People often talk about emotional eating as a “food addiction.” The same goes for being “addicted” to shopping, gambling, and other behaviors – even positive ones like exercise. It’s true that these behaviors can sometimes seem to take on a life of their own and make you feel like you’re just going along for the scary ride. Some professionals who work with these behavioral disorders refer to them as “process addictions” to distinguish them from chemical addictions. But they still hold on to the addiction metaphor because, although there are no outside substances being introduced into the body, these behaviors can look and feel just any chemical addiction.

But are they the same? And if not, is there a problem with using the term to describe these behaviors? They do seem like addictions on the surface, and it may be handy to use the term as a metaphor. But there’s an important difference, and I believe using the term addiction to describe behavioral disorders that are not physical addictions tends to blur that distinction. The difference is that emotional eating and other behaviors are compulsions, not addictions. A compulsion is something you feel you have to do; an addiction is something you can’t live without. That may sound like a distinction without a difference, so I’ll explain.

There are three unique characteristics of a chemical addiction. The first is that a substance that is not normally used by the body and has an effect on the brain, is introduced into the body. The second is the body develops a tolerance to this substance so that it gradually becomes less effective in producing a response. This is due to the body accommodating to it by increasing whatever compensatory mechanisms are necessary to get back to normal functioning even with this new element in its system. The third is physical withdrawal that occurs once the body has gotten back to its normal functioning in spite of this substance, and is then deprived of it. Because then, having it is the new “normal” and being without it is abnormal. This is what creates a chemical dependence. Depending on what the substance is, the effects of withdrawal can range from a headache, as with caffeine, to seizures or even death, as with alcohol. That’s why, in many cases, the addict literally can’t live without it.

To review, the features unique to addictions are (1) the non-vital substance, (2) tolerance, and (3) physical dependence. The last one happens only after tolerance has developed and is caused by the need to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Until tolerance develops, it’s called substance abuse, which may produce a response in the brain – a high or low or a perceptual distortion, for example, depending on what the substance is. But it’s not yet an addiction until the brain adjusts to that effect and the person needs it just to go on feeling normal. At that point, the user may then increase the dosage until it produces the effect again.

So how does that differ from a compulsion? Compulsions do not involve introducing a chemical substance into the body that is not part of its normal functioning. A compulsion is a behavior that you feel you have to do, usually to avoid or control an intolerable sense of anxiety. An addiction is something that if you don’t do, you’ll get sick or die.

While food is a chemical substance, you can’t live without it because any organism, including a human one, relies on nutrition as a normal and necessary part of its functioning. Therefore, it does not meet the first criterion of introducing a non-vital substance. It is also not something whose effects you can develop a tolerance to since its main effect is delivering nutrients to the body, not altering the working of the brain. So it fails the second criterion too. The third feature of addiction, physical dependence, is certainly true of food, but that’s how the body functions normally, not a response that the body develops to compensate for a foreign chemical in its system. Strike three.

Emotional eating, therefore, is a psychological compulsion to do something that would otherwise cause emotional distress, not physical withdrawal. The force that drives the behavior, in my view, is the need to counteract feeling controlled by certain external forces by acting out against those or other external forces. The goal is to even one’s perception of the playing field in the ongoing tension between external demands and internal autonomy.

The reasons that it is important to be careful about using the term addiction, is that the comparison, if it is not clear, could suggest that the treatment of an emotional compulsion should follow the model of treating a physical addiction. The problem with that is the first step in that treatment is to abstain. And as I’ve been saying all along, trying that with any foods would only make things worse.

I don’t usually use this blog to talk about what’s in the news or re-post items from other blogs, but this article is too important to pass up, especially during the first week of New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve been talking a lot about the benefits of moderation. Psychologically, it helps reduce the feeling of obligation, whether to diet, exercise, or engage in any other healthy behavior because you “really should.” Despite whatever  may get you started on the new regimen (and new year’s resolutions are prime examples) the steam soon runs out and the feeling of being forced takes over. Then the rebellion kicks in.

That’s why I couldn’t pass up this blog post in the New York Times this week that summarizes the past year of research about the benefits of moderate exercise and the hazards of trying to be too “good” about it. Not only is moderate exercise beneficial, more than that can be hazardous. Even without knowing that, it’s important to realize that almost all of the benefit of exercise is obtained by doing small things that you would do anyway, but doing them a little more actively. Working out longer and harder offers only a marginal benefit which, as the research points out,  is outweighed by the risks of injury.

Taking the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator, walking to a more distant subway or bus stop, and parking on the far side of the lot at the mall are all common examples of how to be more physically active without pain and with gain. A brisk walk, with or without a dog, or a leisurely jog with walking breaks when it starts to feel not-so-leisurely are all perfectly good and enjoyable ways to get the exercise you need to stay healthy and live longer.

What about exercising to lose weight? Here’s another article from the Times that summarizes the research on that. To boil it down  even more: it’s overrated. The best way to lose weight is to eat normally; eat what you like and only how much you need to feel satisfied (hunger and desire); don’t diet but don’t overeat.

Instead of resolving to be the exerciser you never were, and don’t really want to be,  resolve instead to be more active and less sedentary. And don’t give in to the enthusiasm spasm.