Food addiction is a proposed cause of the obesity epidemic in the United States, where 25% of our children are overweight. These children experience any number of immediate medical consequences of their obesity: orthopedic, neurologic, pulmonary, gastroenterologic, endocrinologic, hormonal, metabolic, and cardiovascular. Their medical concerns follow them into adulthood when their risks for cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and dyslipidemia are significantly increased. Beyond their medical distress, these overweight children also experience psychosocial consequences, including difficult peer relationships, negative self-esteem, depression, and decreased quality of life. Prevention and treatment of food addiction has the secondary positive effect of potentially lowering the obesity rate and saving children from the dangers of compulsive excessive eating behaviors, regardless of a diagnosis.
Research calls for community-wide prevention programs, but prevention must begin where the problem starts: in the home. Parental and family involvement is crucial for creating lifelong healthy habits. Starting in preschools, schools can help by disseminating information that educates parents about food and the food market, by providing healthful food, and by promoting physical activity.
In turn, peer group and family-based behavioral intervention is the most effective from of treatment for long term success beating food addiction. Intervention focuses, not on weight loss, but on whole family lifestyle changes, weight-related behavior, and parenting skills. Motivational interviewing is a brief and efficient way to provide intervention from a variety of practitioners. It eliminates advice-giving and information overload and, instead, focuses on the achievable goals of the individual and family. Finally, CBT as an addiction model fosters self-empathy and promotes lifelong learning strategies to prevent relapse.
Alternative therapies require more research. Pharmaceutical treatment in combination with psychotherapy is currently under study. Clinicians are exploring the elucidating effects of Narrative Therapy, which utilizes autobiographical diaries to encourage progress. Foodaholics Group Treatment Program endorses the traditional framework for recovery from addiction including sharing coping skills, unburdening of secrets, and celebrating accomplishments.
Even if food addition lacks diagnostic criteria, the prevention and treatment proposed by research is sound. In fact, it is sounds for substance addiction, process addiction, and disordered eating in general. In addition, prevention and treatment strategies reach more people than just those addicted to food; it also reaches those who need education about healthier eating, those who choose unhealthy lifestyles and become obese, and those seeking help for their obesity problems.
I hope that the research I’ve shared about protecting children from food addiction, including parental, family, environmental and cultural influences, has been revealing and helpful. I am eager to follow this topic through its infancy stages and to see where a diagnosis will fall. Will it be with eating disorders, substance addiction, or more detailed process addiction? Diagnosis is a lofty goal, but counselors can still help people struggling with compulsive overeating of all kinds and origins with these sound research-supported strategies.
Kristy L. Carlisle is a school counselor and a mental health counselor in training at Rider University. Her interests include protecting children from cyber-bullying and from food addiction.