The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

The Difference Between Habit and Addiction

Generally speaking I don’t like to write posts trying to explain what the last one was about. I can’t help but feel that if I failed to get my message across first time, the writing wasn’t good enough. Usually at this point I prefer to give an embarrassed cough and move swiftly on.

However, there were some touching, heartfelt and intense responses posted in "For the next time you see the finger being pointed at the fat person" that made me feel further thoughts needed to be expressed on the subject.

What has become clear from the range of comments is the need to draw a distinction between habit and addiction.

Very often, those who criticise people who are overweight assume that it’s purely down to bad eating habits. If only fat people were able to see that their behaviour was putting their health at risk then they would modify that behaviour. If it’s pointed out to you that the reason your hand hurts and is disfigured is because fire burns flesh, then you will understand that if you stop sticking your hand in the fire, you will stop being hurt. Likewise, if you just stop eating as much crap your health won’t be so badly affected. It is so bloody obvious, it seems insane the fat person just doesn’t get it.

Perhaps if you say it slowly and loudly they will understand. Perhaps if you give them smaller portions they will take the hint. Perhaps if you humiliate them it will draw their attention to their unacceptable behaviour and they will start to modify it.

The fact that you do all these things and they still eat too much just beggars belief.

But the reality is for many, especially those who are 30% or more overweight, "habit" is not what it’s about. Even once you get beyond the fact that the supermarket shelves are stuffed with foods loaded up with sugars, fats and salts to make the body crave more, and are wrapped in covers designed using some of the most sophisticated marketing techniques on the planet, eating is still much more than just fuel for the body.

For some people certain foods items are addictive and promote cravings that go far beyond just “the munchies”. Some foods are trigger foods – foods that once you start on them there is no stopping until not only is the rest of the packet empty, but half the contents of the larder and fridge too.

Some people use food for self medication – a way of dealing with extreme emotion, in the way an alcoholic or drug addict will use their chemical of choice to dull the pain, the ache in the chest, the deep hollow in the gut.

For some people food is used as a form of self-abuse in a similar way that self-harmers will cut themselves or burn themselves with cigarette ends.

For some, being fat is a way of keeping people at arms length because of fear of relationships, or even fear of appearing sexually desirable.

For some people, a combination of any or all of these reasons can be at play at any one particular time

In all these cases, the relationship with food is an unhealthy one. It goes far beyond just a lack of self-discipline.

The thing to realise here is that the food in itself if not the issue. Food is being used as a tool, or weapon, for something else. In a different set of circumstances, the person who struggles with food would have struggled with alcohol, self-harm, or any kind of illegal or prescription drugs.

So for those who are feeling exasperated with loved ones who won’t take the hint, or who seem intent on continuing to eat more than necessary despite the obvious damage they are doing to their health, you need to look beyond the food.

Just like alcoholism, drug abuse, self-harm, anorexia and bulimia, or any other damaging addiction, over eating is an expression of another problem, or more likely problems. And until those problems are dealt with, the eating will never be fully under control.

This isn’t about over indulging at Christmas or anniversaries then being too lazy to work off a few pounds. People who fall into that category become a bit overweight, develop a couple of love handles and a bit of a belly.

But people who are a third or a half as much again, or even double the weight they should naturally be, are people who have a problem beyond food.

For them, the fat you see are the outward scars of a thousand internal battles


Mary Witzl said...

Years ago I had a colleague who was tremendously obese. She was very smart and funny, but after a few months I noticed that people who didn't know her very well patronized her and acted as though she was stupid. She once told me that she was used to people treating her this way because she was fat, and she also said that if she knew how to become thin, she would happily lose an arm. I think that is when I realized that overweight people are trapped in their addiction just as surely as drug addicts are in theirs.

Knowing that obesity is a sign of addiction might keep us from offering people advice that is insulting and useless, but sadly it still doesn't enable us to help them. I just wish you could patent your own understanding and determination so that I could buy it and pass it along.

Eryl Shields said...

Well done Kim, this is something that needs to be debated and unerstood. I've often thought that S acts like an addict with food, I've seen him literally pouring it into his body without really chewing at all. I guess the first step is for the addict to realise there is a problem and ask for help. Until that happens not much can be done.

And you're right emptying the cupboards is just like flushing the coke down the pan: utterly useless, more can always be obtained. One of the problems we have is that we seek simple solutions to complex problems.

Anonymous said...

i've been reading for a very long time via el guapo . . .

i know that obesity has more to do with other things - it's not about food. i didn't mean to be hurtful or seem dense when i asked for help. i want to help my roommate. i want to support her. i want to do it without hurting her feelings . . . i thought asking for some help from someone who's been there might be better than not asking at all.

i didn't mean to be hurtful. i am sorry if i did.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

You are a wonderful advocate for many unhappy people, Kim. I've been reading your blog for ages and I admire you for the weight you've lost. It would be very easy to turn round and say "Well, I did it, what's stopping you?" with the zealotry of the "enlightened" (punning not intended) but you resist that, where many fail to, and so what I admire more than the weight loss is how you take the time to help other people along, encouraging them and letting them know they're not alone. I'm sure there are many people who have benefited from what you have to say, especially as you've been there, done that.

I wish you luck in keeping the weight off, and the inner peace to make that battle easier.

Little sausage said...

Senor Ayres: I don't think anyone could have put this same point across any better than you. This is a severe problem and needs to be tackled in an appropriate manner. The Government is treating obesity as a fad, and yet their idea of obese is misleading. (A friend of mine who plays sport every day, is 5'10'' with not an ounce of fat was told she was "overweight", according to her BMI).

I agree to some extent that additives in food make it that much easier to gain weight. However, like you said, over-indulgence at Christmas does not equate to those who eat as a way of escape. Anorexia has a lot of air-play what with all the hype re. catwalk models and the like. But no-one is bothered about those who are the opposite. The danger to their bodies is just as great, and yet obesity is seen as disgusting and due to laziness, which it is not.

I applaud you.

Z said...

A friend has asked me for advice, we've talked it through and it has become apparent that he understands the reasons he eats too much. Having been through a rough time in the last few years, things are much better now as well. But he still is on a weight gain/loss yo-yo.

The help I tried to give was mostly in the talking and understanding (my mother had an eating disorder, though she was too thin), and not pointing out the obvious. The advice (which he didn't take) was not to buy processed food, as there is hidden junk in it, not to add sauces (hidden fat) and not to buy pastry, especially sweet pastry, but not to feel guilty about the odd treat. And to try to leave a small amount of food on his plate. This last is the real stumbling block. He finds it almost impossible to leave food uneaten.

Now, I don't advise (saying something more than twice is nagging), but am still supportive. I know I can't help, but it is affecting his health and I do worry.

fatmammycat said...

BMI is nowt but a gauge, and a rough one at that. There are guys in my gym who would be considered obese if you're going by BMI and they're the polar opposite of obese, just heavily muscled. What you really need to watch is body fat percentage.

Shebah said...

Sorry if my views upset you, Kim. I thought you wanted a discussion of different views. My mistake.

PI said...

There is also an addictive personality where food addiction is Then possibly replaced by an alcohol one which is then replaced by a tobacco addiction which is then replaced by a snuff habit and then back to food. So it goes. How does one treat an addictive personality?

Kim Ayres said...

Mary & Eryl - Knowing you have a problem is the first stage. Without acknowledging it you can't even start. But the crucial part is then finding out the causes of the problems

Angie - I wasn't offended by what you said, and I don't think you hurt anyone's feelings - I just realised I needed to explain things further. What I realised from the comments was that my last post made sense to me because I already have a great deal of background knowledge and understanding. Not everyone is starting from where I am.

The ways of helping someone with a problem relationship with food are as varied as the individual, but the first thing to realise is it's not just about being weak willed, which was the main point of misunderstanding I wanted to address in this post

Sam - thank you for your warm words

Little Sausage - I remember someone once saying "If you stuff your face and throw up, people know you have a problem. If you stuff your face and keep it down, they don't."

Z - there are various techniques you can employ to fight the cravings for the foods high in sugar, fat and salt, but they will only work if you are in a place in your head where you can stick with them.

FMC - You're right, BMI is fine as a rough guide when you are very overweight, but no guide at all once you get closer to average as it utterly fails to take fat and muscle ratios into consideration

Shebah - The view you expressed in your comment on the last post was exactly the kind of view these last couple of posts are trying to challenge.

This is not about letting go a bit at christmas then having the discpline to lose a couple of pounds in the new year. It is not as simple as saying I'm watching my waist so I won't have that doughnut today.

By reducing the whole problem to "if they prefer food to looking good, then it's a choice they made for themselves", it misses the fact that it runs so much deeper than that. There can be many, varied and complex psychological reasons why people continue to eat more than their body needs over a long period of time.

These posts were not about debating whether there are deeper problems than just being weak-willed, they are about explaining that you need to see that the problems DO run so much deeper than the surface

Pat - Addictive personalities are a real problem for some people (including myself). I'm afraid I don't have an easy cure. The first thing a person needs is to recognise the qualities in him or herself, then look for techniques and strategies to deal with them

Shebah said...

We’ll have to agree to disagree. All sentient, cogent human beings have free will, the ability to practise self control and self discipline, and, in the Western world, to make choices. You speak as though people don’t have a choice. The people of Dachau and Belsen, Darfur and Ethiopia didn’t and don’t, respectively, have a choice. So, sorry if I see this issue as the luxury of self indulgence. And sorry to take this issue seriously, I am usually very lighthearted and frivolous. I’ll back off now, suitably slapped for having an alternative view!

Kim Ayres said...

We could debate the nature of free will, to be sure. Personally I feel we have a great deal less than we believe we do.

If you placed a glass of whiskey in front of an alcoholic who's already had his first drink, and another in front of person who doesn't even like alcohol, do they have the same level of free choice?

If you placed an asprin in front of a person with a headache, and another in front of one who was pain free, who is most likely to pick it up and take it?

Free will as you describe it fails to take into consideration compulsion, motivation, subconscious drives, chemical dependency and life experience.

Not all decisions made by all people at all times are equal. And if they are not, then "choice" becomes a much more complex issue than "do I choose to have a scone or a slim waist?"

Fat Lazy Guy said...

Great post, Kim.

Carole said...

I have read this post and the last one several times and each time it makes me sad. Well, not the post so much, as the thoughts it conjures up. One of my dearest friends died at the age of 50 in 2002. She was perhaps 550 pounds and 5'2". She was to me, a beautiful, brilliant, kind woman. Her weight seemed inconsequential to me. It did not define her to anyone but those who did not know her. My three boys--all of them--thought that if they could marry anyone half as wonderful as Eileen, then indeed that is who they would marry. But back to her weight. She had a a variety of reasons for eating, most of which you mentioned in this post. But two years before she died, her only son, who was 15, was killed. And I am glad for her that she had the small comfort of food. And, yes, she had two choices. Walk around with incredible emptiness and pain, or walk around and try to fill the incredible emptiness, but still live with the pain. She chose the latter. She did not not die because she was overweight, she died of a broken heart.

Kanani said...

I think it is an addiction, but I also have seen a fair number of people who are obese that suffer from clinical depression.

And I don't know what came first --the depression or the obesity. Perhaps no one does.
But I'm really glad that you've lost so much weight, Kim. And you did it without having one of those operations... gastric bypasses, for which the complications can be ongoing and long lasting.

You really are an inspiration!

Kim Ayres said...

FLG - thank you

Carole - that was deeply moving. I truly feel for you, and your friend.

Kanani - one of the big evils about Gastric Bypass or stomach stapling operations is that they still utterly fail to deal with the reasons people were overeating in the first place. Very few people who are given these operations are given counselling, which would,in the long term, make far more difference to their mental and physical health.

Kuin said...

Hey kim...sorry I haven't been around much ..with regular life and the computers breaking down I really miss blog for the are very wise...I know that my up and down weight issues all stem from all my deep emotional battles...As well as lack of physical of these days I will at least seriously work on one of those two issues.

Kim Ayres said...

Kuin - but just one, right?

Archie said...

Thank you for such an eloquent pair of posts on such a sensitive issue. A family member is battling with her weight and I look forward to directing her in the direction of these posts and your blogs. I believe you will change the way some people think with this conversation.
I do not believe that I have ever been a full-blown addict to anything, so I am no expert on addiction. I have, however, seen addiction ruin lives in my family. I have been lucky enough to steer my habits toward those that may be slightly more healthy than others: love, exercise, blogging, sex, etc. rather than alcohol, drugs, tobacco, food. If I get my fill of endorphins, all is well. I know some are not so lucky.
But as my father told me, jump over two holes; fall in the third. I know I must remain ever vigilant for that third hole.
Bravo for getting people to look at the weight as a symptom, not the problem.

Kuin said...

HI kim..yes..just one..I doubt I have the strength in me to be able to tackle both at once...I have the best intentions but the actions just don't come. ( I however, realize that I need to work on both to have the success I want so why do I give myself such a hard time at it>?)

jennifergg said...

Too, I'm a big believer in metabolism. Some people have a fast one, which affords them the opportunity to eat terribly, and still remain thin. And others eat well, but gain easily. So there's that. Human bodies are not "one size fits all."

Terrific post, both this one and the earlier one. It's a conversation worth having often! Thank you!!

BStrong said...

So true Kim. My oldest sister had a difficult time dealing with her weight. I suppose you could have classified her as obese, but barely. She started to gain most of her weight after she got involved in an abusive marriage that nearly killed her. Her self esteem was non existent and she gained more weight as a result of it.

She has been divorced for quite some time now and has had gastric bypass surgery. She is now dating and her confidence is building daily.

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