Why Food Addiction Is Deadlier Than Drinking

By John Kiernan 06/23/11

Overeating is often seen as a trifling addiction to addicts. Our writer—who's both a food addict and an alcoholic—begs to differ.

Too much food and too much booze are both dangerous—but which is worse?

At the end of an AA meeting recently, I mentioned to a friend that I had to go speak at a meeting for compulsive overeaters. He looked at me quizzically and said, “But you’re not fat.” To which I replied, “Yes, and you’re in AA and you’re not drunk.”

I’m intrigued by the lack of understanding from people within the recovery community towards addictions they don’t have. And I’m not talking about newcomers but about people with 20 or more years in one program or another. Then again, when I think about a compulsion I don’t share—compulsive gambling, for example—the initial thought that pops in my head is “Why don’t they just not do that?” Of course the answer is simple: “It’s an addiction, stupid.” I seem to remember any number of people suggesting I should stop drinking long before I did—usually people standing over me while I was flat on my back on the floor. After 30 years in various programs, I know that addiction can take many forms.

The question of which addiction is more severe can lead to engaging debates. And we all know the answer: Our addiction is the worst and yours is not so bad. From the subjective view of our own experience, it’s true. When I tell people I believe food addiction is harder to grapple with than many chemical addictions, their response tends to be less than respectful. “Food? Puh-leeze! So what happens, they find you in the gutter with a bag of Twinkies? Do they send you off to the Betty Crocker Clinic?”

The question of which addiction is more severe can lead to engaging debates. And we all know the answer: Our addiction is the worst and yours is not so bad.

I’ve found food addiction to be something of a punch line in other programs. And yet I’ve buried two sponsees in my food program and none in AA. There are dozens of people with food addictions I’ve known that didn’t make it. One of the most poignant situations was an absolutely brilliant guy I knew who weighed over 600 pounds; he died in a fire because he was too big to get out. Research has proven that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Studies have shown that about 20% of anorexics will die prematurely due to complications of their disease, including heart problems and suicide. Obesity is associated with a myriad of chronic health conditions—including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. A person who is moderately obese can expect their lives to be shortened by about five years.

Recovery from food addiction is, in my opinion, a more challenging road.

I am not diminishing the recovery process from alcohol and drugs—it took me a few years to get sober myself. Once I had some sober time under my belt and continued my recovery by working the steps, the day-to-day urges to drink diminished—as I think they do for many with chemical addictions. Also, being forewarned about the dangers, I removed myself from drinking environments and avoided “slippery” places until my sobriety became stronger. But, there’s no getting away from food.

Think what it would be like if sobriety involved having three drinks a day—no more, no less. How long would that sobriety last? People who are addicted to food talk about having to “take the tiger out of the cage for a walk three times a day.” Food is much more integrally involved in our psychological make up. It represents mother, love, nurture, reward, and comfort, among many other things. Food is part of our celebrations and traditions and so much of what makes us human. When asked what substance he was first addicted to, Eric Clapton answered “sugar.” Most addicts have at least a decade or two of life before they begin using heavily but food addicts are introduced to their substance as infants.

Food is also much more socially acceptable. It is omnipresent in every office and every social gathering. It’s also very easy to want to minimize. After all, there are many people who can over-indulge in food, gain some weight, then go on a diet and take it off again.  The great delusion of food addicts is that they can do this as well.

There is another quirk to 12-step recovery when it comes to food. Society has mostly come to see the 12-step method as the most effective for recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. Most recovery programs have adapted the 12 steps into their programs in some manner. There certainly aren’t a lot of groups out there who have been successful at convincing alcoholics that they can drink safely again. If there were, my guess is every one of us would have  given all of them a shot before making it to AA.

Now imagine that there are hundreds, even thousands, of such alternatives. That’s part of the problem compulsive eaters face. The plethora of “easier, softer ways” that constantly bombard the active compulsive eater is staggering. There is a billion dollar business out there trying to convince compulsive eaters that they can have their cake and eat it too.

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John Kiernan is a recovering alcoholic and compulsive overeater. He has spoken at Conventions, and led Retreats across the U.S. and Canada. His book, Our Countless Vain Attempts: Recovery From the 12 Step Food Relapse Cycle, is available on Amazon.

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