“The Big Issue: Addicted to Food” is the first in a new series on TheGrio, taking an in-depth look at issues affecting the African American community. This particular story takes a fresh look at the rates of obesity and weight-related health problems in the black community by focusing on food addiction. New science suggests that when it comes to weight gain, willpower isn’t the only issue, and that food can be as addictive as alcohol, nicotine, or narcotics.

Iris Williams is redefining her relationship with food. These days the real estate executive and married mom stocks her kitchen with healthy staples like fruits, vegetables and yogurt.

As she scans the contents of her fridge, she picks up a decadent chocolate bar and waves it triumphantly.

“I haven’t even had any of this, which is remarkable,” she says. “It’s like an alcoholic not taking a drink.”

The comparison between alcoholism and Williams’ relationship with food isn’t coincidental. She says that for most of her life, she used food as a drug, and in many ways, became addicted. At nine-years old, Williams weighed 130 pounds. By her 42nd birthday, she tipped the scales at 333 pounds.

“I was using [food] to medicate, I was using it not to deal with life, not to get angry,” she notes. “I couldn’t stop at one piece of cake, it would be three pieces of cake.”

It’s a struggle many can relate to. It’s estimated that more than 30 percent of Americans are obese. For African-Americans that number is even higher at 45 percent. Blacks also have the nation’s highest rates of weight-related health problems like diabetes.

For years, the prevailing wisdom has been that overeating is caused by a lack of discipline. But now some in the scientific community say there’s evidence that willpower isn’t the only issue.

Dr. Dana Small from the John B. Pierce Laboratory and Yale School of Medicine studies how certain foods affect our brain’s reward centers. She fed obese, overweight, and slender volunteers small amounts of a milkshake through a tube while they rested inside and fMRI scanner.

Dr. Small found that while drinking the shake, heavier subjects showed different responses in their brain’s reward centers than the other volunteers, suggesting that weight gain had actually changed their brain responses, making them more impulsive when it comes to overeating.

“One of the hallmarks of addiction is brain change,” says Dr. Small.

Dr. Small notes that individual genetics plays a big role, as does the specific foods people are eating. Unsurprisingly, people are unlikely to become addicted to things like carrots or apples. The most troublesome treats are highly processed and refined, much like narcotics.

“Just like with addictive drugs, where you refine a plant, a poppy, to produce opium, so too do you do that with food,” says Dr. Small. “Those foods can pack more of a reward punch. And those foods can become to the brain, perhaps on par with addictive drugs. ”

So how does one treat an addiction to something we all need to survive? One group thinks they have the answer. Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous is a 12-step program addressing physical and emotional ties to food. The group, which has more than 4,000 members, says they manage their addiction by avoiding certain foods, and eating only three measure meals each day. Those who work the program swear it works for them.

“Chuck” used to weigh 420 pounds. After eight years in the program he’s down to 180. He says recovery is not just about weight loss, but about learning to think about food the right way.

“I didn’t like how my life was so I used food as a drug to kind of make me check out of my reality. Now I look to food as just fuel, fuel to get me through the day.”

Though Iris Williams has not joined a formal program, she says she has finally regained control of her eating after a painful wake-up call. Five years ago her father died suddenly of weight-related health problems. That encouraged Williams to have gastric bypass surgery. Now 130 pounds lighter, she says he focus isn’t on food, but living.

“I feel alive. I feel alive. When I was at my heaviest I did feel dead.”

Like so many who struggle with food, Williams is looking towards a brighter future, one free from the weight of addiction