IT was not my intention to write about my personal struggle with food addiction — today, or ever. But that changed when I was asked to attend Katie Couric’s new daytime show and write about my visit. I was invited there to comment on a segment about contact sports and the danger of concussions in kids, so I was caught completely off guard when the show began with a segment on food addiction, with guest Dr. Pam Peeke talking about her new book, The Hunger Fix.
The day I hit bottom my precocious two-and-a-half year old daughter was walking from room to room, looking for me. “Momma?” she called repeatedly, peering into our bedroom, knocking on the door of the bathroom, slightly ajar. Although I could hear her loud and clear, I couldn’t answer. I wasn’t in either of those rooms. Instead, I was standing inside our pantry eating every last pecan sandie from a box I had bought the night before.
If this had been a sitcom, the scene would have been treated comically. We’d see an overweight mom with a mouthful of cookies paused in mid-chew, tightly clutching the doorknob to the pantry; a well timed laugh-track punctuating the moment her daughter rips open the door and mommy crumbles to the kitchen floor. The scene would get a big laugh. I might have laughed too had I been watching a show, instead of being the grown woman desperately hiding from her toddler on the other side of that door.
That day I had a revelation. I could see my binge eating, a habit I had acquired twenty years before I became a mother, for what it was: wrong. Unhealthy. Desperate. Not something I wanted to teach my daughter. In that moment I made a promise to finally get help with my disordered eating. My first step was to ask my primary doctor for a referral to a nutritionist. She started me on a path of healthy eating that I have been able to maintain for close to six years.
Part of the problem with food addiction is our inability to take it seriously. It’s just not sexy! I used to joke that Nick Cage and Elizabeth Shue would never make a movie called “Leaving Dunkin Donuts”. If my drug of choice had been booze, or pills, that scene in the pantry would have been considered tragic and I might have gotten help a lot earlier than at age thirty-nine. Overeating is still viewed as a moral or personal failing, a lack of willpower and control.
Thanks to programs like Alcoholics Anonymous plus years of scientific research, we’ve made tremendous progress in our understanding and acceptance of drug and alcohol addiction as a disease that requires treatment. Only now, as Dr. Peeke reports in her book, has the latest neuroscience produced evidence that the brain of a food addict or compulsive overeater is wired similarly to that of a person with other addictions. She writes that, “…dopamine rushes in the body can work exactly the same way with food as with drugs like cocaine.” Dr. Peeke maintains that any woman, or man, with food addiction is as desperate and as deeply in trouble as a person addicted to alcohol or prescription drugs.
Food addiction is real. Like alcohol and drug addiction, it has severe physical consequences and will progress without treatment. If you’re suffering from any disordered eating— binge eating or purging, food deprivation or starvation, or over-exercising — I urge you to talk to your doctor today, or go to Overeatersanonymous.org.
I now have a number of strategies and allies that help me stay healthy, including working with a compassionate personal trainer who knows that healthy eating is the foundation of physical fitness, and supportive family and friends. But the most important part of my recovery is a willingness to take my problem seriously and to seek help. Today, I’m coming out of the pantry —in the hope that in doing so, I might help someone else who is still suffering.
Lisa Duggan is the publisher of The Parent du Jour and The MotherHoodBlog.com. She is also the producer of a new Continuing Education series for parents, called The Modern Village, with classes in New York and New Jersey.