Neal Foster has overcome 11 years of drug addiction but has yet to end his abuse of the one substance necessary to survive: food.
Neal Foster is consumed by his addiction. He doesn’t do drugs or alcohol. He hasn’t attempted suicide in eight years. And he now maintains a full-time job and steady girlfriend.
But this 22-year-old can tell you every item on the Taco Bell menu and he knows the phone numbers to all the nearby pizza delivery joints by heart.
Neal weighs 430 pounds. He is addicted to food.
“Food addiction is a chronic, progressive, fatal disease,” says Kay Sheppard, a best-selling author and addiction treatment clinician who is considered a pioneer in food addiction treatment. While speaking at the Food Addiction Summit in Seattle last year, Sheppard said, “Food addiction is chronic because it never goes away. Food addiction is progressive because the symptoms get worse over time. And the complications of untreated food addiction (e.g., obesity, diabetes and heart disease) result in early death.”
Food addicts can often stay trapped in the disease, Sheppard said, because the symptoms, not the disease, is often what is treated, and the underlying causes go unaddressed. Out of all addictions Neal faced, food was the hardest for him to accept. In hindsight, Neal can now see his food addiction was always present. It went hand-in-hand with his drug and alcohol addictions and was born out of his troubled family life.
At five years old, Neal weighed 75 pounds.
The average American 5-year-old weighs 49 pounds, according to a 2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Looking back, Neal considers himself within normal range. But it’s also where he traces back his eating addiction. This is when he was first diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and prescribed Ritalin, which his sister’s friend would later teach him how to crush and snort. The drug would give him so much energy throughout the day that he didn’t need to eat, only to make up for it by gorging at night. It was not unusual for Neal and his mom to share two entire Safeway chickens for dinner.
At seven years old, Neal weighed 105 pounds.
It was also the year Neal tried meth for the first time.
Neal remembers one night with his sister Audrey. She was 17 and regularly using drugs. That night she introduced Neal to meth. Why? Misery loves company, Neal says. After 20 cents (milliliters) of meth, four wine coolers, and pot, smoking a filtered Camel cigarette finally knocked him out. After that night, drugs became a way for Neal to escape his own insecurities.
During school hours, Neal had a knack for fitting in under the radar.
To his teachers, he was a gifted straight-A student and received praise and admiration. He had scored in the 160s on an IQ test, putting him at the genius level. To Neal, school was easy, dismissible and unfulfilling. To his classmates, he was the typical quick-witted fat kid. No one knew him beyond his self-deprecating humor, and Neal didn’t want to know himself beyond that mask.
By middle school, Neal weighed 170 pounds.
When Neal was 13 years old, his mom took him and Audrey to San Diego, California. It was there that Neal’s addictions reached new heights.
He would order food and alcohol from Safeway’s Web site, and although the store rules require someone over the age of 21 to be present to accept a delivery containing alcohol, it was never a problem for Neal. He would take his mom’s credit card when she was working long hours as an administrator at a San Diego hospital. The small charges went undetected. Neal had discovered an easy way to binge.
According to the New York University Child Study Center, binging is eating a significantly larger amount than most people would eat under similar circumstances. A binge eater might take in 10,000 to 20,000 calories in one binge, while a person with a normal diet might eat 1,500 to 3,000 calories throughout an entire day.
“What’s the one thing a food addict doesn’t know how to feel?” Neal asks. “Hungry.”
At 14, Neal weighed 350 pounds.
His mother, unable to handle Neal and Audrey’s addictive behaviors, moved in with her boyfriend and left Neal alone at home for two months. Neal stayed inside all day. He stopped going to school. He and Audrey transformed the home into a drug den, selling all the furniture and accessories, choosing nights on the floor over days without drugs.
At this low-point, Neal realized his life had spun out of control. His grandmother invited him to Thanksgiving dinner with his cousins. Neal dressed in his nicest clothes and waited for his grandmother to pick him up. An hour passed. Five hours passed. His grandmother called saying his cousins didn’t want him there. They would not allow him to come. That night Neal tried to kill himself.
The suicide attempt landed him in a psychiatric ward. Eventually, once the scars started to form, Neal was sent to live with his father in Oregon. There, he saw a counselor, who told Neal he was on a path to dying from his obesity.
Normal scales max out at 350 pounds. So to weigh himself, Neal had to go to a grain mill where a truck scale was on 24 hours a day. Neal’s dad would drive him in at around 11 p.m., when the trucks weren’t going through, and he’d sneak onto the scale.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of U.S. adults—more than 72 million people—and 16 percent of U.S. children are obese. The World Health Organization estimates that, by 2015, approximately 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million will be obese.
An obese person has a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Neal’s BMI is around 63.5. “It means I’m deathly obese,” he says.
At 16, Neal weighed 370 pounds.
Neal says that he committed all the same mental contortions a drug or alcohol addict might commit. He would rationalize—I’m overweight, but very smart, he would tell himself. I can’t fit onto a rollercoaster, but I can do sports and socialize. I have high blood pressure and sleep apnea, but there are plenty of fat people who lead long healthy lives.
“Food never got me fired,” Neal says. “It never got me to steal money from my grandma. I have all these other problems, how can I worry about my weight?”
Neal’s problems worsened—he moved in with a drug dealer, who mostly dealt in meth. Soon after, Neal found himself in a police raid and then a juvenile detention center.
From there, he was transferred to a rehabilitation center to get sober. Kicking a drug or alcohol habit can be emotionally unbearable and physically painful. To distract patients from the pain, rehabilitation centers often provide buffet-style food, which contributed to Neal’s problem with overeating.
Food “helps you forget the drugs,” Neal says. “Alcohol could never take the pain away like food could.” Fighting his drug and alcohol addictions lead Neal deeper into his food addiction. He still did not equate food to an uncontrollable dependency like drugs and alcohol. After rehab, Neal stayed clear of drugs and alcohol, but he continued to eat excessively.
Food addicts, according to Sheppard, often experience cravings comparable to an alcoholic’s craving for alcohol. Just as alcohol can trigger an alcoholic’s disease, there are substances that trigger a food addict’s out-of-control eating, such as – refined carbohydrates, sweeteners, fats and processed foods. Effective treatment, Sheppard says, is often based on abstinence from addictive food substances.
Food addiction has not yet been classified by the American Psychiatric Association as an addiction. It has traditionally been treated as an eating disorder—not as substance abuse. But the latest scientific research shows highly refined foods have the potential to become as addictive as alcohol and tobacco. A new study published this spring in the journal of Nature Neuroscience found that high-fat and high-sugar foods can lead to changes in the brain that are similar to a brain of someone hooked on cocaine or heroin. In other words, a brain on cheesecake looks the same as a brain on crack.
At 17, Neal’s substance abuse relapsed, sending him into a six-month spiral. He remembers his last night of drugs—January 10, 2006. He consumed a mixture of Yukon Jack, Southern Comfort, Malibu Rum, and 151, along with some white pill. After he woke up, he returned to rehab.
He was sent on a retreat and during one of the events, Neal soiled himself. But, instead of being shunned, or ostracized, the group members showed him the shower; they showed him love when he didn’t have any for himself.
Now, Neal lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s 22 years old and sober. He works as a bank teller and maintains healthy relationships with his girlfriend and friends. But he asked himself, “Why am I still not happy?” It wasn’t until recently that Neal discovered his underlying food addiction.
At 22, Neal weighs 430 pounds.
“I wake up every morning and give myself over to God’s will because my will won’t take care of me,” Neal says. Neal’s not a religious man, but to him, God is something bigger than himself; something he’s accepted can help him.
Now Neal’s daily routine looks like this: He showers, brushes his teeth, and gets dressed. Then he goes out into the world of food. The next room he faces is the kitchen, where Neal tries to eat foods that won’t incite overeating. For breakfast that means a high-fiber cereal, skim milk, and some fruit.
At the front door to his workplace, Neal reminds himself to give his struggles over to God. His manager likes to bring in treats. Sometimes it’s doughnuts. Sometimes it’s cookies. Coworkers go out to lunch and bring back 1,000-calorie grande frappuccinos or energy drinks.
To avoid these temptations, Neal either brings his own lunch which he cooked at home (where he can control the fiber and the calories) or he goes to the pizza shop next door where they’ve created a special dish specifically for him—a salad with grilled chicken and lemon juice for dressing.
After work, he does low-impact aerobic exercise and then goes home. Before bed, Neal practices mindfulness meditation, where he tries to recognize and accept his feelings rather than push them away.
“I’m doing this at 22,” Neal says, “so I can make it to 60.”