Addicted to Food? It's a Complicated Relationship

Most people have what is called an "alert-number" when it comes to weight. That number varies from individual to individual, but is usually 20 pounds or more above or below where we are comfortable with ourselves. The "alert-number" doesn't work for addicts.
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One of the most complicated relationships some people have in their lives has nothing to do with another person, yet it embodies most of the emotions that occur in personal relationships. It is a relationship that they find both comforting and frightening, frustrating and loving. It defines them, yet it can limit how they live. It enhances or hinders their feelings of self-worth, and it is something that they cannot avoid having in their lives on a daily basis. The relationship I'm writing about is the one they have with food. This relationship can destroy them.

It may seem impossible to us that anyone can allow food to have such a destructive power over his or her life. However, food addicts, whether obese or anorexic, are as addicted to food as an alcoholic is to alcohol.

Most people have what is called an "alert-number" when it comes to weight. That number varies from individual to individual, but is usually 20 pounds or more above or below where we are comfortable with ourselves. The "alert-number" doesn't work for addicts.

The series "Addicted to Food," premiering April 5 on OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, follows eight people (whose addiction to food has adversely impacted their lives) through their stay at Shades of Hope Treatment Center. The center is a residential and extended-care, all-addictions treatment facility that specializes in treating eating disorders and co-occurring addictions. The focus of this series is not solely on weight; it also deals with the underlying struggles of the eight people in the series, struggles that have prevented them from overcoming their food addictions.

The addictions range from compulsive eating to anorexia and bulimia. Overeating, binge eating and self-starvation are all personally addressed by Tennie McCarty, L.C.D.C., the founder and co-owner of Shades of Hope. McCarty brings personal insight to the treatment of addictive diseases; she herself is a recovering bulimic. It was during her own recovery and journey to a healthy life that she discovered that those suffering from eating disorders respond well to a 12-step addiction treatment. Spirituality is also stressed. Asked about this part of the program, McCarty responded:

If people can do it [break addiction] without a spiritual component, then go for it. But I've never known anyone to be able to make a forever change without it. At the core, addiction is a spiritual problem because you lose your life in the disease. When there is not a spiritual component, it becomes a counting calorie program."

But the treatment is tough and may not work for all food addicts. At Shades of Hope, the treatment facility, staff and fellow residents become the addict's temporary world. Daily life includes strict nutritional requirements, having bathroom breaks monitored by staff (to prevent purging) and experiential therapeutic challenges that are used to break the cycle of addiction and build positive behaviors. One method is having periods where you are restricted from speaking to others. The other has patients carrying pillows around during the day as "physical depictions of emotional baggage." The treatments seem to work, but again, this therapy isn't for everyone. During filming of the series one patient had had enough and simply walked out.

Robby and Dejuaii are two patients who have benefited from their stay at Shades of Hope. Both have a long history with food addiction. Confronting personal fears and issues, Robby and Dejuaii entered into a series of specific therapeutic challenges to build positive behaviors and break the cycle of addiction. While working to overcome their addictions, they were encouraged to see themselves as worthy of lifelong recovery. Since an addict lacks healthy self-esteem, the idea that he or she is worthy of living a healthy life is an important first step.

Last year 5'6" Robby tipped the scales at 360 pounds. After the requisite 42 days of therapy, he is now under the 300-pound mark and is learning to have a healthy relationship with food. Robby is a musician living in Las Vegas who, as good as his music is, felt that he wasn't getting gigs because of his weight. Battling diabetes and the very real fear of dying from the complications of his weight, he believes that Shades of Hope saved his life. He now attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings as reinforcement for recovery. When I spoke with him he was energetic, enthusiastic and positive about maintaining the life changes he learned in treatment.

"I have my music, I'm writing songs, and, most importantly, I have my life back," he told me. "I wake up every day feeling good about me."

Dejuaii is a 45-year-old woman who comes from a fervently religious family. Religion plays a major role in her life and, along with her sisters, she is part of a Christian singing group. She also was a DJ for a Christian radio show. But her life was not complete. Dejuaii had never been in a romantic relationship, and for many years she hid her attraction to women. She had suffered as a consequence of not being able to live the life she wanted. Her stay at Shades of Hope changed that. Outgoing and a definite "people person," she told me that she is pursuing her goal of going into some form of mass communication.

"Singing, acting, that is what I want to do with my life," she said. "I love to entertain."

My final interview was with McCarty herself. Her answers were forthright and direct. Here is our interview:

KH: Tennie, you have suffered from bulimia yourself. What impact did this disorder have on your treatment of patients who are food addicts?

TM: That's really what motivated me to go into the business. When I did go to treatment, I didn't know until three days before I checked in that there was even something called bulimia. Being a recovering bulimic is still effective for me because you can't con a con. Working in a treatment center, I can absolutely know when a client is lying, and you can't get by us. We won't let you.

KH: Most of us see food as a pleasure and a necessity to life, so why do so many people use eating as a form of self-punishment?

TM: It doesn't start as self-punishment. It starts as something we do for enjoyment. It's a solution at first. Food does something chemically different to those who have eating disorder. It eases the pain of living. When we put certain food into our mouth, or restrict food, it changes the way a food addict feels. There is also a control aspect to it. We feel better when we are using.

KH: How much do you think society and the media (commercials, magazines, movies) have contributed to eating disorders?

TM: A great deal. Not all media, but they sure do play a large part. Pick up any magazine and on the front of most you'll see something about a new way to lose weight, the latest fashion and tips about how to have better sex. You pay attention and it's the best recipe, best sex and how to lose weight. It keeps us in a shame bind. We're never quite good enough.

KH: So many weight-loss organizations use a generic chart to determine a person's ideal weight. Doctors have been guilty of this in the past, as well. It seems to deter rather than encourage healthy weight for anyone who has a problem with food. What is your definition of a healthy weight?

TM: There has to be some guideline in what a normal weight is, but really a normal weight is when all the parts of a body are functioning properly. It takes healthy food and a healthy eating plan. A good guideline is when you can feel good about yourself. The guideline for anorexics is to get them stable, and the main sign of that is when their menstrual cycle begins to occur regularly. Their body starts working for them again. We are far more than a number on a scale though, and we don't focus on the number.

"Addicted to Food" is a show that is surprisingly uplifting. The eight people featured on it along with Tennie and her staff reminds us that life can change but that we need to be the catalyst for that change. You may not see food as an addiction, but if you watch the show you will see the humanity, warts and all, in all of us. We're all human, capable of making bad choices, but also resilient enough to make positive changes to create a healthy lifestyle.


To read more from Kristen Houghton, peruse her articles at and visit her Keys to Happiness blog. You may email her at Read the book that's sweeping the country, "And Then I'll Be Happy! Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness and Put Your Own Life First."

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