’re high as a kite, sleepless, full of a frenetic stable energy–and the heightened intensity of experience that eating disorders initially induce. At first, everything tastes and smells intense, tactile experience is intense, your own drive and energy themselves are intense and focused. Your sense of power is very, very intense. You are not aware, however, that you are quickly becoming addicted. And there’s the rub. As with drugs, the longer you do it, the more you need to achieve that original high.”
–Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia
I understand now what was going on, both on the behavioral and neuro-chemical levels. Addiction is more than a simple equation of brain + addictive chemical–one drink too many or the extremes of coke and meth. Our brains themselves are dependent on certain endogenous chemicals (chemicals produced by the body) for normal function. Feelings of anticipation and reward, as well as the fight-or-flight reaction, are all mediated by the presence of these chemicals.
To simplify: Dopamine is the anticipation neurotransmitter. Vera Tarman of Addictions Unplugged and the Renascent treatment center in Toronto, explains that it is the chemical that makes us enjoy the days leading up to Christmas more than unwrapping the presents–it makes the feeling of wanting even more pleasurable than the act of receiving.* Serotonin is the fulfillment neurotransmitter, the one that gives you the warm-fuzzies when you’re with people you love or participating in a hobby that makes you feel fulfilled.** And endorphins are the anesthetic neurotransmitter, flooding the brain anesthetize you when you hurt to help you push past the point of pain.***
Addiction is about altered neuro-chemical pathways in the brain. Substances may or may not instigate or amplify the changes taking place in the brain, and substances include not just drugs and alcohol but also certain types of food. Sugar, grains, processed foods…these are, believe it or not, addictive substances. But it’s not just about substances–gambling, sex, and exercise addicts don’t have to have a substance present to keep them addicted to a certain behavior. The rush of dopamine, the endorphin high…those can happen just because you engage in a an action that triggers the same reactions in the brain as a shot of vodka or a hit of cocaine.
So when you couple addictive foods (anything that gets converted to sugar in the body, especially those processed foods that contain massive amounts of sugar to begin with) with the addictive/obsessive behavior of restriction/calorie counting/weighing and measuring, etc., you end up on the crazy yo-yo binge/purge, extreme-weight-loss-and-gain roller coaster that dictated the course of my life until now. Dr. Tarman explains:
“[...T]he anorexic, while not eating, is experiencing a dopaminergic euphoria. She or he is experiencing an altered agitated ‘high’ as they obsess about food like any drug addict would over their drug of choice. We know that hunger creates dopamine – and the reward value of food heightens the hungrier a person becomes. This is the body’s attempt to entice the person to eat, to nourish itself. The anorexic does not eat food, but as he or she gets hungrier, she or he instead anticipates food – in the food preparation, in the food obsessions, in how she or he ‘plays’ (but does not eat) the food, – this is a dopamine high which builds and builds the hungrier the person gets. And, importantly, it stops the moment food enters the body. Anorexics resist food the same way as the drug addict resists withdrawal from their drug.”
(For a great analysis of Dr. Tarman’s philosophy of food addiction, don’t miss Weight Maven’s post here!! AND for some info on serotonin and food addiction, check out Kevin Cann’s great article at Genetic Potential via RobbWolf.com.)
On the “bad days,” the days when the hunger grew too great, when I was forced to eat lunch in the company of others–at restaurants, where I couldn’t control the ingredients or the portions, the days when I “let go” or “cheated,” I would binge until I hurt. I would eat and eat and eat and feel like I couldn’t stop. The food never tasted as good as I’d dreamt it would, but that didn’t stop me from handing the control over to my unbalanced brain and starving body. I ate everything I could before ED could catch me–I ate knowing that ED would punish me later (and that promise of punishment, the illicit nature of the act of eating made the binge even more uncontrollable).
To this day, I have to be aware of my portions, mindful of my hunger, cautious about overindulgence. I know I’m not the only recovering prisoner of ED who has dealt with the same paradox: I cannot restrict my food, because that’s an anorexic behavior, but I cannot eat without control or mindfulness because that starts the slippery slope to binge eating disorder. Navigating that constant duality (control/no control) is emotionally exhausting. Knowing that I will panic if I go out to a restaurant without consulting the menu beforehand is embarrassing. Feeling like I’m alone or “crazy” is depressing and deeply shaming.
And while I had convinced myself that becoming a vegan had freed me from the shackles of addiction, I had really just traded one jailer for another.
*This neurotransmitter may share responsibility in binge-eating disorder and/or the obesity epidemic, at least for food addicted individuals, according to a recent study.
**Many people with depression are unable to access the warm-fuzzies because they are deficient in serotonin. They are often treated with SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to rebalance the neurotransmitters and give people the ability to feel warm and fuzzy inside again. (Oversimplification, but feel free to ask Dr. Google how it all works for now…)
***You get an endorphin high after performing any sort of strenuous exercise for this reason: your muscles are torn or your various bodily systems are taxed, and your body recognizes the need for you to keep functioning despite the pain. Athletes and fitness buffs joke about being addicted to this high, but there’s a reason why part of my EDNOS is classified as compulsive exercise or exercise bulimia. My depression would utterly cripple me if I missed even a single day of exercise.