Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, second to Christmas.
More importantly, Thanksgiving was the holiday of pumpkin pie, which I hated. But with pumpkin pie came Cool Whip — we got the name-brand whipped cream for such an occasion — and I got to use as much as I wanted. Most people put one, two, or maybe three dollops on their slimy slice — but me? You couldn’t even see the pie under my mound of Cool Whip.
My obsession didn’t end there. At night, I tip-toed into the kitchen and dipped my finger into the tub of Cool Whip. (Sometimes I would use a spoon but I preferred not to since it would take longer and make more noise.) I sat on the floor like that for a while, wedged between the fridge door in the sliver of yellow light, carefully indulging, being mindful of my technique so the cream looked undisturbed.
When I was a kid, I didn’t see my whipped cream fixation as an issue. I found it funny. I joked that I would marry the man who gifted me whipped cream. (I received a few tubs and I did not follow through with that promise.) It wasn’t until middle school that food started to change for me.
Food addiction is a relatively new field of study, intersecting public health concerns and mental health. There isn’t an official diagnosis in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) like there is for substance abuse. Obesity prevalence continues to rise in the U.S. In 2017-18, 42.4% of adults were obese — up from 30.5% in 1999-2000. While some may argue that people are obese because of a lack of willpower or responsibility, these numbers just don’t make sense. People haven’t changed, food has.
But I didn’t know all of that at the time. So on a tawny, vinyl school bus seat, I would peek out the rectangular window as the world rolled by. My 11-year-old hands would rest on my favorite baby blue sweatpants, and my fingers would catch the big sequin star smack-dab on my thigh. And for the first time, I noticed my thighs. I started comparing my body to other girls’ and idolizing thinness. I went from a confident, bubbly elementary student, to an insecure, awkward middle-schooler.
And so, the weight loss attempts began. I woke up at 5 a.m. with my mom and we did home-workouts in front of a muted, flashing TV in the otherwise pitch-dark living room, so as not to disturb my brothers before I got ready for school. I started tracking my food in a fuzzy, lilac Cinderella notebook. My weight didn’t budge.
My mom supported my weight-loss goals but also insisted that I wasn’t overweight. Unfortunately, I was praised for eating all the food on my plate. And then eating seconds. My siblings were picky; I wasn’t. I have fond memories of scraping the shake-and-bake mix off of the foil cookie sheet after dinner. When I was much younger, I loved seeing Santa and bragging about how I finished all the food on my plate. As I got older, I’d eat an entire box of alfredo noodles with cream and butter; or two Hungry Man beer-battered chicken meals; or an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. I love leftovers but I never had them.
I love leftovers but I never had them.
By my sophomore year of high school, I was 5’4,” 168 pounds, and a size 12 in jeans. In hindsight, I wasn’t very large. But I still felt insecure. I knew my eating habits were abnormal and I knew I was technically overweight.
Above all else, I wanted to do things the “healthy” way — by eating right and exercising. There were, however, a few slip-ups. After binge-eating, I would feel tremendously guilty, so I tried not eating for a couple of days. It wasn’t easy getting offered McDonald’s and turning it down. It was also incredibly suspicious since everyone knew how much I loved to eat. There were also three instances that I threw up after eating — with many more attempts. After buffets or decadent takeout meals, I would walk to an isolated area in our three-acre, forested backyard and tremulously slip my finger down my throat. But I couldn’t do it. I was ashamed for considering something so awful and I was ashamed that I couldn’t control myself. I would tear up, lower myself to the ground, and hug myself — desperately grasping to root myself back in reality.
I never considered myself an addictive person. I've never done drugs or smoked, I dislike gambling, and I rarely consume alcohol. But after 12 years on this weight-loss journey, at the age of 27, it dawned on me: I might be addicted to food. I'm not talking about broccoli; I'm talking about pizza and pasta and ice cream and peanut butter and guacamole and hummus. It was this potential addiction that kept me above my ideal weight, which no amount of exercising or intermittent fasting could overcome.
Food addiction can’t be officially diagnosed and it isn’t widely understood yet. Just in 2009, the first test for food addiction was developed — the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), which is available for anyone to take on the Food Addiction Science & Treatment lab’s website. The test was based on the diagnostic indicators for substance use disorders, for instance, tolerance, withdrawal, losing control over consumption, and interpersonal problems because of use. I met the criteria for 7 of 11 symptoms, placing me into the “severe food addiction” category.
If you’re addicted to food, moderation doesn’t work. (I’m sorry, but if I could always control how much I eat of the fattening stuff, I wouldn’t be overweight.) Even using MyFitnessPal to track my food religiously for weeks wasn’t enough — because the second you put a container of guacamole in front of me, it won’t leave my mind until it’s all gone.
Humans have evolved to favor highly fattening, calorically-dense food, meaning butter tastes really good and kale, less so. To survive, our neural circuitry adapted to prefer the food that would give us the most calories — which are energy — so that our body systems could continue to function. Since this food wasn’t common prior to the Industrial Revolution, it wasn’t an issue. In this age of abundance though, we’re suffering the consequences.
“The name is essentially a misnomer,” says Erica Schulte, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, who specializes in food addiction research. “We’re not talking about natural foods.” Schulte’s research focuses on ultra-processed foods or junk foods that are high in calories, sugar, and fat. Like ultra-processed foods, cocaine is derived from a naturally occurring substance. But by refining the coca leaf and concentrating the addictive agent, the plant is altered in a way that rapidly hits our rewards system — transforming it into one of the most addictive substances. The same alteration has happened with food.
“These are not the foods that cavemen grew up on and really needed for survival,” says Schulte. "These are created foods that are made intentionally to be rewarding in a way that we’re not finding in our natural food supply.”
Food addiction is a little trickier than alcohol, narcotic, or gambling addictions. Not because it’s harder to overcome per se, but because food is necessary to live.
Eating ultra-processed food satisfies two of three mechanisms in the motivational triad developed by Douglas Lisle, Ph.D., and Alan Goldhamer, D.C. in their book, “The Pleasure Trap”: seek pleasure and conserve energy. (The third is to avoid pain.) These two conditions make food highly satisfying, but not inherently addictive. So, let’s take a look at the brain. The brain circuitry involved in eating is regulated by more than just our body’s metabolism; it’s also regulated by the reward, emotion/memory, attention, and cognitive control systems. A region in the brain called the dorsal striatum is implicated in the wanting, craving, and motivational drive seen in people with substance use disorder. The research needs to be replicated more, but there seems to be overlap with food addiction.
Food addiction is a little trickier than alcohol, narcotic, or gambling addictions. Not because it’s harder to overcome per se, but because food is necessary to live. These other addictions have also been thoroughly researched and advocated against. As such, food addiction hasn’t been deeply studied by many. Food may be necessary to live, but ultra-processed food isn’t, which is a large contributor to many chronic diseases, including obesity. These foods are infused in culture, think donuts, muffins, and bagels with cream cheese.
“If we think about how many people are struggling with their eating behavior and their weight right now, it's pretty significant to be bringing these [ultra-processed] foods in as part of our society,” says Schulte. “It's similar to if we were having an epidemic where people were over-using alcohol, but we were rolling in a mimosa cart to a morning meeting. It wouldn't make a lot of sense from a public health perspective. But these foods are so normalized in our society, and I think the role that they're playing in weight management isn't fully understood.”
To manage my food addiction, I did something that may be considered extreme — abstinence. No, not from sex. I gave up sugar, oil, flour, alcohol, and salt (SOFAS), to the very best of my ability. These are the foundational ingredients that make food taste so good. Living SOFAS-free was inspired by Chef A.J.’s “Lose weight with a full plate – 21-day challenge.” (A common mantra was, “To lose weight, get off the SOFAS!”) I live with my husband and a roommate, so this wasn’t going to be easy.
I ordered a mini-fridge, and a sizable toolbox for non-perishables, along with two sets of padlocks. I begged my husband to lock up his food, because “if it’s in your house, it’s in your mouth,” as Chef A.J. says. And it was. Exactly like the little girl with the Cool Whip, I’d sneak into the kitchen and eat his prepared meals or overindulge in his snacks. He had all the hyperpalatable stuff, unlike me, who only bought and prepared healthy meals (which were still delicious, just not addictively so). I set aside all of the trigger foods he had so they could be locked away: noodles, bagels, peanut butter, Asian-inspired sauces, and chocolate milk, to name a few.
For the first few weeks, I would open and close the fridge and cupboards, looking for those foods. Open, and close. Open, and close.
For the first few weeks, I would open and close the fridge and cupboards, looking for those foods. Open, and close. Open, and close. I would check the fridge and toolbox locks, sometimes twisting the combination and tugging at it, hoping he only shifted the last number by one digit. After a couple of weeks though, I started to gain more control over my addiction.
Locking away my trigger foods was single-handedly the best thing I could ever do; designing your environment for success is much more effective than relying on willpower. Because I have complete control over my food, my diet consists of salads with balsamic vinegar, plenty of non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, and starches such as rice and potatoes to make me feel full. (No meat or dairy; I’ve been vegan for over seven years.) I treat myself to berries for dessert. Within a month and a half, I was down 20 pounds.
Long-term abstinence is an exceptionally difficult model to follow. Schulte recommends a more nuanced harm reduction approach, where you might allow some ultra-processed foods in moderation but set rules and goals for yourself. For example, if you’re going to an event that you know will have an abundance of unhealthy food, eat beforehand and pack your own snacks. Or, you might choose to remove yourself from the high-risk scenario altogether.
Locking away my trigger foods was single-handedly the best thing I could ever do; designing your environment for success is much more effective than relying on willpower.
Thanksgiving is always a challenge. I have no problem resisting non-vegan foods, but for the foods I can eat — namely stuffing and mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy — it’s hard to moderate how much I pile onto my plate. Moreover, these hearty foods gain extra allure as the temperature drops. (I used to joke that I was developing my “winter coat,” a.k.a., body fat.)
With Michigan’s new COVID-19 restrictions, our in-person, family Thanksgiving is canceled. In a way, it’s a relief. That cuts down on the social pressure. I also have more control in my environment, and I have a plan: Always fill half the plate with vegetables and eat those first. Even for seconds (and thirds), half of the food on the plate must be vegetables. I believe that setting these rules and goals will help.
While my addiction is managed now, it will never go away. Every day will be a battle. Yes, I still love Cool Whip. But I don’t eat it anymore; it’s not worth my sanity.
You should not rely on this information as a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other health-care professional.