Interview with food addiction expert Esther Helga Guðmundsdóttir from Iceland

I’ve recently had the pleasure of interviewing Esther Helga Guðmundsdóttir, who is the Director of the International Food Addiction Counselor Training program I’m about to embark on. It’s the first and only internationally accredited food addiction counseling program that currently exists. Esther Helga is also Director of the MFM Treatment Centre for Sugar and Food Abuse, a board member of the Food Addiction Institute, as well as a certified addictions counsellor, clinical supervisor and hypnotherapist.

In our conversation, Esther gave me an insight into her take on food addiction, which I’m thrilled to share with you here:

What started your interest in food addiction?

My interest began with my own struggle with the disease.  I struggled with undiagnosed food addiction and eating disorders from a very early age.  I tried many things throughout the years and was often quite successful in losing weight, but always lost my grip on the ‘diet’ and gained all the weight back.

Are you addicted to food yourself?

Yes, I’m a food addict. I’m addicted to certain foods, volume and eating behaviours.

How would you define food addiction?

I like Mark Gold’s definition: Eating too much despite often dire consequences to health. Being preoccupied with food, food preparation and meals. Trying and failing to cut back on food intake. Feeling guilty about eating and overeating.

Do you think food addiction is becoming more common than it used to be?   

I do believe it is, because society seems to be in the grips of overindulgence in general.  The general assumption is that no one should be deprived of the junk and foods they like to eat. I see my clients having to justify not using sugar and starches.  Foods such as sugars, starches, some fats and salt, have been found to hijack the brain’s reward system and cause craving for more of the same. The brain receptors literally become damaged and do not produce the same normal sense of wellbeing as before, thus increasing tolerance and demanding higher doses of these foods.

How do you see the difference between food addiction and eating disorders in a patient?  

People with eating disorders have learned to deal with emotions with eating and behaviours around eating.  When they stop eating certain foods and let go of dysfunctional eating behaviours they will need to learn new ways of dealing with their feelings, which are often trauma-related. The food addicted are chemically dependent to certain foods and some are addicted to volume as well.

What would be your suggested treatment plan for food addiction?

I always suggest abstinence from certain foods for those assessed to have a food addiction.  For most this will not be sufficient.  I suggest treatment whenever possible and 12 step programs for food addicts to get into stable recovery.

Why does an addictive eater need a food plan?  

Many that suffer from addiction and eating disorders find freedom in having a certain food plan to follow.  These plans usually exclude certain foods and set up boundaries on meals and portion sizes.

Do you recommend weighing and measuring and why?   

I do teach my clients to weigh and measure their food during the detoxifying period.  Some continue weighing and measuring while others find different ways of determining their abstinent food plan.  Weighing and measuring relieves the obsessive mind of having to decide how much and what to eat.  For many this is freedom from the bondage of the obsessive mind.

What is the biggest obstacle in food addiction treatment in the world today?  

No financial support and politics.  Those that are funded for treating obesity and eating disorders usually do not use the addiction model for recovery even though statistics show that there is not much success in traditional treatment.  We are starting to see statistics for food addiction treatment that shows up to 60-70% success in a year, and 30% for long term recovery.

What is your vision for food addiction treatment in 10 years from now?

I´m going to be optimistic and see that within 10 years treatment for food addiction using the addiction model of recovery is spreading and more and more research showing good results will become available.