It’s a myth that drugs in themselves are addictive. I mean, it’s obvious that they are not, because most people who try most drugs never become addicted. Most people who try alcohol never become alcoholics. Most people who eat don’t develop an eating problem.
So you can’t say the cause of the eating problem is the food or the alcoholism is the alcohol. What you need for the disease of addiction to develop is both an addictive, or potentially addictive, substance or behavior (which could be almost anything in the whole world) and a susceptible individual.
For Mate, a susceptible individual is one who had early childhood trauma which prevented key brain circuits (opiates, dopamine, impulse control, and stress control) from developing properly. Of course, not everyone agrees with this … Stanton Peele (who wrote The Truth about Addiction and Recovery) considers Mate’s views a “reductionist vision” that “limit our approaches” to addiction. And if Mate’s answer really is Ayahuasca, Peele may have a point!
Whatever the origins of addiction, the idea that it’s not just about the addictive substance appears valid. In The Compass of Pleasure, David Linden points out that, aside from people who smoke, the majority of drug users do not become addicted:
A recent study of drug use in the United States estimates that about 35 percent of all people who have tried injected heroin have become heroin addicts. While that’s a very high percentage relative to addiction rates of 22 percent for smoked or injected cocaine, about 8 percent for cannabis, and about 4 percent for alcohol, consider this shocking statistic: 80 percent of all the people who try cigarettes become addicted.
So … if it’s not the substance per se, then maybe, just maybe, abstinence needn’t be the end-all, be-all of recovery. And in the case of food addiction, this might be good news. Because abstaining from food — even just likely problem foods — is hard for some folks (like me).
Many “white knuckle” it and are successful for a while, but then it just gets too much. And before you know it, days or weeks or months go by, weight is gained, shame and guilt return, and the struggle for control seems like tilting at windmills.
Addiction and classical conditioning
So what is it that makes someone susceptible to addiction? Well, my lay understanding is that it’s a combination of context and the tendency of the brain to learn quickly. If substance use resolves pain (whether emotional or physical) then it can be something we return to the next time our pain or emotions get unbearable.
Peele seems to agree:
people form addictions to intense experiences to which they regularly return to seek essential gratifications. There is nothing inherently addictive about any one thing — people take long courses of narcotics all the time without becoming addicted. It is how the experience of that involvement — pharmacological or otherwise — fits into their personal ecology, and how dependent they grow on it, that determines addiction.
So does Linden, who also makes it clear that frequency of use plays a role:
One way to think about this is to consider that addiction is a form of learning. … Imagine that you have a dog that you’re trying to train to come when called, using a tasty morsel of food as a reward. …
If you call the dog once a day, and then immediately reward its compliance with a ten-ounce steak, it will eventually learn to come when called. If you call the dog twenty times per day and immediately reward each correct behavior with a small chunk of meat, the dog will learn much more quickly.
Linden is explaining here why cigarettes are more addicting than heroin, but the parallels to food seem obvious (and not just to me).
To abstain or not to abstain, that is the question
This link between substance, context, and frequency of use is why I am so intrigued by my version of a chick flick quote:
Never eat to feel better; only eat to feel even better.
In other words, if you’re regularly eating a quart of ice cream because your boss yelled at you or your husband is ignoring you, then yeah, that ice cream is going to be a problem.
But if you’re eating it once in a while at the end of a special meal where you feel pleasure or connectedness, well, then I think that’s something entirely different.
How to get to this point? Aye, there’s the rub. After losing 130lbs in 2011 and then yo-yo’ing for most of 2012, I’ve come to believe that it is as important (if not more so) to work on the need to soothe with food as much as to work on eating a “clean” paleo or WAPF or LC or vegan diet. And for me, this is not just about feeling feelings (I just watched Geneen Roth on Dr. Oz and, yee gads).
It’s still too early to tell, but I’m hoping that the solution that’s going to work for me is one that addresses both physiology (e.g., a nutrient-dense diet like paleo or PHD) *and* psychology (e.g., an approach that teaches how to cope, like meditation or HeartMath or ACT). Stay tuned!