You’re not a "food addict." You’re a "crappy food addict."

by Denis Faye | April 5, 2011

No-Junk-Food-VendingUntil recently, I found the notion of “food addiction” to be a load of horse poop. But after reading David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating, I started wavering. Kessler’s theory is that food manufacturers have, over the years, engineered the balance of fat, sugar, and salt in fast food and junk food to the point of making them irresistible. Why? Because they’re a bunch of greedy, thoughtless bastards. It’s a compelling argument and a great read.

(Full Disclosure: Kessler doesn’t actually refer to anyone as a “greedy, thoughtless bastard,” but it felt really great to write that.)

Now, a couple studies out this week have made me a true believer. First off, this study out of Sweden (usually, I don’t trust the Swedes, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt this time) shows that ghrelin, “a neuropeptide that both activates the brain’s reward system and increases appetite” can have similar links to both sugar and alcohol.

In a new study published in the online journal PLoS ONE, researchers examined the genes of 579 individuals chosen from the general public. It emerged that people with certain changes in the ghrelin gene consume more sugar than their peers who do not have these changes. This link was also seen in people who consumed large amounts of both sugar and alcohol.

“This shows that ghrelin is a strong driver when it comes to tracking down rewarding substances such as sugar or alcohol,” says researcher Elisabet Jerlhag from the Sahlgrenska Academy’s Department of Pharmacology.

And in a second study, researchers at Yale showed that certain activities in the brain identified with addictive-like eating behaviors are similar to those associated with substance dependance.

“As predicted, elevated FA scores were associated with greater activation of regions that play a role in encoding the motivational value of stimuli in response to food cues. The ACC and medial OFC have both been implicated in motivation to feed and to consume drugs among individuals with substance dependence,” the authors write. “In sum, these findings support the theory that compulsive food consumption may be driven in part by an enhanced anticipation of the rewarding properties of food. Similarly, addicted individuals are more likely to be physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally reactive to substance-related cues.”

So there you go. Food addicts, you have my sympathy – for about five seconds and then I’m going to start lecturing you. So bask in the solicitude for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

Okay, first off, these studies and Kessler’s book show that you’re not, technically, addicted to food. You’re addicted to crappy food. Delicious, convenient, and fun? Yes, but also crappy. The reason I mention this is that “food” addicts often wallow in their misery, claiming that their addiction is worse than alcohol or other drug addictions because they can never go cold turkey. They need to eat, right?

I’m calling horse poop on this argument. Yes, you need to eat, but you don’t need to eat Dolly Madison honey buns. Are you addicted to carrots? No. Are you addicted to apples? No. Are you addicted a piece of plank-grilled salmon with sides of steamed broccoli and whole-grain couscous. No! These aren’t the kind of foods that do the Humpty-Hump with your anterior cingulate cortex and making y’all sugar silly. These are the kinds of food you need to eat to survive.

Just as many recovering alcoholics reach a point where they’re able to show up at a party, order a mineral water with lime and have a great time as the people around them booze up, you should be able to reach a point where you can have a fine meal at just about any restaurant without ordering a double side of Bloomin’ Onions and an Oreo Parfait for dessert.

You are not a food addict. You are a crappy food addict.

This feeds into my second point, which is that you need to stop wallowing. I’ve watched a number of friends overcome addiction over the years, particularly alcoholism, and generally, admitting there’s a problem is the first step. The painful journey to recovery starts there. Conversely, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “I’m addicted to food! I’m 300 pounds and I’m miserable! Say, are you going to eat the rest of that banana cream pie?”

It’s official. You’re an addict. The studies above attest to that. Now do something about it. If you’re the DIY type, read Kessler’s book. Another great resource is the chapter on desire in psychologist Tara Brach’s excellent book Radical Acceptance. If you need more support than that, look into Overeater’s Anonymous. Or throw out all the junk food in your house. Or create your own reward system. Or make a point of being naked every time you open the fridge. Just do something!

And on a final note, if you’re a food addict and you’re about to throw an angry missive at my head via the Real Fitness Nerd comments box, keep this in mind. I’m not just some skinny guy being an ass. I’m some skinny guy being an ass who has spent the bulk of his life struggling with eating, who still copes with psychological scars from being a fat kid, who still actively has to work not to pork out on pork rinds – sometimes, since we’re playing true confessions here, by getting a little too carried away in the opposite direction and eating a little less than I should.

But for the most part, I’m doing alright. I did it. I made a change, and no one held my hand. So consider this tough love and do something about your crappy food addiction.

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45 thoughts on “You’re not a "food addict." You’re a "crappy food addict."

  1. Cameron

    I’ve been reading your blog for a little over 6 months, and this is by far my favorite. It hits so close to home for me, and I think your analysis is dead on. People don’t like being overweight, feeling tired, or getting sick…but they very rarely attack the cause of the problem: their diet!

    Since June 12, 2010, I’ve lost nearly 100 lbs through hard work and exercise…No one held my hand, no one wrote out a battle plan for me…I did my own research and got the job done (with a little more to go still). Point being – It makes me angry when people say things like, “I’m so hungry. I’m going to eat whole pizza.” I USED TO DO THAT! I know how tempting it is, how “good” it tastes, and how godawful I felt afterwards. People in my life, mostly doctors, told me to get my act together, but the only person that could change things was me.

  2. Heather

    Just read a similar article from CNN I love it! It’s so true! *Way to go Cameron* With dedication anything is possible, you have to believe in yourself!!

  3. Anonymous

    Nice attack on a large group of people simply because you are one and feel entitled. I call horse poop

  4. Anonymous

    So…how do you learn to cope with emotional eating? I know well what I should and shouldn’t be eating and I will be honest – money and time are big factors…but the biggest one…I’ve tried to do the healthy eating thing (even did the Insanity meal plan – for 3 days). My biggest problem is emotional eating – especially when I’m angry or excessively overwhelmed at work. I seriously don’t have the time to get up from my desk every time I have craving. Salt and Sugar – both normally sweet – so sugary = comforting and crunchy = anger/stress…I have to find something to replace that. Any ideas??

  5. D Faye

    I know that feeling. It’s really hard. I still have those times, but I’ve learned to get to a point where a bite-sized Snickers works just as well as a big one. The first thing I did was get all that stuff out of my house. The second thing I did was schedule a weekly indulgence – and put all my energy into looking forward to that.

    I should probably write about it in more detail on the blog, but I don’t know if my journey is the best example. I think both the books I recommended above do a far better job at giving you the tools to overcome this problem. I’d read both with an open mind.

  6. Anonymous

    I would suggest to anonymous emotional overeater to look into a therapy program of some sort. I have never been significantly overweight, but grew up being told I was fat and ended up starving myself because I believed I was fat. I would starve myself when I was overwhelmed emotionally, or stressed out. I did a lot of self hypnosis work and began working out several years ago. I found a great personal trainer who put together a meal plan for me and after following it for several months I saw a huge difference in everything! Including my ability to manage stress. I recommend hypnotherapy (as a hypnotherapist I would of course)….it is great for weight control! Good Luck!

  7. Anonymous

    I have suspected something like this for some time. Get the food into the zone where people crave it the most and the money will pour in.


  8. Julia

    Fantastic entry! It’s posts like this that have me keep coming back for more information. Thank you for making your point, backing it up with reliable information (or deconstructing the un-reliable info for us), and adding a little dash of snarkiness in for flavor. Excellent!

  9. C.J. Ong, Jr.

    Right on. I was a fat kid because I ate all the crap that was sold to me.

    One day I got pissed of, nutted up and took action.

    Over 30 years ago…

  10. Anonymous

    You should be proud of yourself, but have a little more tolerence for people who are where you once were. Not everyone is blessed with your strength and determination!

  11. Cameron

    It is very hard to stop eating bad food once you’re in the habit. I remember sitting in front of the TV and just eating a whole bag of Doritos. Was I hungry? No. But I was bored and it gave me something to do/pleasured my taste buds. That being said, I also got very sick almost every time I that. I eventually learned to stop buying Doritos. And instead of finding something else to eat, I changed my habits: I didn’t sit in front of the TV for hours and hours on Saturday nights.

    Suggestion to emotional eaters – Try to change your habits that put you in situations that promote overeating. I know its easier said and done, but if you get stressed at work and reach into your desk for that candy bar….quit buying candy bars and take a walk or something. Drink some ice water. Do something that isn’t eating. Its hard, but only you can stop it.

  12. Anonymous

    I totally agree. Once you get your body cleaned out of all those nasty food toxins and start to eat healthy foods, your body will crave the healthy foods. and i am addicted to apples,lol. good blog.

  13. D Faye

    Whoever made that tolerance comment, yes, tolerance is important and when I’m dealing with people directly, I tend to be much more nurturing, but the this is a pretty biting blog by nature.

    I think there’s something to be said for approaching a problem from several angles. Some people benefit from a more nuanced approach. Others need to be shaken up and told to think.

  14. Anonymous

    salt/sugar is America’s problem… especially Salt… People are less aware of how much salt they are consuming on a daily basis. FDA recommends 2300mg a day. I personally think no more than 1500mg a day. Also I think there should be regulation as to how much sodium restaurants can put in foods. A person can consume 3X the daily recommended amount of sodium in one meal! That is scary. If you want to be fat eat salt.

  15. stewbie2

    Great post, and oh-so-true. Bite the bullet, and clean out your kitchen. Get rid of all the crap. The first two weeks of ‘clean’ eating will be tough, but then you’ll feel superior to all others who are still shoving their guts full of crap. FUEL YOUR BODY PROPERLY.

  16. ministryreflections

    Very well said. The Psychological triggers of sweet and salty foods is definetly a variable when we decide what we are going to eat. I think my favorite quote from the post was “are you addicted to carrots, No!” that was awesome. I think I am going to go eat an apple now.

  17. Anonymous

    From succeeding on Atkins, I know first-hand about carb cravings. Because you can’t have these carbs on Atkins, you literally about 2 weeks in don’t even desire them, anymore. AND… It’s almost as if, the moment you cheat with something like potato chips or cookies, you start to crave them again. It’s perhaps the only reason why it’s the only diet I really succeed on. That being said, I am NOT low-carb anymore. I am trying to eat a more balanced (good carbs included) diet. I do struggle, though, because there are chips around the house. I try to eat the more straight forward corn chip (like Tostitos), though. I might actually read this book, because I think it might give me better insight on what snack carbs I should eat. I’m not much a veggie snacker, although I like salads and veggies with dinner. I just don’t see snacking on broccoli – NO THANKS!

  18. Anonymous

    True, there’s more to eating then this, as I too am an emotional eater. I don’t think that is what he is addressing here. He’s telling us the cold hard truth about the food biz. An EXCELLENT resource for emotional eating is Dr. Gould’s book SHRINK YOURSELF. It’s AMAZING!

  19. Jen L.

    Great freakin’ article . . . recently had WLS and while I have always had issues w/ food only recently I realized that all that “crap” food got me there, and now that I can not have it – well, it is like a weight has been lifted.

    Carbs are the devil.

  20. Anonymous

    Being a crappy food addict and an emotional eater myself…I have this to say:

    All my life I’ve heard people tell me “You have to learn moderation”. “Why can’t you have a piece of cake and not the whole thing? LEARN moderation”. Etc.

    I few years ago I saw an article in the News Paper and it showed a guy in one leg of his old pair of jeans while his best friend stood in the other pair. He had lost half his body weight and still had aways to go. He said something along the lines of “For those that are true (I insert word Crappy here) food addicts, you have to cut the food out. No one ever tells an alcoholic you can have just one drink. Forget learning moderation if you’re a true addict.”

    Those words stuck with me because that’s the way I’ve always felt. Trying to learn to be moderate just left all this bad food inside my body making me crave more. Once I cut it all out 100% I don’t even crave! I have had to learn different coping methods as I can’t turn to food the same way for comfort, but that’s a good thing. I’ve also learned to make “special comfort food” with Stevia instead of sugar so I do not get an insulin spike and over eat.

    It can be done!

  21. aeab4ef2-6077-11e0-8103-000bcdcb471e

    Great article!! it is very true, we dont need crappy food to survive and for those that say there is no time to prepare meals.. then plan on taking a few months off work from open heart surgery when your arteries are clogged… there is always time.. especially since your life depends on it..

  22. Anonymous

    great article hits the spot..as for me i rather have sugar than a plate of food…that is my weakness is eatin right…always on the go n really dont enjoy steak/burgers/hamburger meat in spagetti..its always been this way 4 me..just luv sweets………great article once again …just gotta stay focused just do it stay strong and patience is key………..

  23. Anonymous

    Let me start by saying that this is not just a problem for people who are overweight. I am not overweight at all, but I am a crappy food addict. I know I am. I simply exercise and cut out healthy calories to fit all my junk food in. I have tried to quit cold turkey, and I’ve tried moderation. I’m literally trapped in this bad habit. The more I quit, the more I’m afraid to quit because I know how hard I’m going to crash at that first taste. Pathetic, I know. Can you recommend any books for that?

  24. Anonymous


  25. JCus

    Addiction is not a “disease” or even something that you can not control…”Addiction” is a choice, plain and simple. We make bad choices, like drinking too much, or eating a ton of crap, because it feels good in the moment and we are not thinking about the next day (or ten years). Then we say “I was not in control of my actions” because I am an “addict” or I have a “disease” because we can’t accept responsibility for making poor behavior choices that continue to the point of disaster. No force larger than yourself is making you stuff your face, and saying otherwise is failure to admit your own failings.

  26. ShaunCav

    Excellent analysis…this might help people re-frame the reason why they’re eating something. May make it easier to say no as well….I know I don’t want to be controlled by food (although I sometimes am…haha).

  27. Jon Williams

    Awesome post!!! It hit me right square in the eyes and I have turned a corner!! Check out my post today about this lightbulb moment for me! Wow, thank you for such a great post!! πŸ™‚

  28. Anonymous

    I am a true binge eater/emotional eater/crappy food addict in recovery. I admit I can and will stop. I am in therapy with a psychologist and it has helped tremedously. I still have my slip ups but I get myself in control and go on. It is and always will be a constant struggle for me. I loved this post and it did nothing but empower me. So thank you soooooo much. I do have to say that my issues came from 10 years of physical and mental abuse from a previous spouse. I became this food addict without realizing it for many years. I know you wonder how in the world can some one not realize it but when you endure that much trauma it is a coping mechanism. One that I don’t recommend but I am alive. I actually remember one day going what the heck am I doing as I downed a bag of chips. You would never know I am only 121 lbs and 5’4″. It is a choice to get well.

  29. Anonymous

    Wow! Looks like you hit a nerve here, Fitness Nerd!

    Not even sure I need to comment amongst all this great feedback/input. But, I guess I’ll add that I tend to believe it is not addiction to the food itself, but to the emotional shift it provides/produces — its an emotional analgesic of sorts — a coping mechanism. Get off the crap and you’ll likely feel like crap for a while! Why? Because all of a sudden, all of those feelings you were numbing with the crap are going to make themselves known! For some, they think they are hungry even though they just ate their healthy meal, when in reality it’s a feeling like anxiety or anger or sadness that needs attention. Our bodies are programmed for self-preservation, to survive, not for self-destruction. Reaching for the crap/destructive substances (I don’t want to give it the dignity of calling it food) isn’t because our bodies crave it (they don’t crave something that will destroy it); we crave the emotional shift it produces (energy from caffeine, sedation from lots of fat). And, because eating and food are more socially acceptable than say smoking crack or taking bong hits, it’s easier to get away with using food. I think it’s Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous that says they are addicted to their insane eating, starving, exercising, and purging behaviors — not to food itself – and they use these behaviors and the inner physical changes resulting from them to numb their emotions and escape from themselves. The intoxicating β€œdrug” to which they are addicted is not the act of binging, starvation, etc., but rather to the feeling of being in control of their food, body weight and shape, and emotions.

    The solution? Step away from the crack . . . I mean, CRAP!!! And, learn to live life in reality (which, includes pain) without self-medicating. Easier said than done, but it CAN be done.


  30. PromoPaula

    Love the post! I never realized how much junk food I ate until about 2 years ago. I have never been obese, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been healthy. I am a crappy food addict on my way to recovery. It’s slow-going, but I’m making pretty good progress (I actually ENJOY baked fish and broccoli now!) Anyone can do it if they’re ready to commit!

  31. Anonymous

    what happens when you stop shakeology, i love it and really helps with cravings, but when i dont have it, its hard and i crave junk

  32. Anonymous

    I know my wife and I were both terrible crappy food addicts. We both stuggled with it for a long time. We picked up the P90X together and started following the nutrition guide as well as the workout. We kept to the diet for two weeks and decided to go to Red Robin as a treat. Had to be the worst night out in recent memory. You could literally taste the grease and salt. At that point we both agreed to just leave it be and just continued to follow the nutrition guide.

    I can honestly say that ever since we actually stopped eating the crap we’ve been happier, felt healthier, and had boundless energy.

  33. D Faye

    It’s a bit of an amorphous term, but for the purposes of this blog, I think it’s food artificially engineered with sodium, fat, and sugar to be delicious with no regard for calories or nutritional value.

  34. Allison

    I consider myself one of your nerd herd. Been reading for a while. Sometimes I comment sometimes I don’t. But I have to this time. I LOVE THIS POST. And for many reasons. But it is so true. And the “greedy thoughtless bastards” term is spot on. Except for the fact that they aren’t thoughtless. They just only think of themselves and the money they will make from poisoning us. Bravo to you.

  35. Anonymous

    While I admit I didn’t read every comment posted, the ones I did read never mentioned the “m” word. Moderation. Man cannot live on celery alone nor should he live on Cinnabon, however there is something to be said for a balance of health and an occasional indulgence. When we get locked into one or the other, that, I think is when problems can manifest. I personally can’t imagine eating fast food ( barf) every day, nor would I want to live on watercress and tofu day in and day out…. A glass of wine and some cheese with friends. Some frozen yogurt on a warm evening. These are a few things that make the effort of the other days worth while. And you learn to appreciate those moments all the more. But that’s just me.

  36. Anonymous

    I always enjoy reading your blog. your sarcastic sense of humor and nutritional information are right up my alley. This is probably my favorite post and I might just have to see if the local library has that book, the end of overeating.

  37. Pingback: The Lowdown on Diet and Depression | Denis Faye

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