Obesity and Food Addiction: It's Not About Willpower

03/24/2015 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

While it's nationally recognized that we are in the midst of an "obesity epidemic," our response remains gravely inadequate. Imagine handling the ebola epidemic by saying to those who contracted the disease, "Try harder not to get sick."

Despite what our culture, exercise and diet industries would have us believe, there's growing evidence that combatting obesity is not about willpower. And while our society is indeed structured to make lack of exercise an easy default, and high-calorie, low-nutrition products ever-present, the fact is that people are addicted to food in a way that is killing them. To gain a deeper understanding on the causes and cures of obesity, I interviewed author and cognitive hypotherapist Dawn Walton, who has had surprising success in helping people kick their addiction to food. Her new book, The Caveman Rules of Survival, provides a new approach and new hope for individuals dealing with obesity.

Question: Dawn, how much of your work is with people dealing with obesity, and what do you tell them when they come to you of help?

Walton: About 50 percent of the clients who come to me are for eating disorders and weight loss. I get a lot who are considering a gastric band and decide to "risk" a slightly different approach first. When they come to me I tell them I don't care how much they weight. Their size is none of my business. What they eat is none of my business. How much they exercise is none of my business. All I care about is giving people the freedom to choose. If someone comes to me to lose weight, then I regard it as equally successful if they lose weight or decide they are happy with who they are. This is different from most people who work in weight loss. Most therapists measure success in terms of weight loss. I measure it in terms of freeing clients up from the addiction for the rest of their lives. My clients never have to diet again.

Question: How do the "Caveman Rules of Survival" help people to see their problem differently?
Walton: Most of us believe we have conscious control of our choices. It's simply not true. Your subconscious is in charge for at least 90 percent of the day. That part of your brain is primitive, emotional, and quite frankly, stupid; but it means well. It is always looking to make you feel better. So when you find that eating that bar of chocolate makes you feel happy, even for a moment, you know that comes from your subconscious. If you think about when you have had a stressful day; you get home at the end of the day and feel exhausted. You know that if you eat chocolate you will feel better for a short while. Consciously you know you will feel bad right after, but that doesn't matter because you need something now. Why would you not eat the chocolate when you know it works?

All through childhood we are learning. We aren't just learning at a conscious level, our subconscious is also learning how it can keep us safe and well once we become adults. As it learns a significant lesson, a rule gets written in the rule book. That rule book is then used to guide your subconscious during that 90 percent where it is in charge of your thoughts.

It's a rule in your rule book that creates the link between eating chocolate and feeling happy. Imagine that your mom took you to the dentist regularly as a child. She wanted to make sure you went without complaint so she promised that if you behaved you could have chocolate after. It was important to behave in a way that ensured your mom would love you, so you take the chocolate as a sign that she cared. Your mom is now dead but every time you eat chocolate it reminds you of those trips to the dentist with her and you smile. Once you realize where a connection comes from, you can remove the connection without losing the memory. This is what I do in my therapy practice. We time travel, and looking back on a memory we look at it with a new, adult, perspective. So we might focus on your mother giving you a big hug instead of a chocolate bar. We might imagine you forgetting about the chocolate in favor of having the hug. We might replace the chocolate with a magazine. It doesn't have to be true, it just has to be plausible.

Question: What kind of success rate do you have?
Walton: As I have said, I don't measure success the same way as other therapists. I do have stories, of course. I have a lady who has lost over 8 stone (50kg, 112 pounds) over a period of about three years. She now runs regularly, which is amusing because when we first spoke, one of her measures of success was going to be choosing to walk her children to school a couple of mornings a week. Now she runs every morning, and when I tried to arrange to chat to her, she refused because she was doing her run at that time! What I can say is that once you start working with me there are two ways the process ends: You either achieve the freedom from food you want, or you give up. There is not third option where I decide it won't work for you.

Question: Could you walk us through the first step you take in working with people?
Walton: I start by finding out why someone wants to lose weight; sometimes you just want freedom to choose what to eat, sometimes you want to get in a particular clothes size so you can pick clothes off the shelf, sometimes you can't stand to look in the mirror and you want to feel okay with yourself, sometimes you want to be able to walk up a hill without getting out of breath. This is a critical step. Someone with anorexia might come to me and ask me to help them to lose weight because they feel fat. The problem isn't really their size, it's that they feel fat. This is why I class it as equally successful if someone decides they don't need to lose weight, as if they go on to lose loads.

There are then two things to do. First, we need to break the connection between food and emotion. Second, it may not be enough to just break the emotional connection. If your subconscious has a reason for you being overweight, nothing you do will have the effect you hoped for. Weight can protect you. Maybe it's easier to believe that people don't like you because you're fat than because you're a horrible person. Maybe it stops people seeing your shape so you can hide under the fat. Maybe you have always been the "fat friend" and without that label, you don't know who you are. So that's the next thing I work on, if it applies.

Question: Other than obesity, what else do people see you for help with?
Walton: You name it, I do it. I am a therapist so can help with anything. I work with a lot of clients with depression and anxiety. I also work with phobias, which are probably the simplest of all problems I deal with. I work with issues of abuse and trauma. I work with children from 8 to 17. I also work with a number of physical conditions such as ME/CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), etc. People usually come to me when the medical profession gives up on them. I haven't had anyone I haven't been able to help yet. If someone is willing to work with me and believes in what we can do together, then I can help.

Question: Now that your book, The Caveman Rules of Survival, is out, what are you doing to reach more people to inform them about kicking their addictions?
Walton: The book gets the message out that we don't have to be stuck with stuff. There is a general perception that we will always be an alcoholic or always have to diet. I don't believe that's true. I believe if you get rid of triggers, which sit in the rule book, then you don't have to spend the rest of your life battling your subconscious.

I take a "splatter gun" approach to getting the message out there. Do lots and some things will stick! So I have a blog and a YouTube channel. I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I also love doing talks. I did a book launch in my local Waterstones book shop when the book was out. I have applied to do a local TEDx talk. If I don't get that one, I will get another. I have an app to boost willpower and self-control on the app store called "TICIWillpower." I try and find ways that people can experience the benefit of what I do in as many ways as possible, even if they can't afford a session. I also do 50 percent of my business online using Skype and FaceTime, so it doesn't matter where in the world you are, I can help.

Dawn Walton is the author of The Caveman Rules of Survival and a practicing Cognitive Hypnotherapist specializing in food addiction. She runs sessions in person out of offices in Dundee and Aberdeen in the UK, and internationally via Skype and Facetime; most clients only need between two and three sessions to rewrite the rules in their rulebook.


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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.