Caught in a vicious cycle, Lamia sits in the bedroom she grew up in at her parent’s home with a pile of chocolate wrappers on her bed. A half empty bottle of soda stands beside her on her night-stand. The top drawer of her nightstand holds a stash of crackers, cheese, jolly ranchers and a few sticks of gum.
A professional, Lamia’s office looks nothing like her bedroom. Immaculately kept, one would need to search her drawers for a while to find an extension of her bedroom stash; the single drawer which holds it is locked.
Lamia, whose name has been changed, spoke to Egypt Independent on the condition of anonymity. Those who know her think of her as an outgoing personality. Praised for her confidence and beauty, she is a leader in her field and many turn to her for advice. What people do not know is that Lamia suffers from a common eating disorder. She is addicted to food.
According to Dr. Heba Kotb, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the American University in Cairo, “although it is seen a lot, food addiction is not yet [officially] considered a disorder in Egypt. Most people consider people who overeat as lacking in willpower.” She says to many in the field, food addiction is considered a “luxurious disorder.”
Kotb says food, especially chocolate for example, is linked to the brain centers which release hormones for happiness. The response a human body receives from these kinds of food is similar to that of cocaine and heroin.
Addiction to food means a person can continue to eat constantly, even after feeling full. A food addict may also suffer from anxiety over social situations where eating is involved, for fear of over eating. Food addicts tend to plan for their daily binge and food itself occupies most of their thoughts.
In Egypt, food is at the core of almost all social activity and celebration and it plays a central role in society. Kotb believes the kind of culture Egyptians live in could be a direct cause of the rising rate of food addicts.
She says, “We live in a food culture. Coming out of Ramadan, we have only just seen the dining tables covered in several types of meat and different kinds of dishes on one table. Generosity means more food in Egypt, and a mother is only a good mother if she feeds her child well.”
Despite her outward success, Lamia has been struggling with depression and other disorders for years now. Although not excessively overweight, the only giveaway to her addiction are the numbers on the scale.
“Our culture is not sensitive to fat people,” she says. “Even strangers feel free to make you feel bad. I remember I weighed myself once on those pharmacy scales (the big ones) and the specialist beside it told me, ‘How can you let yourself gain so much weight?’ My immediate retaliation was a nasty one where I said, ‘I can lose the weight but your nose, for example, is ugly. What can you do about that?’ She made me feel horrible. I felt she deserved to be hurt. These encounters are not funny, they stay.”
Food addiction is especially difficult to overcome, because while alcohol and drugs are the types of addictive substances that can be quit altogether with enough determination and proper direction, food is necessary for survival.
An addiction to food is one that starts from early childhood. Habits linking reward with food and all-day feeding contribute to the addiction. Kotb says fat cells are formed as early as infancy, drawing the map of future eating habits. When children eat too many snacks between their meals or take too long to finish their meals, they are sending their brain a message that they need to eat all day long, or they will stop feeling sated.
Using food as a reward also links it to self-esteem. Kotb says most people with food addiction may have an underlying disorder such as low self-esteem. In the vicious cycle that Lamia talks about, when she looks at herself in the mirror and doesn’t feel happy, she turns to the one thing in her life which does give her the feelings she craves. Eating momentarily releases hormones that make her happy, but the same food affects her weight, and if she gains more weight, she is again unhappy with the way she looks.
Food addicts will keep eating despite negative consequences; Kotb says it is as difficult to quit a food addiction as it is to quit an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Many who have attempted to cut back on overeating have tried multiple times unsuccessfully.
Lamia has finally placed her finger on her addiction. As with any addiction, food addicts go through withdrawal symptoms and, unless they seek professional help, may end up going through hopelessness, anxiety and other disorders as they go on their traditional diet. With no social net to help them in their difficult time, many more disorders may result from this specific disorder.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.