Bariatric Surgery Stands No Chance against an Untreated Food Addiction
By Amy Teeple
Published on October 22, 2007
Twenty-eight-year-old Dee Quinn* was sick of weighing almost 500 pounds. Knowing she was morbidly obese, she had tried NutriSystem®, OPTIFAST® products, and numerous other weight loss treatments. Nothing seemed to work, so finally she turned to gastric-bypass surgery. By Dee's thirtieth birthday, she was half the size she had been just a year-and-a-half earlier, but the weight loss didn't have the effect that she wanted. She was still unhappy.
Dee is now 35 and is much closer to her pre-surgery weight. Refusing to step on a scale over the last few years, Dee is unsure of how much weight she has gained back, but fears it may be most of it. "I don't want to know how far back I have slid since the surgery," she states.
Reality of Food Addiction
A recent topic of debate, food addiction is now viewed by many scientists as a disorder as real as a drug or alcohol addiction. Although most people's weight problems are not caused by an addiction, some people, like Dee Quinn, seem to gain weight because they are addicted to food.
Some people try to dismiss food addiction as a lack of willpower. While lack of willpower, poor exercise habits, metabolism, and genetics are the major causes of most weight issues, food addiction is real and has the same characteristics of other addictions.
Addiction or dependence can be defined as the compulsive reliance on a behavior or substance by an individual. Just as the need for a drink is part of an alcoholic's life, the extraordinary need for control over food is a very real part of a food addict's life.
Filling a Void
Like other addictions, food addiction can be triggered by depression, an individual's desire to fill some type of emotional void, or the need to be able to have control over some part of his or her life.
Living in an abusive household, Dee found much-needed solace in food. She confides, "I think I learned pretty early on that I wasn't going to be nurtured, so the way I nurtured myself was with food." That reliance on food as a source of both comfort and control carried into Dee's adult life as a mechanism to avoid past hurts and to deal with life's daily struggles.
Trading One Addiction for Another
Unlike Dee, who continued to find her comfort in food, some people seem to free themselves from their addictions to food only to find themselves with new addictions. Addiction transfer is a phenomenon that has become associated with patients of bariatric surgery.
These patients understand that they can no longer turn to food after gastric bypass or other weight loss surgery, but they may be unaware that they have an addictive personality and unconsciously develop another addiction.
New Addictions – What's Your Pleasure?
Conservative estimates state that 5 percent of bariatric surgery patients experience an addiction transfer, replacing their dependence on food with another addiction. These new addictions can manifest themselves in the form of:
• compulsive shopping
• drug dependency
• excessive gambling
• increased or uncharacteristic promiscuity.
Many times patients who experience addiction transfer don't realize it at first. They suddenly find themselves with 200 pairs of shoes and the desire to buy more, even if the creditors are calling. Or they may find that they prefer the company of a bottle of Jack Daniel's over their kids. What might have started as a "reward" for losing weight or just a new pastime can quickly turn into an addictive habit for people who have not addressed the underlying issues that triggered the original food addiction.
Treating What's Feeding the Addiction
Whether a food addict transfers his or her addiction to another substance or behavior or just keeps the addiction to food is not the issue. In most cases, some form of addictive behavior will remain after bariatric surgery if the patient does not address the issues that led to the original addiction.
"It's not about the food," Dee states. "It's about control or whatever buzz-word you want to put on it. I think with any addiction, you have to figure out what need you are trying to fill. Determine what isn't being resolved."
Unhappy, obese individuals may see weight loss surgery as an answer to their problems. They believe that their lives will become easier if they lose the weight. However, many psychologists believe that without therapy, the addictive behaviors could remain or even become more harmful. As the excitement of losing weight begins to wears off, the underlying unhappiness is still there, and an individual will still try to find some way to fill the void.
Not everyone can afford to see a private counselor, and even those who can afford it may not find the level of support and acceptance that they need from one-on-one counseling. Addiction can create feelings of worthlessness and isolation. Because of these reasons, support/recovery groups have become very powerful mechanisms for dealing with addictions.
Addiction Support Groups
There are various support groups for individuals who are struggling with food addiction or who have transferred their addiction to another substance or behavior. Some support groups include:
• Food Addicts Anonymous (F.A.A.)
• Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (F.A.)
• Overeaters Anonymous (O.A.)
• Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)
• Debtors Anonymous (D.A.)
• Gamblers Anonymous (G.A.)
• Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.)
• Sex Addicts Anonymous (S.A.A.)
Continuation of Dee's Journey
As for Dee, she still refuses to get on a scale. However, she is now in therapy to deal with the issues that have contributed to her dependence on food as a means of security. Also, for the last two months she has been following the Weight Watchers program and is starting to work exercise back into her life.
Despite her relapse, Dee has no regrets about having undergone gastric bypass surgery. She confesses, "I really think that I would be dead if I hadn't had it...truly.” However, she adds a warning: "To do it without counseling built in, as I did, is stupid because you aren't addressing the issues. Your issues with food are still going to be there whether you are physically capable of eating them or not."
* Name changed to protect privacy