Schubart: Addiction

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It’s the New Year and, like many, writer and commentator Bill Schubart
is yet again dusting off a weight loss resolution. His first-hand
experience with food addiction has him wondering, though, how pervasive
the addiction phenomenon is in our over-consuming culture.

"Hi, I’m Bill. I’m a food addict." Is this a statement of fact, of
theory, of wishful thinking, or merely an attempt to avoid
responsibility for overeating and being fat? The answer depends on the
person’s psyche and physiology … there are no simple miracles.

saw first-hand the addictive potential of certain foods when I helped a
very large woman check into the same obesity clinic I had signed up
for. My job was to ensure that she hadn’t smuggled in any food so she
was to unpack under my scrutiny. I’d noticed that her suitcase was
unusually heavy but was astonished when the weight turned out to be a
dozen boxes of Argo cornstarch concealed beneath the clothes. She
explained that she used the cornstarch like talcum powder to reduce the
irritation from chaffing between her thighs. This made sense to me, but
as required, I reported the boxes to a staff member. He told me she had
amylophagia, a condition where people eat cornstarch to relieve stress.
For certain physiologies, highly refined carbohydrates such as sugar,
flour and wheat can, like opiates, induce temporary euphoria and become

I don’t crave cornstarch, but I routinely overeat
foods made from refined carbohydrates like bread and crackers. I have
control over most food groups but not this one. Luckily, I’ve never much
liked sweets but it’s easy for me to wolf down a box of crackers.

is defined as psychological and physical dependency on any chemical
introduced into the body or produced by it. The latter explains
addictions to compulsive gambling, sex, running, and shopping. For some,
these produce chemical responses in the body like an adrenalin-rush,
similar to cocaine or other stimulants. Others produce a euphoric
downer-response as opiates do.

I can hear the "personal
responsibility" crowd groaning now, but there is recent hard science
supporting this theory of addiction. Nora Volkow, director of the
National Institute on Drug Abuse, does brain-imaging on addicts, showing
conclusively that addictive behavior is neither a moral failing nor a
character flaw but the result of pathological changes to brain structure
induced by certain foods, chemicals and behaviors.

Think of the
addictive cycle when you next go shopping. You’re stimulated by all the
things available to buy, so you buy something and experience elation.
But your purchase soon loses its thrill and you’re left only with more
credit card debt – not so different from a spiritless sexual conquest,
gobbling a box of cookies, doing drugs or gambling.

70% of the
American economy is driven by consumption – not production.  Retail
marketing thrives on our vulnerability to addictive behaviors.

clinic taught me a lot about addiction. So this New Year, instead of
again resolving to lose some arbitrary number of pounds, I’ll simply ask
myself which of my behaviors are wholesome or generous, and which are
compulsive and addictive.

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