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Iris Williams’ uncontrollable eating began when she was a little girl. Food -- the stuff we need to fuel our bodies to live -- became her drug, and she struggled with it daily for decades.
“Sugar junkie. I will claim sugar junkie,” Williams told TODAY. “I couldn't stop at one piece of cake. It would be three pieces of cake.”
She reached 130 pounds at age 9. Her weight hit 333 by her 42nd birthday. “I was using it to medicate,” she said. “I was using it not to deal with life.”
But Williams, a married mom with a 5-year-old son, has begun gaining control over her eating. In 2009, she had gastric bypass surgery and has lost 130 pounds. Today, she feels great.
“I feel alive,” she told TODAY. “When I was at my heaviest, I did feel dead. I will fight against that and I know I won't pass that mentality onto my son.”
With two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, is it a lack of willpower, or could food be as addictive as drugs?
Some people claim they are addicted to food and seek help through groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous. While food addiction is not a clinical diagnosis, some scientists say there’s evidence the hold food can have over us can be as strong as narcotics, alcohol or nicotine.
Refined and processed foods like ice cream and potato chips are the most potentially addictive, experts say.
Finding self worth
Williams, who grew up eating fried foods and sweets, says that while surgery was a tool that helped her, she also made changes from within.
“It’s not even like I woke up and knew I was an addict,” she told TODAY's Ann Curry. “You just lived a certain way. But I have to be conscious because my son is watching me.
“I just think finding self worth ... I’m worth it to take the extra step to live conscious and not just put everything in my mouth,” she explained.
NBC News’ chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, appeared alongside Williams on TODAY to discuss her own family’s struggles with overeating and weight. She noted that her sister recently lost 50 pounds, and that she herself used to be "much, much heavier."
“I would have to look at certain foods and say ‘I think they’re poison,’” Snyderman said on TODAY. “And once I labeled them as poison, and I thought of them like rat poison, I wouldn’t eat them.”
Snyderman and Williams both talked about the need to find value within themselves as they struggled with food issues.
“It really comes down to this inner self-worth and it is complicated stuff,” Snyderman said. “I think therapy helps a lot of us.”
The science around food and addiction is still evolving.
Neuroscientist Dana Small, of the John B. Pierce Laboratory and Yale University, fed small amounts of a milkshake to obese, overweight and slender volunteers and found that the heavier subjects had different responses in their brain’s reward centers than the other volunteers.
“One of the hallmarks of addiction is brain change,” Small told TODAY, adding that genetics also play a role.
In a separate study, brain scans of thin people who looked at pictures of high-calorie foods showed increased activity in a region of the brain used for impulse control, but obese people showed little activity in the area, meaning they had less ability to control their food cravings, according to recent research from Yale and the University of Southern California.
Snyderman noted that the issue is unsettled.
“There is a part where you expect the human body to say ‘I have the willpower to push myself away from the table,’” she told Curry. “But on the other hand, there is real science to show that the circuitry of the brain gets rewarded by what we put in our mouth. So whether it’s a pill or a drug or a food, it all has an impact on your brain.”
Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York