Can You Really be Addicted to Food?

Tennie McCarty, eating disorder therapist and star of the Oprah Winfrey Network's "Addicted To Food" says yes

When Oprah first announced that her new cable channel, OWN, would air a series about life inside an eating disorder rehab center, we weren't so sure about it. Would "Addicted to Food" raise awareness about eating disorders? Or would it sensationalize these illnesses, intruding on patients at their most vulnerable? 

The answer is a little bit of both. Questionable title shot of a silhouetted fat person wearing a bag on her head? Check. Footage of patients eating, crying, and purging? Check again.

But in between the eating and crying, the show brings up important truths about eating disorders -- like the fact that "skinny" EDs like anorexia are the flip side of the same coin as "fat" EDs like compulsive overeating. I also like that nobody at the rehab facility Shades of Hope knows their weight, because, as eating disorder therapist Tennie McCarty points out: "Your self-worth is not based on a number."

I caught up with Tennie yesterday to chat about her approach.

Q: You treat eating disorders with the same type of 12-step program used to treat drug addicts and alcoholics. We're not used to thinking of food as addictive, but a new study found that women with addictive personalities showed greater brain activity when craving a chocolate milkshake than non-addicts. Does this match your experiences? Can people really be addicted to food? 

TM: Yes. The fact is, certain foods interact with our brain chemistry and trigger cravings. For me, it's sugar. For others, it's fat, fried foods, a combination of fat and sugar, or even volume -- it doesn't matter what you're eating, you need more. You can have an eating disorder without a food addiction. But if you take a week or two off a certain food and you can't stop thinking about it, that may be a sign of addiction. Other signs include lying about your eating habits, only eating "bad" foods in private, never being able to just take one cookie and leave the rest, and denial. Addiction is hard to face. This is the only disease where your brain tells you that you do not have a problem.

Q: What inspired you to found the facility Shades of Hope? 

TM: I've had an eating disorder since I was four years old. I would restrict food, lose 100 pounds, and then gain it back in the same year. I took 100 laxatives a day for 13 years. I finally entered treatment in 1985. On the plane home, I knew that helping other food addicts would be my life's work. I'm grateful every day to be in recovery and to help our patients get there too.

Q: Can a food addiction ever be cured? 

TM: Addiction is a disease that you'll live with for the rest of your life, but you can learn to live with it in a healthy way. Our program requires patients to move in and let us take over their lives for 42 days. Some end up needing to stay longer. Others are ready at the end of that time to resume their normal lives -- with support and with a food plan that helps them stay sober.

Q: Do you think our current food culture plays a role? 

TM: Yes. The food industry is smart. They use food addiction research to manufacture foods designed to get us hooked because they taste so good. Then the diet industry makes billions of dollars off us because we try one diet after another and they all fail. And the media tells women they have to be a certain size. It all normalizes this dangerous pattern of binge and restrict.

Q: But how does this work in treatment? An alcoholic can decide to stop drinking. But someone with an eating disorder still needs to eat.

TM: Addiction is like a tiger. Alcoholics and drug addicts lock that tiger in a cage and work on coping without it. But food addicts have to take that sucker out three times a day. The key is to get patients on a healthy food plan that doesn't trigger their need to use. And there is no quick fix. Because lives are at stake.

Q: What's your advice for anyone watching the show or reading this interview, who thinks they may have a food addiction? 

TM: Get yourself a notebook and write down everything you eat for a few days -- not to try to change it, just so you can be honest with yourself about your problem. Then find a 12-step program that focuses on food like Overeater's Anonymous. Go to at least six meetings in a row and just listen and see if you can identify with the struggles of other people there. Then ask for help. OA can help you find a treatment program, a sponsor, or a dietician who is trained to handle food addiction. My hope is that with this show, we can help people treat their addictions early on, before it threatens your life. You don't have to get to Skid Row before you can get help.

"Addicted to Food" airs Tuesday nights at 10/9 Central, on OWN.

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