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Jake’s Food Addiction

October 18, 2012 (Updated: April 9, 2013)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Poor Jake! Some patients have such good intentions but have a hard time acting on them. That was Jake. Not only was he obese at 345 pounds, but it seemed that no matter what he did, he just kept gaining. Jake had tried diet after diet, with no luck at all. “Fast food is my downfall,” he told me one day when we were trying to get at the root of his eating problem. “I try not to eat it, but those restaurants are everywhere. I don’t know what it is about that food, but I swear I go into some altered state of mind. When it’s over, I’ve eaten a couple cheeseburgers, fries, and a milkshake without even coming up for air. I think there’s something wrong with me.”

Needless to say, weight was not Jake’s only health problem. His blood work showed dangerously high levels of cholesterol and inflammation, his blood pressure was sky high, and his blood sugar was just plain frightening. Months before, I had diagnosed him with prediabetes, but now he was on the threshold of full-blown diabetes. “Jake, we have to do something about your situation,” I told him. “But I’m just not sure what options we have that we haven’t already tried.”

Jake replied that he was thinking of having gastric bypass surgery, a procedure that downsizes the stomach so the person can’t eat much. Unfortunately, while gastric bypass may sound like a magic bullet, it can have terrible outcomes. And it is far from what I would call a realistic solution. Some people gain back the weight they initially lose, while others develop nutrient deficiencies and complications of all sorts. I suggested he hold off while we try one more thing.

Jake’s description of his “altered state of mind” when he was bingeing on fast food reminded me of remarks I’ve heard from people who are struggling with drug or alcohol dependency. They don’t want to use whatever substance they’re addicted to, but they go into a sort of dreamlike fugue state and suddenly find themselves back in the loop again. In other words, I was beginning to see that Jake was actually addicted to fast food.

After watching a business he’d built for years fail and be sold during the recession, Jake was using the sugar and fat in fast food to self-medicate so he could feel good again. Obviously, it was a temporary solution, but as Jake noted, fast-food restaurants are everywhere these days. So whenever he started to feel bad, he could easily grab some fries and a soft drink and ease his pain.

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When I first mentioned the possibility of addiction to Jake, he laughed out loud. “You mean food can be like cocaine? That’s crazy!” he told me. I assured him that a growing body of research shows that the sugar, fat, and salt in fast foods are capable of hooking people the same way drugs do. With drugs, of course, the treatment for addiction is to eliminate them completely. Food, however, is a different story. You can’t give it up entirely, but how do you manage to eat and not go overboard?

I suggested Jake join a group called Overeaters Anonymous (OA). Like Alcoholics Anonymous, it offers free meetings in thousands of locations; it’s completely anonymous, so there’s no danger of being exposed; and it works for many people. In addition, I recommended Jake start repairing his health with supplements to improve his cholesterol, blood sugar, and inflammation levels.

A few months later, Jake returned to my office. Actually, most of Jake returned — he was already minus 40-plus pounds. And I wish you could have seen the smile on his face when he walked in. What a happy fellow! “I expected to go to one OA meeting and that would be it,” he explained. “But I go as often as I can. The people are great, they know how people like me think, and they have ways to stop the chain of events that lead to problems like mine. After about a month or so, I was completely over fast food. And as soon as I stopped eating it, I started losing weight.”

Even better, Jake’s blood sugar levels were under 100 mg/dL, his cholesterol was nearly out of the danger zone, and his blood pressure was vastly improved. “If you keep this up, Jake, you’re going to live to be 100.

“Great,” he replied. “I’m buying back my old business, so I have to be around to run it. But I should make you a partner, since I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without you.”

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