Invisible Addiction

A few weeks ago I had a delightful conversation with an elderly lady. While we talked, she drank tea and ate a slice of cake, and then followed them up with a couple of painkillers for the crippling osteoporosis in her spine. I doubt that she made the connection between the cake she was eating and the pain she was feeling. Of course that one piece of cake wouldn’t have made any difference; it’s every piece of cake at every opportunity, and all the rest of the sugar and refined flour she had come across, every day for decades.

This is the inevitable result of the inability to identify addictive overeating in the first place, and secondly the inability to take control of it. My point is, if I didn’t have that awareness and ability, I’d have been eating the cake as well! (1)

There is a cultural blindness amongst us about food addiction that has worked its way into our lives, and few people see it beyond a vague notion that cake is ‘naughty’ because ‘it makes you fat’. This cultural blindness shows up in the common tradition of bringing birthday cakes and biscuits into offices on a regular basis. And it’s this blindness that led a neighbour of mine to give me half a dozen fairy cakes she had baked as a gift for a favour I’d done. I’m sure you can see similar examples all over the place in your own life.

It’s essential to see addictive overeating and name it for what it is before you can deal with it. If you don’t see it, fairly obviously, you won’t get very far in breaking its hold on you. It’s not only waking up to the fact of addiction in yourself, that you are reacting automatically and largely unconsciously because this stuff has just got itself into your life without you even realising. It’s also realising that everyone you know is doing the same thing, so it seems not only completely normal – but innocent and completely harmless.

This makes addictive eating the default setting for a great many people, so seeing it is the first step, and in seeing it you begin to distance yourself from it:  there’s ‘you’ and there’s ‘it’ and they are two separate things.

You can see this separation in the difference between “I’d love some chocolate” and “I have an addictive desire for chocolate“. The second shows an awareness of addiction that is the starting point for a genuine change in what you eat. It initiates change because you are no longer identifying so completely with the addiction. You are beginning to see that your addiction (and even your collective cultural addiction) isn’t you.

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    Interesting article as always. Thanks. I’ve found some relief from medical conditions by following the work of Matt Stone at along with your suggestions regarding beating binge eating. Eating starchy carbs is something he recommends. Also, how does this reconcile with Mediterranean diets & Asian diets which contain carbs (admittedly limited refined sugar) and life expectancy is high?

    • Whole books have been written about this, so I’m not able to present a complete answer for you here. Very briefly, I don’t think there’s ever been a culture with high life expectancy eating as much sugar and wheat as we consume. Some other kinds of starchy carbs are advisable, it’s a matter of degree. In my view, by far the best book written on this is “Death By Food Pyramid” by Denise Minger.


      Managing addiction as a chronic condition made a lot of sense to me, and it is sad for me to realize how far our current infrastructure is from being able to effectively help people in that way. As I was reflecting on what it might mean for my practice, two things kept coming up: bringing the family (or other immediate support structure) into the picture and proactively connecting the client with ongoing recovery support such as addictions recovery groups. Both of these would build upon the foundation of educating the client about the chronic nature of addiction. While working with the family may not always be possible, connecting the client to other ongoing sources of support should generally be a lot more feasible. I also found very attractive the psychodynamic group model presented by Martin Weegmann and Christine English.

      • Please see my comment below about “the chronic nature of addiction” which might not be such a helpful way to look at it. But yes, sometimes the family can help a lot and yes, ongoing support is often useful, although most addiction models I’m aware of promote abstinence (which isn’t sustainable).


    Thank you very much for another inspirational article. Sometimes I lose track of healthy eating and find it harder to pay attention to my eating, slipping back into addictive thinking. It really frustrates me as I think I know now how to work through this addictive desire and get all the benefits of taking control. Your articles are really great not only in the way of getting some new knowledge but also reminding us that the primary goal always remains in taking care of our health and well-being. I’ve ordered your book ‘Ditching Diets’ and can’t wait to get it, as ‘Eating Less’ really helped me. Thank you for all that you do.

  3. Chancery

    I agree with this absolutely. I think this polluted sense of what is ‘normal’ is one of the biggest problems I have ever had to overcome. Walking away from an abnormal relationship with sugar is, paradoxically, often made all the harder by diet gurus and nutritionists who expound the ‘moderation in all things’ school of dieting. I have only recently accepted that there is no moderation when sugar is involved. And I think that’s true for a lot of people (most of the overweight!) I very first encountered this concept in Jason Vale’s writing. While I think Jason’s juice-based diets are foolish and faddy, he was absolutely spot-on with his dogma about how corrupted ‘normal’ has become. ‘Normal’ is being defined by food companies who have a vested interest in making it normal for you to eat junk as many times a day as possible. Preferably their junk. They have made everything from going to work to getting home from work into an ‘occasion’ that merits rewarding/cheering yourself up with sugar.

    Only a day ago I kept a clipping from a magazine featuring a “registered nutrition professional” saying that you should have treats every day. She said that she ate chocolate every day “and not one square of the organic dark kind, but a fun-size bar of whatever.” When you read on, where she details what she eats, you discover that she eats everything in low fat versions and a meal for her is fruit and vegetables, which she has with salad. In other words, she’s on a permanent diet. In her photo she is very thin. I think this kind of disordered eating is very common in the people who are giving us advice (at least in women’s magazines!). This woman’s normal is to be on a permanent diet. She has integrated junk into her diet and is handing out the (in my opinion very dangerous) advice that we should all diet with her. Why not drink whole milk and eat an actual meal rather than eat a fun-size Mars every day then starve to make up for it?

    It’s got to the stage that if I read diet advice that recommends eating ‘treats’ I immediately discount it. You wouldn’t recommend a heroin addict shot up a little something every day just so he didn’t feel deprived, why recommend someone who has severe problems with sugar keep their hand in by getting their fix every day? You know, in case they actually break away and start feeling uncomfortable at the loss of their ‘normal’. (I have a screensaver which says “If you want to change you have to be willing to be uncomfortable.” That wasn’t easy to take on board either!)

    There’s a new documentary about to come out called Fed Up. (You can see the trailer here: I find it very reassuring to see, just in the trailer, that Gary Taubes, Robert Lustig, Michael Pollan et al think that there is nothing normal about sugar at all. It’s also very warming to see that they believe the public is being deliberately blamed for their obesity when it’s not actually their fault. They firmly blame the food. You’ll also see that the parallel is being drawn about how much the food industries are behaving like the tobacco industries did, as in the metaphor you use here. Way back in the 60s/70s their forerunner, John Yudkin, said he would recommend you never touched sugar at all, and he included honey, maple syrup and other ‘natural’ sweeteners in that too. He felt it was just disruptive, full stop, and over the years I’ve come to agree with him. It’s not easy to walk away from it, but a whole lot easier than having to go through the addiction/cold turkey routine over an over again, along with the misery and loss of self-esteem that goes with it.


        Understanding that addiction is chronic rather than acute has and would help me be even more encouraging and hopeful towards my client. Knowing that they will have relapses and it will be a life long struggle will help better inform how I view the client’s success in therapy. Success will look different to each individual client, and for some it will not mean they stop using forever. The client may have lapses and that is a normal and ok thing. Helping the client to eventually understand that lapses (and even relapse) will happen and that they can learn from them can help the client feel less negative and guilty about slipping up. Working with the viewpoint of addictions as chronic I believe can be very powerful for both myself as the therapist and the client (even the client’s friends and family). It is powerful because to often clients feel bad about themselves for not just being able to stop, and society perpetuates this negative energy. Helping the client to understand addictions as chronic can help reduce these negative feelings.

        • While I agree that it’s important to be realistic and not to promote easy ‘quick-fix’ expectations, I think the term chronic is too gloomy, as it can suggest a permanent state where it’s not possible to make any real progress. I find that once addiction to food has been acknowledged, substantial changes can be made immediately, and these can be built on over time. Addiction to food can be overcome, healed, and become something that belongs to the past.

  4.'Frances Newman

    Thank you so much for this article on sugar consumption. I have osteoporosis and didn’t know that high sugar consumption is related to my condition. I am now aware that I have an addiction to sweets so I am grateful to you for helping me identify this.


  5.'Sarah Knott

    Thank you very much Gillian for this recent newsletter. The example of smoking was easy to imagine and made so much sense! I have had “windows” of eating very few wheat products and sugar etc, and being in control of my overeating in the evenings and it has felt wonderful! There is always a nagging voice in my head, however, that says “it wont last, you will not be able to keep this up!” and sure enough something triggers me, and I go back to “square one”. Its so frustrating and demoralising but I will not give up and often read your book for encouragement. Your regular newsletters are inspiring!

    • They key here, I think, is all about learning how to get back on track faster, so that being back at “square one” lasts for less time. Then, in time, you’ll move past those relapses entirely.


    wonderful & incredibly relevant article. I wonder if you could address in a future article the issue of addictive overeating healthy whole unprocessed foods such as wild fish, vegetables, fruit, etc.

    • Unless there’s something more to your question than I’m seeing, there isn’t really anything special to say about overeating healthy food. Your addictive (excess) desire or appetite comes from your expectation of excess eating, based on your past behaviour. It functions through the brain’s survival system, which regards any food as rewarding. This is why, although sugar is highly rewarding, any food has the potential to be addictive, and the process of recovery is essentially the same.

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