Compulsive eating is not a matter of character — but it is not a matter of disease, either. I sympathize with the author of “Compulsive Eating Is a Disease” and her struggle through years of painful dieting experiences, but ultimately, promoting Overeaters Anonymous is no different than promoting any other diet. They boast the same basic tenets: creating an enemy in food, promoting restriction, and compelling suppression of our internal cues. No one is born “addicted” to white flour; what makes us think that this is some defect acquired in adulthood?
Our myopic view of food and eating is questionable at its best, and downright harmful at its worst. If we’ve become unscientific and vague around the way we believe we should eat, it’s because it’s an emotional and deeply personal subject. Guilt and shame around food is a powerful driver of obsession with our eating behaviors, but this is not a disease — it’s an outcome of deprivation.
In the Minnesota Starvation Experiment of 1944, men who were subjected to calorie restriction became obsessed with food, poring over cookbooks and recipes despite no previous interest in such things. The sense of obsession continued for a time even after they were weight-restored and returned to an unrestricted diet. Our bodies are hard-wired to protect us against starvation — both mental and physical. It is the very cycle of restriction and obsession with “off-limits” foods that leads to claims of food addiction.
It is understandable, given our culture that encourages abstinence from “bad” foods and upholds the thin ideal as the pinnacle of health and desirability, that we seek to align our behaviors with these norms. But it is chronic dieting that has shown to be detrimental to our health, and, ironically, it often leads to higher weight in the long run. Weight cycling (losing and regaining weight continually) is a powerful predictor of negative health outcomes. It’s associated with cardiovascular disease, loss of muscle tissue, and binge eating behavior. Extreme or rigid behaviors around food that are not medically indicated call into question any health benefits they may purport; is a dietary choice truly healthy if it means curtailing participation in (or adding undue stress to) social experiences like sharing a meal with family or friends? What about the long-term effects of weight cycling that occur after a diet’s inevitable failure?
Deciding to cut out entire food groups based on fear is not righteous, healthy, or beneficial, and encouraging others to follow these behaviors is far from helpful. Comparing food deprivation to alcoholism is a reach at best when we have no solid scientific evidence of food addiction. If we are really concerned with mental and physical health, we should recall that restrictive eating and dieting is inextricably linked to the development of eating disorders, from which 30 million Americans currently suffer. Encouraging dysfunctional relationships with food and our bodies is disempowering and dangerous, and wastes energy that could be devoted to other things that add true meaning and value to our lives — social engagement, hobbies and outlets, and our careers, to name a few.
There are important and helpful resources that community members struggling with disordered eating or psychological distress around food can turn to. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website has resources and a help line at https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support; places like the Mindful Eating Institute are working to help individuals ditch dieting in favor of positive mental health practices; and the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch not only goes into greater scientific detail on the subjects discussed here, but is an affordable option for those looking to restore normalcy and peace with eating.