Food Addiction

This is the first week of Ramadan (Assalamu alaikum). What better time to reevaluate our perceptions of food than when a large portion of the world’s population is fasting.

As worldwide economics have ameliorated, a counterintuitive trend emerged in human health. The poor have higher rates of obesity than the wealthy. A recent article in Science News outlines the recent research which indicates that Food can be physiologically addictive.

In the article, Christeen Brownlee summarizes the recent research into over-eating’s neurological connection to other substance abuses. Like the brains of Drug addicts, the brains of over-eaters are deficient in dopamine receptors (the this-feels-good brain chemical). Food, like drugs, floods the brain with dopamine. A study author explained that “[t]hese people were compulsively driven to eat as if food were their
stimulus of choice.”

Another experiment that tweezed out the difference between satiety and craving, was conclusive of their independence. Moreover, cravings for food are the result of the same brain function as other addictive behaviors. The difficulty begins when we try to understand why some people become addicted and not others. Evidence suggests that some individuals receive more pleasure from foods than others.

Mormons want to justify their 19th century proscriptions and consequently find many. Chief among such justifications is Addiction and for good reason. While there has been a substantive push against other addictive behaviors, e.g., porn, there is resistance to extend the warnings to other addictions, like over-eating.

From a health perspective, coffee and tea are healthy, whereas obesity is fatal. We are good at drawing lines in the sand; some things require abstinence–ask a heroin addict to limit their injections to once a week. Perhaps the difficulty lay in preaching moderation.


  1. Church rhetoric generally casts any harmful form of overcomsumption as a failure of willpower rather than as an individual’s physiological weakness or predisposition to abuse or overconsumption, by dopamine or otherwise. That’s probably unfair and often dishes out guilt where compassion would be more appropriate. But on a practical level, given how debilitating addictions can be and how tough it is for some to avoid addictive as opposed to moderate consumption, preaching abstinence rather than moderation seems quite defensible.

  2. Dave, stop blogging!

  3. Preaching moderation is one thing, but if we did that with food, we’d have to cut out most of our Mormon get togethers. Desserts at every occasion, Ward buffet dinners where there’s always more food than people even S.S. treats would be out. Then where would we be? Skinny and protestant?

  4. sugarbooger says:

    Many times in the past I’ve tried to lessen my sugar intake. Not because of weight issues but because I wanted to be healthier.

    I’ve tried abstaning but usually after some time I will tell myself, “You’ve been so good, this piece of cake won’t hurt you and it will be a little reward.” Two days later I will find myself lying under a mound of Hershey’s wrappers in a back bedroom somewhere.

    I guess my point is, abstinence works better for me.

    I agree with don though, I don’t want to take the community and fun out of certain things by insisting that everone else has to forego the food for my sake.

  5. I’m with sugarbooger. I can abstain from sugar for a long time with no problem (after the initial 3-day withdrawal irritable mood period, that is), but if I take one bite, it’s all over and I’m back to replacing entire meals with cookie dough and scarfing down pounds (literally) of hot tamales. Luckily, I haven’t gained weight since I eat candy instead of other food, rather than in addition to other food. It drives my husband crazy.

  6. hot tamales dinner….mmmmm

  7. middlechild says:

    I have thought about this for many years, I am so thankful to find this topic here. My mother was a good Mormon woman, believed all, preached all, lived all, etc. She has always had a serious over-eating problem which has resulted in myself and my 3 sisters having what I would call an unhealthy relationship with food, at times, it could have been classified as an eating disorder…different times for all of us.

    I have to completely stay away from most things that many people can easily eat in moderation, I simply feel that I can not stop if I eat a bite of a brownie….it will be the entire pan if I start. I have to exercise every day or I go out of my mind. Maybe I am addicted to that now.

    There were many times as a bratty teen, when I felt that my mother was self-righteous when she told me all of the places that I faulted in living the YW standards….and, my first thought was……”you can’t even control what you eat….why are you talking to me about how big my earrings are?”

    And, I found it disrespectful that she let her body, her temple, get so obese and unrecognizable from what our bodies were intended to look like.

    So, I always felt that overeating was sort of a ‘sin’…much like drinking, smoking, etc. I often resented my YW leaders who preached about all of the vices clearly stated in the Word of Wisdom, yet….it was extremely clear that they had serious vices, of deadly consequence, of their own….yet, no one ever addressed it.

    The natural result of not practicing ‘moderation in all things’ when it comes to eating is obesity.

    So, when we are asked if we are living the word of wisdom in our interviews, is it fair and true to say “yes” if we’ve consumed an entire box of Krispie Kremes earlier in the day?

    This has honestly been a question I’ve had for years, so I can’t wait to hear everyone’s comments.

  8. Middlechild, you raise a lot of difficult questions. While I don’t particularly believe that “moderation in all things” is particularly good advice, I do typically think that “extreme in nothing” is.

    Your struggle outlines some of the challenges in the way we categorize sin. I don’t believe that any eating disorder is a sin; however, it is easy for some to make that conclusion based on some of our proscriptions and associated cultural emphasis.

    Consequently, the Temple Recommend Question isn’t really about Section 89, it is about whether you follow the rules of abstinence we have agreed to follow.

  9. sugarbooger says:

    nikki: You and I have the same eating habits! I’ve been trying the “South Beach Diet” in an attempt to eat healthier but I think I’m gaining weight on it because I’m taking in more calories on this diet than I do on my 10 chocolate chip cookies a day diet.

    I’ve always been annoyed about never addressing the obesity issue in church. I’ve decided that it’s too hard for us to actually talk about an issue that a lot of us clearly have an issue with.

    I mean, tithing is ok because no one around me really knows how much tithing I pay. I can smuggly sit in class and have people assume I pay a full tithing when in reality I may not have paid tithing in years.

    When Sister Stouffers who is 50 pounds over weight tries to teach a RS lesson on overcoming obesity to a room of overweight women it’s just not going to go over well.

    One time I had a non-member friend tell me that mormon women were well-known for being fat. I was horrified! I thought we were well-known for being hot. ;)

  10. I think the reason that we will hear about the other aspects of the Word of Wisdom but not obesity from over the pulipt (at least at GC) is that we are now a worldwide church. While America certainly could use a propheic smackdown about overeating, the saints in developing countries who do not get enough to eat would find the message jarring.

  11. I think the real problem is the preoccupation with having the perfect, hollywood body.

    Many people who are pleasantly plump are made to feel as if they are grossly overweight.

    If society would adopt a broader acceptance of more body types, only the truly obese would feel the pressure to diet.

    It is the societal perception of bodyweight that has been creeping into the church, and into the Word of Wisdom.

    Hopefully this is only a phase that will pass, and we will eventually stop judging people for being plump.

  12. I think Dave’s comment about compassion being a more suitable response than guilt is just spot on. We all have our weaknesses and failings, some are just more visible than others.

  13. John Mansfield says:

    How about stretching? Proper flexibility is an element of good health, too, to avoid unnecessary injury and maintain proper function. No one ever complains about stiff Mormons, though, at least not about literally stiff Mormons. Why not?