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Vera Tarman on the commonality between food and drug addiction

Dr. Tarman, a self-described recovering food addict, discusses the commonality between addiction to food and drugs

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It's still socially acceptable for chefs or foodsters to boast of food being so good it's addictive. But if the head of a breakfast cereal company or a distillery said as much, it wouldn't be so cute.

Dr. Vera Tarman is the medical director of Renascent, a drug and alcohol treatment centre in Toronto, as well as the author of Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction. Later this month she'll discuss alcohol abuse with an audience of bartenders as part of the speaking series, Black Coffee & Pie, at the Drake Hotel.

I spoke with Dr. Tarman, a self-described recovering food addict, about the commonality between addiction to food and drugs (spoiler: alcohol is a drug).

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You do not eat any form of processed sugar. How long have you been clean?

About 12 years.

Why study food addiction?

When I stopped eating junk food, I didn't crave it anymore and that made my life tremendously easier. When I got into the practice of medicine, I started to see the connections between my behaviour and the behaviour of patients who were using drugs like alcohol and cocaine. And then how they substituted with sugar, with the same behaviour.

What is a "hyperpalatable food"?

Hyperpalatable food is a term from David Kessler (The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Diet). What he calls hyperpalatable, I would call addictive. In fact, I asked him once, why don't you just call it what it is? And he said, 'Because people don't want to hear the word addiction.' What it is, is a food that's been engineered to tap into our already programmed brain that likes energy-dense food, which is sugar and fat and the combination thereof. That's how we get our fuel. But we don't need the amount of sugar that we're getting in 2017. We need the amount of sugar you eat in an apple or Brussels sprouts or carrots or beets. What the food industry has done is taken that natural desire and hiked it up so it's not just palatable, but hyperpalatable, engineered to be super-tasty.

We all have definitions of addiction that are largely pulled from pop culture. The usual list of "are you an addict?" questions are misleading, seeing as humans need food to survive. How do you define an addiction?

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If we live in the food environment that we do, you're going to be exposed to addictive foods. The food industry engineers food to be addictive. It knows how the brain works. It knows the reward pathways.

When you're pouring much more sugar than our reward pathways expect, it becomes overwhelmed with desire. And that want can be targeted to the neurochemical called dopamine, our neurochemical of desire. What happens with addiction is that dopamine becomes so jacked, so heightened. The difference between an addict and a non-addict is that in an addict, those receptors are worn down more. The whole system has become flaccid. Addiction is the measure of impairment of that system. Even a crack addict wants to stop. But the desire is like an itch you can't not scratch.

Your book features a cover photo of doughnuts, stacked and dripping with what appears to be maple syrup. What was behind the decision to feature doughnuts above any other addictive food?

The publisher found that. When I first saw that image, I did say to them, I don't know if I should have a picture like that. That's food porn. And the publisher said, like any other porn, it sells. But I have had people in the eating-disorder community say that they won't stock the book because of the cover.

Your talk at the Drake is focused on the hospitality industry. You work with addicts. Is it possible or reasonable for a recovering alcoholic to work as a bartender or server? Or is it asking for trouble?

That is a question I ask so many people I see, who work in the service industry. I've even had sommeliers, who taste wine, come and say, I want to keep my job. I don't think that's possible. It depends on how much support you have. Will you be able to work in that context and feel like you're one of the staff? If alcohol is part of that, I don't think it's possible.

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In the hospitality business, big spenders are nice. But no customer is more sacred than the regular, because they keep you in business. What do you do, as a server, bartender or business owner, when you suspect that a regular customer is an alcoholic and you are selling and serving them alcohol?

The alcohol and food industry relies on the heavy users. If you get into that business, you are catering to that. That is an ethical issue. I don't know what to say.

How is food addiction different from alcohol addiction?

It's a little bit like asking what's the difference between tobacco addiction and cocaine addiction. They're all going to the same centre in the brain. But it's a question of how quickly and how much you can get in right away.

What's different is how quickly it goes in and how fast it affects the brain. If we could smoke sugar, then sugar would be even more addictive than it is.

What do you think the odds are that a food, alcohol or tobacco executive has asked the question, can we smoke sugar?

The odds are pretty high.

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