Do You Believe Bingeing (and Purging) Could Actually Be an Addiction?

I got a long letter from reader Ingrid, 23, in which she told me a bit of her story with food and her body (read it here). But something toward the end of her note struck me, and I wanted to share it with all of you. She said that she feels like her eating (and purging) is almost an addiction. The addictive properties of food are fiercely debated among researchers, and we haven’t talked about food and bingeing in terms of addiction here on the site yet. But it’s important, and it can inform the way people approach their own recovery. So, after I answer Ingrid’s main question I’d love to hear what you think about whether food can be addictive. xo…Sunny

Q: I’ve suffered from different types of eating disorder for some years. When I started bingeing and purging in college, I contacted my doctor, and she recommended therapy. I thought my therapist was stupid, but slowly, I started opening to people, and talking a bit to my best friends about my problems. I didn’t tell them about the bingeing and purging, because I was so ashamed. But just showing some feelings was a great improvement.

I kept fighting, and I found a lot of useful stuff on the internet. Especially things about improving my self esteem helped me a lot. Now, I’m feeling so much better. I’m still a bit overweight, but it doesn’t bother me so much anymore. I don’t obsess over what people might think of me. And it’s so liberating. But I still overeat and throw up. Not so often, but it’s still a problem. It’s like an addiction. I’m telling myself that it’s not a problem, and that I can quit any time I like, but of course I can’t. I’m not sure on what to do. And I’m leaving for Canada soon, where I’m going to be a exchange student for a year. I’m scared that leaving my friends and family and having to get new friends will affect my eating problems, and maybe make them worse. I think I need some ideas on how to cope on my own. Do you have any suggestions? —Ingrid, 23

A: Yes, I do have suggestions! They might not be exactly what you want to hear, though. You asked for ideas on how to cope on your own. My advice: Stop trying to. Listen, I relate to the desire to do it on your own—I used to feel that way, too. I used to feel like I should be smart and strong enough to kick this binge eating thing all by myself. I mean, c’mon, it’s just food! Some people (I believe those with more minor issues) may be able to self-help and read their way back to good health. But that’s not the way eating disorders work for those of us with longstanding or more serious problems. And believe me: Bingeing and purging—even occasionally—is a serious problem. Purging is even more dangerous and disrupting to your body and mind than bingeing alone—it dehyrates you, breaks blood vessels, drags corrosive stomach acid over the sensitive tissues of your throat and your tooth enamel, and some experts have suggested that it also causes a release of chemicals in the brain that cause a sense of euphoria. Like a drug, perhaps?

Anyhow, you said it best: You feel like you’re in control, but you’re not. You feel like you can stop anytime, but then you find that you can’t. You said it feels like an addiction.

Well, here’s the good news, there are totally free groups based on addiction treatment principals that you can go to for food problems. And they’re all over the world, including Canada, where you will be headed soon! There are several types of these groups, many of which are based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: Eating Disorders Anonymous; Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous; Overeaters AnonymousAnorexics and Bulimics Anonymous. I went to a similar type of group once or twice a week for three years and it helped me move so much further along in my recovery. The structure and support was key in helping me get better and become a normal eater, and I encourage anyone who’s suffering to walk into a meeting and just see what might happen. (And if you don’t like the idea of any of those groups above, check out the National Eating Disorder Information Centre of Canada for referrals to other groups.)

And, don’t write off therapy forever, Ingrid. I know you had a bad experience with your therapist—there are some rotten (or stupid) eggs out there—but that doesn’t mean you might not find someone else who is a better fit for you, or someone who has more experience with eating disorders. I’ve used therapy as part of my recovery, too, and as you said, learning to open up and deal with emotions is so important. Therapy didn’t cure my eating issues, but it helped me build strong self-esteem and learn coping tools for life so that I could slowly but surely let go of the food.

In the meantime, there are some really good books that helped me—and tons of other people I know—move forward in recovery. Just don’t feel like you should or have to go it alone. You’ll get better faster if you keep reaching out for help. Please let me know how you’re doing when you get to your exchange program!

Now, to the whole audience: The research on whether food (especially sugar and fat) may be addictive is mixed, but I know that thinking of my bingeing issues as an addiction did help me for a few years while I was in the thick of things. Have you ever considered an addiction-style model of support or therapy for your eating issues? Do you believe food is addictive for you? xo…Sunny

6 Responses to Do You Believe Bingeing (and Purging) Could Actually Be an Addiction?

  1. Katie says:

    The approach that has really helped me is working on the basis that it isn’t all down to addictive properties of food, just like it isn’t all down to emotional eating. By that I mean that, with the help of my therapist, I can recognise those situations that are particularly risky for me - when I’m feeling anxious, angry, frustrated or alone, but also that recognising that there is an element of “addiction” is important for those times when I look back and can’t really identify a trigger exactly. There are times when I just wanted the food, and not because I was feeling vulnerable or bored etc. etc. I have just read the book “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler, and having a scientific background myself that really helped me to understand that there are times when it really is down to my brain chemistry, but that the more I work on changing my reponse to the cues I get, the more that reinforces my new positive patterns.

    Sorry that’s a bit lengthy, I hope that makes sense!!

    • Sunny says:

      I loved The End of Overeating; and I agree with you that understanding the scientific background and the ways that foods, smells, even sights can impact our appetite and eating habits is so helpful.

  2. Deanna says:

    I don’t know that food is an addiction, but the behaviors almost certainly are. Or at the very least a very strong, very bad habit. But, as a recovering binger, I have decided that it doesn’t really matter whether they are or not. Labeling the behavior as one thing or another doesn’t stop it, or change it.

    My first step to recovery was admitting there was a problem. Second was telling someone. That was really hard. I found a very trustworthy person and told them. Whew! What a relief that it was no longer a secret. Later I was encouraged to have a person to tell whenever I had a binge/purge episode. That was even harder, but as I was willing to be accountable for my actions, things got better. Finally, and more recently, I have started to stop (yes I know that reads strangely) thinking of myself as a crazy person. Yes, I have my problems, but I am no longer letting my issues with food control my life. By acting as though I am a healthy person, step-by-step I seem to be become healthier.

    For example, if I am angry, rather than stuffing my face, I try to think what a healthy person would do. A healthy person would probably tell the person they were angry at. OK, I’ll try that.

    Don’t keep it a secret. Don’t try to do it alone. Don’t keep yourself labeled as crazy. It will make a difference.

  3. anonymous says:

    When I had bulimia (age 17 to mid20s), I used laxatives, not vomiting, to purge and I’d binge at least once, maybe twice a day, and use an amount in excess of the recommended dose for the usual therapeutic reason to use a laxative.

    I can’t say that food itself was addictive in the sense that I had one particular food-I could binge on virtually anything. The thing that was addictive was the feeling of beyond-full, actual PAIN which distracted me from emotional and psychological pain. It wasn’t a physical sugar addiction, for example. There IS a physical addiction that happens with regular laxative abuse-I had issues with constipation and hemorrhoids for a number of years in my late 20s as I adjusted.

    I tried student health group therapy in law school when I was first trying to get over the bulimia and I don’t know that it really helped much-but discovering an underlying depression and getting medication did. So did having such a severe electrolyte imbalance that I was fainting a lot and I was told I might die if I continued to use laxatives the way I was. I relapsed into bulimia when I was studying for the bar, and then stopped.

    Do I binge anymore? Not like I used to-but I do emotionally overeat on occasion a few times a month-but more like by 500 calories not several thousand. Am I cured? No. I still have a fairly obsessive relationship with food, body, weight. But at the same time, the habit of the behavior is gone, I have pretty disciplined healthy eating habits.

    So is it an addiction? I don’t know if it’s a physical addiction, but it’s definitely a mental obsession/compulsion. Otherwise I wouldn’t think about food and weight several hours a day…. but I can tell you that you CAN overcome the behavior, even if your thoughts about this type of thing are still there. I suppose that sounds like a lot-but it’s a lot less than 20 years ago…

    Oh-the other thing-I’m now a normal weight. Not a perfect body, mind you-but I was pudgy when I was bulimic. Purging doesn’t really remove all the binging calories.

  4. […] us who’ve fought eating issues: Teasing from kids in school, verbal or sexual abuse, possible addiction to certain foods. readers, what do you think yours were? xo…Sunny […]

  5. Sally says:

    I’ve been binging then purging for over 2 years now since the end of year 11. I’ve always had negative thoughts about my body since I was very young when people started to tell me I was ugly or fat or whatever. I suffer from very low self esteem and I am never satisfied as a result of having a timid personality, growing up people would tell me I was boring or quiet, and from being told this I thought the only way to get people to like me or find me interesting was through the way I looked and towards the end of highschool when my metabolism began to slow down and I started to gain weight, I started to hate my body. And what really tipped me off was this guy who chose another girl over me because he thought I was too fat. So from then I became obsessed with excersisig and eating healthy which quickly turned from eating healthily to eating an orange a day and exercising heavily for three hours a day. And in three months I lost 30 kilos. But when I returned back to school starting year 12 I soon realized I couldn’t keep my routine up sp started to eat normally again but purge to counteract the food intake. I soon started to think, this was the best thing ever. I could stay thin and eat whatever I wanted because I only had to throw it up later. So from then I got greedy and would binge eat chocolates and bread and a whole box of cereal, all the things I had starved myself of during those three months of anorexia. From then I became addicted I soon found I couldn’t eat anything with out feeling guilty so would eat so much until I felt sick and threw up. It also became a solace, after a tiring day of Uni or work or I had a fight with someone I would just rent a movie and buy $50 worth of junk food and eat until I couldn’t fit anything else in and throw up and repeat the process until about 2am every night. After doing it for these years my hair is frail, my skin is dry, my boobs have sagged from rapid weight loss and my teeth have discolored. I’m so sick of missing out on life because I hose to go home and block the world out with chocolate and butter instead of going out for a meal with Friends or just walking to the park or the beach to relax and enjoy nature and others company. I miss feeling happy about myself and having a best friend I don’t hide anything from. I feel trapped with in myself and nothing I do Is ever good enough. I wish I could just eat healthily and exercise Regularly like a normal human. I’m sick of being tired and dehydrated. What should I do?

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Sunny Sea Gold

About the Author

Sunny Sea Gold is a media-savvy advocate and commentator specializing in binge eating disorder, cultural obsessions around food and weight, and raising children who have a healthy body image.