There is a world of difference between loving the goodness of food and indulging in it in an extreme way to meet one’s needs other than simple hunger, nutrition and pleasure.
Food addiction is a disorder seldom spoken about. Persons who are morbidly obese because of food addiction are sometimes wrongly judged as gluttons. There are food addicts who can maintain a normal weight by purging, or forcing themselves to vomit, after bingeing.
This eating disorder is linked to the physical, physiological, emotional, psychological and even the spiritual needs of a person.
In an interview with Sunday Inquirer Magazine, Dr. JR, 35, a single male, a medical doctor and recovering food addict, speaks about the disorder that has plagued him for many years and his struggle to overcome it. Standing 5’11” and weighing 330 lbs. at his heaviest a year ago, Dr. JR is now down to 215 lbs. and losing. He continues to get professional help. – CPD
Sunday Inquirer Magazine (SIM): When did you realize that you were a food addict and that you were not simply overeating?
JR: I realized that I was a food addict when I no longer had control over food. It affected my moods, my emotions, how I related with others and how I generally felt as a person.
SIM: Did anyone call your attention to it?
JR: Yes. I had a realization when (fashion designer) Jeannie Goulbourn and I met and she invited me to one of her detox flushes which, at first, I was hesitant to take.
SIM: Was there a health issue that made you confront this eating problem?
JR: Yes there was. I used to avoid having routine medical check-ups for fear of knowing what was wrong with me. True enough, I discovered that I had a high cholesterol level, elevated uric acid, SGPT and SGOT (liver enzymes), high blood sugar, and high blood pressure.
SIM: Was there a wake-up call? And how did this change you?
JR: Yes. After my father passed away due to complications from diabetes, I realized that if I didn’t change soon, I might end up like him.
SIM: Could you describe your food habits before you decided to seek help or intervention?
JR: I would eat anything and everything you could imagine! I would have heavy meals until late at night. Looking back, I could see the pattern in my eating habits – I would eat the most at dinner and post dinner time. This was when eating was most pleasurable. Maybe this was also the time when I was loneliest. I would binge on almost anything – from unhealthy fries and chips to sweet foods like cakes and pastries. I would do this secretly. I would sneak in my loot and eat in the privacy of my room. It was just horrible. I just ate and ate relentlessly.
SIM: Was there food deprivation in your childhood?
JR: None. It was the opposite. I was surrounded by food wherever I went.
SIM: When and how did this excessive food intake begin?
JR: I remember that as a child, people around me (relatives, friends, office staff) thought I was cute because I was chubby and plump. I remember I didn’t like toys that much during my childhood. Rather, I liked food. I always felt secure and safe around food. I thought I was just a voracious eater, a foodie as you call it. As I grew up, I learned more about food, learned how to cook and consequently, started eating more.
Food was at the center of all family gatherings. And being the cook at these gatherings gave me the license to eat more. Surprisingly, I’m the only fat person in my family and among our relatives.
SIM: What types of food do you particularly like to eat?
JR: Oh my… lechon (roast pig)! We used to have lechon every Sunday morning for breakfast after the morning Mass. Eating lechon was a “happy time” for me while I was growing up, and it was so until adulthood. But there was no food that I didn’t like. I liked everything.
SIM: How long has this been going on? Were you ever in denial?
JR: Oh yes, I was in denial for so long. I would hide my actual weight when asked. It was so bad that I didn’t even want to look at myself in the mirror! In my mind, I’ve always conditioned myself to think that I wasn’t overweight or, if I was, that I would be liked and loved anyway. That was how distorted my thinking was. I hid from reality, and now I see that.
SIM: What was your heaviest weight?
JR: I was 330 lbs. at 5’11”. This was just a year ago. I was dealing with the death of my father and the cancer scare of my mother.
SIM: As a medical doctor, how did you see your food and weight problem at that time?
JR: I just didn’t mind it. I believed that I could always lose weight if I just found time to exercise, which I never did. Theoretically, I knew that I had an addiction because of the symptoms I was presenting, but still I didn’t pay attention to them. I was in denial.
SIM: Did you do research on your condition?
JR: No. There’s been little research or studies made on food addiction or compulsion, and I didn’t see myself then as a food addict.
SIM: Can you describe the psychological root of your food craving?
JR: Well, basically I know now that I am an emotional eater. I eat whenever I’m feeling sad or down, but I also I eat when I’m happy.
SIM: Aside from gaining weight, how did this food addiction affect you?
JR: I became moody, impulsive, almost bi-polar with mood swings. There were times I was depressed and didn’t feel loved by anyone. I know now that this was due to certain hormones and chemical imbalances in my brain.
SIM: What was it like at its worst? Did you reach a breaking point that made you finally seek help?
JR: Physically, it was gruelling. I had the most terrible back pain you could ever imagine. I couldn’t even climb two flights of stairs without shortness of breath. All my blood works were high (sugar, cholesterol, liver enzymes, uric acid). I was very frustrated because I couldn’t even enjoy simple pleasures like shopping for clothes without being stared at. Emotionally, I felt ugly and made food my companion and confidante. I felt good when I ate, so I ate more and more…
SIM: Who helped you make changes in the way you used food?
JR: I am so grateful to have met members of my support group who are now my friends in my struggle against food addiction. One of them is Dr. Dale Flores, who is my holistic nutritionist, and Jeannie Goulbourn of Global Vital Source. Without them I would still be in my previous unhealthy state today.
SIM: What type of intervention or therapy did you go through? How long did this take?
JR: First I had to accept that I needed help for my addiction, and have the humility to seek help. That was the time I met nutritionist Dr. Dale Flores, about a year ago. He dealt with the physical treatment of food addiction. I cleared my body of the toxic substances that I had been taking in for the past 35 years. All the meat, junk food and sodas that were poisoning me had to be eliminated for my body to naturally heal itself. Alongside this treatment, I had to be aware of the triggers that lead to my compulsive eating and avoid them.
SIM: Can you identify some of these triggers?
JR: To give you an example: When I was stressed at work (which is everyday), I would usually stop by a drive-through restaurant or a grocery to buy junk food and unhealthy stuff, and eat them when I get home where no one could see me.
Now I avoid that route home when I’m tired or stressed out. Eating out has proved to be a challenge since I love to dine out with friends and try the latest restos in the metro. My solution? I’d eat dinner before going out so I’m not that hungry by the time I meet my friends.
SIM: Do you consider yourself recovered or are you still dealing with some issues?
JR: I’m still in the process of losing my last 20 lbs. As for the craving for unhealthy food, I sometimes give in to it but now I realize that I don’t have to feel guilty, as long as I don’t overdo it. This requires discipline and focus towards the goal. This I do with meditation and yoga exercises. Now I also swim and play badminton.
SIM: How much weight have you lost, and are you happy with where you are now?
JR: To date and within a year’s time, I’ve lost 115 lbs. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. I also have a lot of energy to do things. I still have 20 lbs. to lose but I think this will be a walk in the park compared to losing 115 lbs!
SIM: Describe the work that you do at present.
JR: I am an internal medicine specialist and presently a consultant at Global Vital Source, the same wellness clinic that helped me overcome my addiction. I am now helping others who are stuck in the same situation that I was in.
SIM: Why do you call your food craving an addiction? Is obesity simply a result of overeating and metabolism issues, or is there something deeper?
JR: The root of addiction is emotion. Emotions constantly seep into our consciousness and our brain triggers the eating. Eating tries to satisfy the brain’s pleasure center (hypothalamus) in the quest to fill in the emotional void within the individual.
SIM: Can you describe that as a doctor, from the psychological and physiological standpoint?
JR: Emotional eating is about out-of-control, hedonistic eating. We eat because we are angry, bored, stressed, depressed, frustrated, busy or not busy enough. The list goes on and on. It’s a craving actually that we tend to satisfy by eating – usually a sugary, starchy, salty, or fat-laden food. No one has heard of a craving for celery sticks and cucumber, right?
There are five chemicals in our brain that trigger our emotions to eat, or consequently, not to eat.
*Norepinephrine — responsible for the fight-or-flight response of the body
*Serotonin – a feel good chemical
*Dopamine – the pleasure-reward system of the brain. Helps you feel no pain.
*GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) – makes you numb to the outside world.
*Nitric oxide – calms you and relaxes the blood vessels.
A delicate balance of these chemicals in the brain (particularly in the hypothalamus) signals a person to reach for a candy bar. Or not. If most or all of these chemicals are elevated, you feel calm, good, relaxed, etc.
But when these chemicals are too low, you feel miserable, depressed, agitated, and that’s when you reach for your fix. This is activated by neurotransmitters from a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus. For some people, the fix may be drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, or even sex, but for some it is food. Once the addicts have stabilized their chemical levels, they are back to their normal self. This cycle goes on and on and turns into addiction.
SIM: As one who’s been there and slowly making your way to recovery, what is your message to those dealing with food addiction?
JR: Accept that you have a problem and don’t be afraid to seek help from individuals and institutions. Never lose your faith in God. Remember that there is hope in any addiction. I am living proof of it!