Out in the Open

'I ate to avoid dealing with life': A compulsive overeater's journey to conquering food addiction

For years, Lynda Brown struggled with addiction to food. She would compulsively overeat to cope with pain and stress, but it only left her feeling worse. Lynda tells Piya about the roots of her compulsion, how bad it got, and the struggle to overcome an addiction to something you need to live.

Ontario woman says she 'never felt physically full' during the height of her addiction

Lynda Brown, 71, is addicted to overeating, but has abstained from eating triggering foods for the last 17 years. (Submitted by Lynda Brown)

There was a time in Lynda Brown's life when she hoarded and hid sugary food, including from her kids.

"I would hide it, and when the children went to bed, I would eat it. They never got any of it," Brown told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"We're talking a gallon of ice cream, a package of cookies, candy ー I was highly addicted to fat and sugar."

The single mother of two from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. says she went into a tailspin and fell into years of compulsive overeating following the end of an abusive relationship in the 1980s.

"It took away all awareness of feelings ー I was just eating. I ate to avoid feeling emotions. I ate to avoid dealing with life. And then when I was finished, I was filled with shame and sadness," Brown said of her food addiction.

According to Dr. Vera Tarman, a former family MD, and the author of the book Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction, 20 to 40 per cent of people, on various levels, are addicted to sugar and flour. She likens the addiction to alcohol, tobacco or cocaine.

"Food is the best of all these substances because it is an acceptable tool and everyone does it. You are soothing and self-medicating yourself in the midst of a population that is doing the same thing, so no one really notices. We normalize this like we used to with tobacco," Tarman explained to Out in the Open.

'I never felt full'

At the height of her addiction, Brown weighed upwards of 300 pounds. She says there was no amount of food that made her physically full.

"I never ever felt full. Usually, what happened was that I ran out," she said.

Emotionally, Brown's addiction was fuelled by constant thoughts of feeling unworthy, unwanted, and unlovable.

"The food was actually my friend, and the food was actually where I felt loved, which is not logical," she recalled.

Tarman says that overeating on sugar and fats has a direct impact on a person's mental well-being.

"Sugary foods increase anxiety, depression, ADHD ー and withdrawal from sugary foods does as well. It is a double edged sword," she said.

I've lost the privilege to just have this one dessert, because it looks good. I can't do that anymore, and I have accepted that. And that gives me freedom ... there's more to life than food.- Lynda Brown

Road to recovery

Eventually, Brown sought help and found a 12-step recovery program. She's been sober for the last 27 years, which to her means that she no longer allows food to consume her thoughts. In order to achieve that, she had to abstain from foods that were triggering for her, including all sugary foods.

"I've lost the privilege to just have this one dessert, because it looks good. I can't do that anymore, and I have accepted that. And that gives me freedom ... there's more to life than food," she said.

But the 71-year-old admits that her relationship with food will never be "normal" again.

"If I go out for dinner with friends, I remember the friends, not the food. And today, if I don't like something, I don't feel compelled to eat it. I'll just leave it," she said.

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode, "Feeling Full".


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