“Addicted” to hyperbole

Some of you might have noticed that recent blog posts here have earned me some antagonism from defenders of the low-carb, high fat (LCHF) diet. In their defence, they of course think that I’m being needlessly antagonistic, especially towards someone (Prof. Tim Noakes) who they think of as doing pioneering – and very important – work in nutrition.

I’d like to try and approach the topic from a slightly different angle here, in the hopes of illustrating what I mean when I say that my criticisms are premised on a concern for exaggerating the quality and consequences of data, in a context of great uncertainty. In the same way as my language and arguments around religion have tempered significantly over the past 3 or so years, in science I’m equally concerned with the example we set as to how to think, where the claims we make should be proportional to the quality and amount of evidence we have.

A comment on one of my previous posts led me to this blog post by Prof. Grant Schofield, in which he responds to a press release from health professionals in New Zealand, decrying low-carb high-fat advocacy. Schofield’s post seems happy to embrace nuance and to acknowledge the limitations in what we can know right now about the long-term effects of LCHF diets, and is to me a great example of how to argue for an outlier position in a way that lures people into serious consideration of your case, rather than giving the impression that you’re being asked to join a religious cult.

As I wrote earlier in the week, the language of science should embrace uncertainty. We should not offer people dogma, both because it dumbs down the process of scientific reasoning, and second (an extension of the first, though) because it encourages people to think in terms of false dichotomies or other poorly defined and crude categories. What’s right is often about nuance, and doesn’t fit in a tweet or headline – and those of us who know better should not encourage a simplistic “X is right/wrong/healthy/good/bad”, especially when we know that’s what the market wants to hear.

The Doctor just tweeted a link to a great piece about “food fearmongering” that makes this point via examples of diet advice and promotions for books and movies about diet that are almost comical in their hyperbole. Food, basically, is trying to kill you – and unfortunately, you’re also addicted to it.

Until fairly recently, I was involved with a multi-disciplinary research team working in the field of pathological gambling, and as a result got to spend five years working with leading international addiction scholars, neuropsychologists, clinicians in the field of addiction, and so forth. In national prevalence studies and other research, I also got to spend a fair bit of time with people who describe themselves as addicts.

The simple takeaway, if I were to distill five years into one sentence, is that addiction is complex, and not a word to be used glibly. Today, anything we happen to like is often described as addictive, and people will talk about “brain scans show that area X lights up” when you eat a Snickers bar, while not thinking that perhaps area X happens to light up when you do stuff you enjoy. Or, that people who are inclined to addiction will find things to get addicted to, but that this doesn’t always mean that the thing in question is intrinsically addictive.

Today, people are variously addicted to sex, love, the Internet, cocaine, carbohydrates, sugar, crystal meth and so forth. But using the same word to describe all these things is profoundly misleading, and is also potentially insulting to people who suffer from the sort of unambiguous addiction that costs you your savings, your family, your health and so forth. To put a mild lack of self-control alongside heroin seems somewhat glib.

Cocaine, for example, often has no physical withdrawal effects. Psychotherapist Marty Klein says that, in 31 years of practice in the field, he’s never seen “sex addiction”, and describes it as a myth. Internet addiction was invented as a hoax in 1995, when Dr Ivan Goldberg took the diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling and adapted them to the Internet.

Internet addiction wasn’t included in the 2013 revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – not even in the “Conditions for Further Study” chapter, that highlights things thought worthy of continued attention. “Internet gaming disorder” can be found in “Conditions for Further Study”, and “gambling disorder” does appear, in a new category for “behavioral addictions”. As I say, it’s complex.

Then, as I’ve written in the past, we might even want to be wary of treating the DSM as authoritative, perhaps especially with regard to the class of behavioural addictions, accused of making a “mental disorder of everything we like to do a lot”. My point is simply that this one word, “addiction”, is being made to do a lot of work – and a term that broad can sometimes appear rather meaningless in consequence.

It’s of course not meaningless for people who do suffer with an addiction of their own. The question I’m asking here: if we start speaking of anything that people struggle with as an “addiction”, what are the consequences of that? I fear that we’re not only encouraging shoddy thinking about addiction (and science, in general), but we’re also encouraging victimhood in that my lack of self-control can now simply be ascribed to the fact that I’ve been snared by the evil Internet, or the seductive candy bar.

And finally, there’s the danger of insensitivity – almost insult – to people who struggle with addictions that destroy lives. While being badgered by a LCHF devotee on Twitter, I was asked “do you have ANY experience with addiction that is not related to some scientific study? So much more to it than that.” In other words, I was being asked if I was an addict.

Now, this was Twitter, so you might say that this sort of thing comes with the territory. But what if I was an addict, really struggling with something, perhaps have just lost a job, or a spouse, or somesuch? Might one not think the question rude, crude, inappropriate – even indefensible? (Regardless, of course, of whether it was relevant or not, in that I was being asked “never mind the data, but do you have an anecdote?”)

I’d certainly think it inappropriate, perhaps even “triggering“, in the contemporary language of social justice. When it comes from someone who works at an addiction clinic, of all places, I’d be even more convinced.

And in this case, that’s exactly where it came from – a person offering treatment for “sugar and carbohydrate addiction”. The field of addiction – and addicts themselves – could do with us being a little more careful about the language we employ, and the categories we use to describe the things we enjoy.


Also published on Medium.

  • George

    Very true that addiction is complex and multilayered. It is behavioural and perceptual thus not easily amenable to scientific method. Concepts/experiences such as craving, addiction, and dependence as as distinct, yet as interwoven, as those of lust, love, jealousy, grief.
    My own experience tells me that is is very unlikely that anyone could be truly addicted to carbohydrate per se, but that it is feasible to become addicted in a true sense (wasting money, love, and health for a compulsion with decreasing or negative pleasure) to classes of industrial foods, and that these will tend to be foods high in, but not exclusively made of carbohydrate, perhaps because insulin has a reinforcing action on cravings, perhaps because addiction is at some level a metabolic defect.
    The science does not really exist to analyse all addictions meaningfully under a common biochemical model. I found that switching to a LCHF diet and taking a few lower-dose supplements made it ridiculously easy, and somewhat pleasurable, to withdraw from a 25 year methadone habit, but searching Pubmed for reasons why this might be so was unenlightening; a hint about NMDA-receptors, another about GABA, but really nothing solid at all, except the advice that acetyl-l-carnitine would be helpful, and that probiotics might prevent diarrhea, both of which were true, but neither of which was that much of a hypothesis to begin with.
    It is possible that some doctors who talk about carb addiction in their specific patients are accurate in their clinical judgement, and that others who repeat this as a general claim in blogs and books are trivialising the subject. I would tend to ask whether the person making the claim could have the clinical experience to back it up. But this comes back to the old tension between “clinical judgement” and “scientific method”.