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Can a person be addicted to food?

At 25, Francesco had been a stellar athlete, a member of several amateur sport organizations in his small city. He’d battled obesity as a young child, and fought for years to get fit and healthy, and in the body he’d always wanted.

At 27, after an accident at work left him off his feet for a few months, the weight started creeping back on.

At the same time, he met his now-wife, Amy. Because he struggled to move, the couple often found themselves spending date night watching movies, ordering takeout and enjoying Francesco’s enormous sofa.

“I was really happy,” says Francesco. “I wasn’t working out, which was my drive for so long, and the accident could have left me really depressed, but I had Amy. She made staying home a lot of fun. She ordered a lot of food I’d never tried before. It was honestly just the most free I’d felt in a long time.”

Francesco had grown up in an Italian American household, the middle child sandwiched between two sisters. His mother, he says, showed her love by cooking copious amounts of food every day, packing him and his sisters lunches that rivaled the offerings from the local deli. “My mom could have won awards for her food,” says Francesco. “Her food was my comfort. It was my happiness.”

“I was 120 lbs. by the time I was 10,” says Francesco. “I was a big kid. I got bullied a lot. My dad had to take me to the tailor to have pants made because nothing store-bought fit my thighs. It was the 80s and I remember all the tailor had was corduroy, which was torture… the fabric would make sounds when I walked, and it would wear thin between my legs.

”You’d think that would stop me from eating, but like I said, my mom’s food was like heaven. Overeating was the cause of everything bad in my life, but I couldn’t stop because (food) was my comfort.”

Francesco says he grew up angry, thanks to the constant taunting, the teasing, the body issues. By the time he was 19, he was nearly 300 lbs.

It wasn’t until his early 20s that he began to try to actively shed the weight. As he became more fit, he started to feel better, but “my biggest enemy was the food,” he explains.

“A lot of guys were like, ‘Wow, how do you work all day and then play at that game and then hit the gym,’ and on and on,” he continues. “Man, that was the easy part. It was staying away from the food that was the work.”

When Francesco got hurt and fell in love, what really hurt was the return to what he’d loved first: food.

Today, Francesco and Amy are married, but Francesco is back to his teenage weight. He’s now 290 lbs. He coaches their boys’ soccer and basketball teams, and he’s a fairly active man.

What happened?

Highly palatable foods, those rich in sugar, salt and fat, are like addictive drugs. They trigger chemicals in our brains that make us feel good, which is why we want to eat again and again and again – even when we’re not hungry.

Compulsive eating is actually a type of behavioral addiction. Behavioral addiction is the preoccupation with a specific behavior that triggers incredible, intense and excessive pleasure. Individuals with behavioral addictions lose control over their actions and become lost in the emotional effects of their addition.

Like many people who have food addiction, Francesco found that as the years have gone by, he has developed a tolerance to food. He eats more, but never seems to be satisfied. He may go a week or two “being good,” but one taste of a favorite dish and “everything goes out the window.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve cut back, how many doctors I’ve been to. I can’t imagine anything harder than being addicted to something that’s good for you. It’s not like smoking or drinking. It’s food.”

You may have a food addiction, like Francesco, if you keep eating even when you’re not hungry, eat to the point you feel ill, worry about not having enough food, or going out of your way to get food. You may choose food over friends, avoid situations where there may be food because you’re embarrassed that you may not be able to control how much you eat, or recognize that you don’t seem to be effective at home or at work because you’re always preoccupied with thoughts of food.

If you do have a food addiction, it’s not a death sentence.

Although experts are still working on trying to understand food addiction, as well as looking for helpful treatments for it, there are options available. There are 12-step programs for food addiction, like there are for drinking or sex. Talk therapy is also a beneficial treatment.

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