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January 14th, 2009
10:06 AM ET

National addiction to overeating?

By Jennifer Pifer-Bixler
CNN Medical Senior Producer

One of my favorite television shows is “Intervention.” On the show, people with harrowing addictions are confronted by loved ones with the help of a trained interventionist. Typically, the episodes end with the addicts going to rehab. It's my idea of “must see TV”: trauma, drama and redemption all wrapped into an hour. Most of the time, the people on the show are addicted to drugs or alcohol. But there was one addict with a different story. Josh was a compulsive overeater. In his early 20s, Josh spent his days gorging on fast food and sweets. He weighed nearly 550 pounds and was miserable. Every time Josh walked up the stairs, he felt as if he were going to have a heart attack. Something about Josh really struck me. He had a gentle demeanor. His passion was singing and he had a beautiful voice. When he went away to the rehab, I was really rooting for him. The other night, I caught a follow-up episode on Josh. It's hard to believe what's happened to him.

Josh's story came to mind as I read an unsettling statistic. For the first time, obese Americans now outnumber the merely overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 32 percent of Americans are overweight, 34 percent obese and 6 percent are extremely obese. To put that into perspective, if you are 5 feet 5 and weigh 150 lbs, that's considered overweight. If you weigh 180, that's considered obese. Statistically, women as a whole tend to be a tad more obese then men. As we've pointed out many times, America has an obesity epidemic. Over the years, we've seen a number of carrots and sticks offered as ways to combat to this major U.S. health issue. Some health insurance policies offer discounted gym memberships to help people watch their weight. In New York City, certain restaurants have to post calorie information on menu and menu boards. In Mississippi, lawmakers even discussed proposing a bill that would make it illegal for restaurants to serve obese people. That idea was shot down pretty quickly. Ideas abound. But still the numbers go up. Why? I decided to ask an unconventional expert.

I tracked down Josh. He is doing great. In the past year and a half, he has lost close to 249 pounds. He's now around 300 pounds and is working hard to lose 100 more pounds. I asked him why he thought the number of obese Americans is growing. While he doesn't claim to speak for all obese people, Josh thinks for most of them food is an addiction. "It's a cheap way to stuff down emotions," says Josh. "I used food as a drug so I didn't have to feel." Josh says food for him is like booze for an alcoholic. "I don't think it's a matter of willpower. I could not control the power of food," he says. He couldn't just have one sliver of cake. "I'd eat the whole thing," he says. Like an addict looking for his next fix, Josh says, he use to plan his days around when he was going to eat and what. When he went into rehab, Josh says he had to come to terms with some things about who he is and what he wants. "The number on the scale is just one small part of the story," he says. "The real miracle has come through my spiritual and emotional growth. My goal is to help other people who have been where I was."

I love Josh's story and hope he continues to lose the weight and grow into the man he wants to become. His confidence is soaring. He plans to audition for “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent.” Josh has become a success story in America’s obesity epidemic. I am curious. Do you think obesity is the result of addiction? Do you think health insurance companies should pay for compulsive eating rehab?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. John, Columbus, OH

    It is a fact that humans can become addicted to any mind altering substance including food. I am a member of Overeaters Anonymous, a large fellowship, based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. The fact is, that when I put certain foods into my body, for me that includes Sugar (processed as fruit is okay) and flour, my body has an 'allergic reaction' characterized by a 'phenomenon of craving' that develops and I am triggered to binge and stuff myself trying to fill up the void inside. Josh indicated that the void is a spiritual void that I used to eat to try to fill. I hope this information helps some people out there. There are many in our OA groups who have recovered and maintained multiple 100 lb weight losses for years. Anorexics and bulemics are also welcome. For more information, and to find a meeting in your area, you can visit the OA Website. w w w.oa.org/index.htm

    January 14, 2009 at 12:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Lisa Gord

    Thank you for that article. I too suffer from food addiction and have found the answer in a spiritual solution. If it were just following a food plan, any diet would work. For me, food is a much deeper issue than what goes in my mouth. I know what healty food is, but the reason I ate was to avoid feelings or to get good feelings. Food became my master and an abusive partner. When I got down to the reasons I ate, which I discovered by working the 12 Steps in OverEaters Anonymous 90 Day Format, I was able to follow a food plan that for me is 3 measured meals a day, no sugar and flour (to that I have a physical addiction), I am able help others who are suffering and I can accept life as it is. I have kept off 86 pounds for over 3 years, and I no long waste a single minute letting food tell me how to feel. Thank you for letting me share my story.

    January 14, 2009 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. spoffoa

    Is it possible that some people use "food addiction" as an excuse for overeating? And what, specifically, do people do to undo this addiction cycle. How can the spouses of obese people get help in dealing with our own feelings of frustration?

    As the spouse of a self-proclaimed "food addict", I find my anger and resentment mounts as I watch his potential life-threatening behavior of overeating and "wrong eating", especially when I know he knows better. He loves snacks - an hour after dinner he's looking in the pantry for something while he watches TV. He also travels for work and is subject to food options on the road. He resents it when I make even quiet comments about his food choices when we are out at a restaurant, or party, etc. Yet, what am I supposed to do? Let him just eat a plate full of french fries and fried meat, and say nothing about it? He has diabetes, heart disease, back problems, etc., and has a team of doctors who prescribe various medications and advise him about losing weight, but this problem has gotten worse over the years (now in his early 50's, his weight is over 300 lbs.) He says, "I'll start my diet next week", and next week never comes. Many people, like my husband, sit in an office all day to make a living. I have lost 20 pounds since November in order to inspire him to do the same.

    Is it that people are addicted to food, or is it more the fact that as children they did not develop the habit of physical activity, and moreover, got turned off to the wide array of healthier food choices like vegetables and fruit, due to family influences? Or is it that the pressure to be successful in their career overwhelms any introspection or body awareness?

    January 14, 2009 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Melissa

    I do think that food addiction is part of the cause of Americans obesity problem. The biggest problem with having a food addiction is that you can't take food away. What I mean is that if your an alcoholic, you combat your addiction to booze by not drinking. With a food addiction, you can't just stop eating to get over the addiction. You have to eat to survive. I think that food addiction is much more difficult to overcome. BUT, I don't think that food addiction is the whole problem. Americans are lazy! Technology makes it easier and easier for us to sit on our butts. Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging. I am one of those overweight Americans who finds it much easier to sit at the computer or watch tv than get up and get out and do something.

    January 14, 2009 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. mabel floyd

    i have lost 100 pounds also. there are many reasons for gaining so much weight. they range from medical problems to emotional ones. when i am tempted i use the mantra of, "if i had eaten this 10 min. ago all i would now have is a memory and i already have one of thoes. exercise is a help that assists you, but one you may enjoy. i have back trouble so my exercise is doing a swim routine l.5 hours 4 days per week. i have lost my taste for meat and eat lots of veggies and fruit. i have a ton of energy and i love buying cloths. i am 77 years old and feel 40.

    January 14, 2009 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. cindy

    I do believe over eating / binge eating is an addiction. Foods can change your mood. Almost every one has experienced this so it's crazy that we are even asking ourselves if this is possible. Of course over eating is an addiction.

    January 14, 2009 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Laura

    I think the American obesity epidemic is caused by several factors that feed off of each other. Partly, it is addiction. But we have a culture that revolves around food. Everywhere we look, it's food food food, from the billboards to commercials to school kids selling tubs of cookie dough.

    Another part is that Americans have no idea of what real food is. They think that packets of processed powdered chemicals that you heat in the microwave actually turn into oatmeal. They think the chemical wonders that are labeled fat-free sugar-free calorie-free yogurt are actually yogurt.

    And finally, food is an American hobby. Take away food and shopping, and Americans don't really have a lot left.

    January 14, 2009 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Linda

    Most of my family would fall in the category of overweight, except for my mom, brother and me.

    I am 5' and 100 pounds. I can eat anything and not gain weight. My doctors have not found a medical condition (thyroid, etc) to explain this. However, Mom, brother and I were destined to be thin no matter how much (or what) we ate. I eat regular meals, nibble at snacks all day, eat pizza and ice cream, and sometimes wake up at 2 am to eat again...all this without gaining weight.

    30+ years ago I started a diet and exercise plan for a cousin to help her lose about 10 pounds and fit into her new prom gown.

    We worked at the plan together, cutting back food portions, changing the types of foods we ate, and riding bicycles daily. I literally insulted her to get her to leave the dinner table. Family made me stop joining her in the project because I lost weight and she didn't lose any at all.

    This proved to me that our genetic makeup is a major factor in being over weight. I also believe that doctors set unrealistic goals for pigeonholing people by their weight.

    How can a generic government weight loss program (or mandate) work well for everyone in the nation?

    January 15, 2009 at 08:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Meg

    Yes, overeating is definitely an addiction. Two aspects: one, the use of eating for comfort as a crutch. Two, the seeming inability to stop at just one bite. If I don't eat white flour or sugar, I can go months without out wanting to binge. When I do, I can't just have a cookie after dinner–I have 10.

    January 15, 2009 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. thelastresortpa

    That is amazing, I too love the show "Intervention" and yes a drug is a drug is a drug.... Folks with food addiction certainly have a rough road, with other addictions abstinence is the ultimate goal, but with food, you must eat! Congrats to Josh....

    Dan Callahan, LMSW
    http://www.TheLastResortPa.com

    January 15, 2009 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Darlene

    While some people may have a food addiction issue, I don't think that explains all cases of obesity. I think eating out is to blame for a good portion of it. Meals at restaurants that you think are healthy (for example, grilled or baked salmon) can easily have over a 1000 calories. A salad with cheese, nuts, dried fruit, and full-fat dressing can have as many calories as a steak dinner. Fast food is notoriously unhealthy, with few exceptions. My husband and I are both trying to eat healthier, and as a result, we are cutting eating out completely. Fast food and eating out have been a convenience because we both work and it's just easier. But you can't do it with any regularity and maintain a healthy weight.

    January 15, 2009 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Paul Murphy

    Obesity is a by product. I sought out treatment for a BINGE EATING DISORDER. As I began talking about this issue I realized very few people have heard of it. Because of that fact I helped to produce a video detailing the treatment.
    I used food to medicate self hate, and alcohol really intensified the eating behaviour. I just ate and ate until I was in severe pain from food. Food allowed me to self medicate,and it was the tool I used to self soothe. I thought of food 24-7 .
    After a treatment session, I stopped in a grocery store to buy one item. I walked out with $100.00 of food items . My session was from 5 to 7 PM , but it interrupted my regular meal time .
    I am far too busy walking and eating well to bother with a scale,or a BMI. I am not a number, are you? The fact is that I feel and taste my food ,and when I eat a meal I take deep breaths to connect to my stomach. I always ate like a starving person,and during a binge I can bite my tongue,lips and cheeks. Before treatment I was a meal skipper,and then when I ate my supper I ate until I was in pain.
    My goal is to create conversation, and I do not feel millions are binge eaters, but I suspect many have a food relationship issue.

    January 16, 2009 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Debra

    Yes indeed food is addictive. I don't like to exercise but I am still pretty active I can lose 30lbs and then gain back 50. Portion control is the key but I can't seem to control my portions . Does anyone have suggestions for portion and self control?

    January 16, 2009 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Paul Murphy

    Join me in this effort to encourage an open discussion about obesity. This is a very complex issue and I feel a conversation is in order. We have experts and we have successful weight loss individuals ,to draw from . We also have a great deal of obese people that we need to include in our discussions.
    Against obesity but not against obese people. How are we going to bridge this gap? How do we include all to partcipate effectively? What is working ? What areas of the U S are defeating this health crisis?

    http://www.youtube.com/smurfp4444

    Thanks Paul

    January 17, 2009 at 11:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Paul Murphy

    I suffered for years eating to excess,and I too went to self blame . I had no idea that this was a Speciallized Mental Illness. I continue to work at facing my illness each day. In order to keep the issue off balance I eat every few hours. Breakfast makes me sickly,but I try to eat within the first 30 minutes of waking.
    This mechanical eating ,allows me to face the issue head on. I face it every few hours. My overall goal is to win ,or hit 3 out of 4 meals. That means I ate ,slowly tasted my food and felt sated,or nourished. Before treatment every single meal was to excess,in that I ate until I was in severe pain.
    For more on this pop by http://www.youtube.com/smurfp4444 ,or see me on facebook.
    Thanks Paul

    January 17, 2009 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Paul Murphy

    Personal accountability ,lifestyle,unhealthy living ,unhealthy eating,lack of willpower ,laziness and any other catch all FAULT BASED MODEL. I am encouraging a meaningful discussion on obesity. 30,000 U S A toddlers that are currently 30 pounds overweight await a response . Each day 2,ooo U S citizens are diagnosed with Sugar Diabetes or type 2 Diabetes.
    This crisis is a threat to the fabric of many countries. The assault on the individual and the health care system is far reaching .

    Lets build a conversation ,and explore the countless factors contributing to the obesity crisis .
    http://www.youtube.com/smurfp4444
    AGAINST OBESITY NOT AGAINST OBESE PEOPLE.
    Thanks Paul

    January 18, 2009 at 10:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. GF, Los Angeles

    Only in America (and other wealthy nations) would an obesity problem exist. We have an over abundance of food and unfortunately there are people who have no self control. 3rd world countries don't have this problem because food is not a luxury – it's only meant for survival – something we've forgotten as we stuff ourselves with junk food etc. Obesity is a choice – enough of the excuses.

    January 21, 2009 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Bea

    i believe eating can be addictive. But one way that I find usefull to prevent overeating is really enjoying my food. Eat slow. Pay attention to what you're doing. turn the TV off. It will also improve your family time in terms of quality. When we enjoy our food, we actually may eat less. We'll be satieted with less, so less here can be more. You'll feel great for not being full and for not surreding to temptation.

    But the government should have its role too. Healthy food is generally more expensive than unhealthy food. Poor people have difficulty in keeping a balanced diet. unhealthy food shouldn't be forbiden in restaurants or anywhere, but it should cost more. It should be taxed.\

    If you think in the normal weight people's perspective, it doesn't seem fair for them to pay the same amount of health insurance as an obese person would pay. But it's hard to bring the discussion to these grounds. Apart from some conditions that make loosing weight harder, obese people shouldn't be treated as having a condition that can't be changed. But we keep trying to be politicaly correct. Unfortunately, dealing with obesity as if it were normal just makes the problem worse.

    I'm not saying that obese people don't need help or treatment. But if our society keeps believe and saying "It's ok", we're not helping to solve the problem either!

    January 27, 2009 at 18:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Nadine Ann

    In my research I have found that food addiction or true binge eating disorder is more about not facing stress or negative feelings in one's life. It can then lead to an eating disorder which can then turn into cycles which are very difficult to break.

    We do need to focus on healthy eating for all of our society starting at an early age.

    Nadine Ann, C.N., H.H.P
    http://www.breakawayprogram.com

    July 10, 2009 at 15:01 | Report abuse | Reply
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