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Special report: Meet the sugar addicts desperate to beat their food cravings
Rummaginge through bins, guzzling frozen food and covering it in washing up liquid would be considered bizarre behaviour to most people.
But for the dozen or so self-confessed food addicts who meet twice a week in Hove, the circumstances are all too familiar.
They belong to Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) – a recovery programme for people addicted to food and based on the 12-step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
FA has been running internationally for more than 30 years. It gained momentum in the UK about 13 years ago and has since welcomed more than 4,000 people to its meetings across the globe.
There are no membership fees, weigh-ins or point systems and Saturday’s meeting at the Old Vicarage in Wilbury Road welcomed men and women, young and old.
Food addiction is described as a “progressive illness” rooted to obsessions, feelings of fear, doubt, negativity and insecurity, which drive addicts to repeated, destructive behaviour.
While the meeting’s personnel was varied, the common denominator was that they all shared a problem with food - specifically flour and sugar.
Many are in recovery but admit they are “one bite away” from falling off the wagon – similar to how an alcoholic can be “one drink away” from self-destruction.
Addicts in the fellowship take strength from one another and are given a “weighed and measured” food plan to help them on their path to recovery.
It’s chilly and wet outside the four walls of the vicarage, but the sincere and honest stories shared by the food addicts are enough to warm the coldest of hearts.
For the sake of anonymity their names in this story have been changed.
“Hi my name’s Ruby and I’m a food addict,” confesses a fresh-faced 25-year-old woman.
“I used to eat to pass out, to black out. I’d be texting or ringing people saying I was dying because I’d eaten so much. I’ve grown up in the mental health system because I was very compulsive and full of self-hatred.
“It was a dark place going to hospitals and being given all these different hats like bipolar, personality disorder and so on. But no one mentioned addiction.
“I was misdiagnosed but now, instead of having another packet of pills, I’m free knowing I’m not a bad person, but just someone who is not very well.”
Ruby’s darkest days dawned when she began eating compulsively aged 18. Akin to a drug addict, she admitted to stealing food from friends and family and would hide chocolate bar wrappers after shameful and guilt-ridden food binges.
“It’s not a glamorous addiction. I’ve eaten out of toilets, out of the bin and even eaten food straight from the freezer because I was so desperate,” she says.
“I had the most immaculate free-range food cupboard but I would be stealing other people’s food and hiding wrappers in my car.
“I’d cover food in fairy liquid and hair mousse so I didn’t eat it but I was so desperate I would give in. I was at rock bottom. But with the help of FA I feel in control again.”
A 54-year-old former nurse called Shelley, dressed elegantly in black boots and a floral dress, speaks up and tells her story.
She’s been attending FA for more than ten years and describes how her food addiction, with its subsequent affect on her weight, nearly destroyed her marriage.
“When I was fat I felt ugly and disgusting. It made me angry and I hated myself, which meant I wasn’t a very nice person to be around.
“I was very unstable because I didn’t love and respect myself. My husband didn’t understand why I wanted a massive bar of chocolate when we’d just finished dinner and I would get angry with him when he asked.
“I was a registered nurse and I was looking after other people but not myself. It was ironic. While walking from patient to patient I would have four bars of chocolate and multiple packs of crisps, scoffing my face in full uniform. I remember ramming food down in the space of a few minutes and then carrying on as normal.”
While most drug and alcohol experts agree addiction can stem from unresolved emotional issues or traumatic events in childhood, the majority of FA members in the room believe they were born with the disease.
John, a 43-year-old father and businessman, has defeated cocaine and alcohol addiction in the past but says beating sugar and flour has liberated him.
“I feel I was born with it,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve collected it somewhere along the line, I’ve always had it in me.”
Another woman adds: “Everyone has a different story, but the bottom line is we have problems with flour and sugar and I think we were born that way.
“There’s research that says if sugar was launched now it would be banned. Sugar is kiddie cocaine.”
The World Health Organisation recently advised adults should halve the amount of sugar intake in their diets over fears it is contributing to heart disease, obesity and tooth decay.
But is it truly addictive?
Robert Lustig, professor of paediatrics at the University of California, is familiar in scientific circles for his research into the effects of sugar. He believes that sugar is addictive and likens it to cocaine and heroin.
He recently said: "We need to wean ourselves off. We need to de-sweeten our lives. We need to make sugar a treat, not a diet staple.
"The food industry has made it into a diet staple because they know when they do you buy more. This is their hook. If some unscrupulous cereal manufacturer went out and laced your breakfast cereal with morphine to get you to buy more, what would you think of that? They do it with sugar instead."
Lustig claims that table sugars known as sucrose, made of glucose and fructose, chemically bind to each other and is identical to high fructose corn syrup - which he describes as a "chronic toxin".
However Sugar Nutrition UK, a research body funded by the sugar manufacturers, denies suggestions that sugar is toxic or addictive.
For the food addicts in Hove, their food addiction crippled not only themselves but those closest to them.
Danielle, a woman in her late 20s, tells the group her addiction caused her to treat people badly.
She said: “I was a girl that had morals but the food addiction started pushing boundaries in other parts of life. I went behind my boyfriend’s back, I was doing all sorts. My food addiction led me to treat people really badly.
“There were times when I was in my boyfriend’s house and I would sneak downstairs at night to rummage through his cupboards and shove bread down my throat.
“I remember being on a half-board holiday in Spain with him. He wasn’t a food addict so he wasn’t bothered we would be missing lunch.
“But for me it was this scary time between 10am and 5pm with no food and it terrified me. I was constantly obsessed about where we were going to get lunch from. He would ask why I was so obsessed and then I’d get really angry, we’d have an argument. If I couldn’t get to food I felt very stressed, anxious and fearful.“I do this programme so I can be a sane human being. If I left, I’d be back to where I was.”
Paul Tucker, a therapist at the Equilibrium Complementary Health Centre in Lewes, welcomes food addicts for treatment at his clinic.
He recognises food addiction as a disease and likens it to compulsive gambling, drug, and alcohol use.
He said: “They’re all self destructive behaviours and I would agree they can be linked back to particular times or events in our lifetimes.
“We treat all sorts of addictions including food and would initially use hypnotherapy and perhaps counselling.
“We need to understand we are all human beings and so while one person can find themselves immune from addiction, others aren’t. Food is just another outlet.”
Brighton and Hove’s food addicts continue to meet twice a week and find solace and fellowship from their gatherings. They live fulfilling and happy lives in sugar and flour abstinence and are keen to welcome anyone who may be suffering from food addiction.
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous meet on Wednesday at The Arc, next to Holland Road Baptist Church in Hove, from 7.30pm to 9pm. Please ring the door bell and follow directions to the red room.
Saturday meetings are held at Hove Vicarage, Wilbury Road, Hove, BN3 3PQ, from 9am to 10.30am.
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