Food for Thought: Understanding Food Addiction
Some foods are just easy to love. Try as we might to resist chocolate cake, potato chips, or soda pop, as soon as we have the chance, we cave and we devour, often reaching for seconds.
Before you let the guilt settle, take note: food addiction is more than just a self-diagnosed lack of willpower. Scientists, nutritionists, and doctors unanimously agree that when it comes to craving certain foods, there’s plenty at play internally that’s causing your New Year’s resolutions to falter.
We tend to think about food on a rather binary scale. We like this; we do not like that. Pass me the pie, keep the Brussels sprouts at the other end of the table. From a health and wellness perspective, this makes sense. These favorite treats and delectable desserts are actually causing a measurable reaction in our bodies; our minds enjoy the foods, but physiologically speaking, they can do harm to our bodies.
Dr. Mark Berman is a practicing physician at One Medical Group, director of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and head of health at www.FareWell.io, an online dietary intervention program. The program combines the latest evidence in nutrition science with digital tools and a multidisciplinary support team to bridge the gap between physicians and prescriptions.
In Dr. Berman’s world, food is measured by its palatability. Foods that are highly palatable are foods that trigger the brain pathways associated with rewards and release increased levels of the feel-good chemical dopamine.
“These neural pathways produce the sensations of pleasure and satisfaction—and the termination of unpleasant signals, like hunger or anxiety,” explains Dr. Berman.
While we all experience a measure of joy from these neural effects associated with eating, food addiction occurs when other key components are at play, such as mental instability or illness.
Amber Madden, a licensed counselor specializing in eating disorders and obesity issues, believes food addiction is as much physical as it is psychological. After nearly a decade serving as the medical director of the Center of Weight Loss at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Madden has witnessed the correlation firsthand.
“Overeating or disordered eating patterns are most likely a way for a person to cope with negative emotions when they don’t otherwise know how to healthfully,” she says.
Couple this with the release of Dr. Berman’s aforementioned ‘triggering reward’ and the results are serious.
“You have someone that is having an experience with food equivalent to someone who takes a hit from heroin,” Madden says.
Highly palatable foods, according to Dr. Berman, tend to be substances that have a high concentration of fat, sugar, and/or salt. For whatever reason, these three categories cause the greatest increase in dopamine production in the human body.
In Madden’s experience working with patients, sugar is the obvious frontrunner. This is likely because, as Madden points out, “Sugar is in almost everything we eat, especially processed foods we may not even realize [contain sugar].”
Sugar is especially difficult to avoid because it comes in so many different forms, including the far-from-natural glucose-fructose syrup (i.e., high fructose corn syrup) and Lycasin, a trade name for hydrogenated glucose syrup.
“Our bodies are used to dealing with natural substances,” says Rob Jackson, a former sugar addict and current personal trainer at Purpose FIT, a fitness center in London. Honey, for instance, is a natural sugar readily recognized by the brain, which in turn calmly reacts to the increase in sugar to ensure a stable blood sugar level. The brain also knows when it should trigger the body that it’s had enough, Jackson shares.
Manufactured sugars trigger the exact opposite response. The brain doesn’t know when enough is enough, let alone how to appropriately regulate the body. “We do not feel like we’ve had enough because the brain is not receiving the signals. That’s why we continue to eat more of whatever sugary snack it is,” says Jackson.
These small secret substances inside our food, though invisible, can have huge effects on our bodies.
“I have worked with addicted substance abuse clients and also people suffering from food addictive behaviors, and there are so many similarities,” says Madden, referencing a research study that demonstrated how when an individual consumes sugar, the reward centers in the brain light up the same way they do for someone that uses drugs.
“Since our diet has a constant supply of sugar in everything from bread to even the meats that we eat, we are on a constant sugar high,” she says.
Avoiding addiction starts with avoiding sneaky unhealthy, addictive ingredients. Accomplishing this takes a little finesse and a lot of persistence.
Dr. Irving Cohen, a preventive medicine physician in Topeka, Kansas, currently works with the Foundation for Prevention. Having written numerous books related to obesity and diabetes epidemics, he says that loose labeling laws make avoiding foods with toxic ingredients a challenge.
Dr. Cohen believes that the increasing use of food additives, most notably glutamate flavor enhancers and sugar, paired with inappropriate labeling standards, is to blame for the worldwide health problems he’s written so extensively about.
Your best bet for nixing potentially addictive food is to go all-natural. Jackson offers this simple strategy:
“Anything in the supermarket which is brightly colored and cheap is probably bad [for your health]. Eat only food that is as close to its natural state as possible. Anything that has been heavily processed and has a long list of additives on the back is not ideal,” he advises.
Concerned that you’re already addicted to eating? The road to recovery is difficult, but certainly not impossible.
“From personal experience I know how hard it is to stop eating these foods,” says Jackson. “The turning point came when I admitted to myself that I had an addiction. I wanted to get healthier so I needed to make a change,” he shares.
Once you’ve acknowledged your addiction, Jackson recommends implementing a few basic but effective actions that will keep your momentum going as you tackle this new lifestyle:
“All low-quality foods MUST be removed from your reach,” says Jackson. “Out of sight, out of mind. If you have bad foods in the house, you are going to eat them. It’s that simple.”
“Dehydration can manifest itself as hunger, so it pays to drink first,” Jackson notes.
Successfully fighting food addiction takes commitment. David Nico PhD, “Dr. Healthnut,” the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Diet Diagnosis, reminds us that, like it or not, a true cleanse is necessary to really conquer addiction.
“A small amount of addictive ingredients trains the brain to consume more,” he states, adding that these foods are ‘low-or-no nutrient foods,’ with little to offer the body.
However, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. “If we train our gut and brain to prefer highly nutritious food, the addictive ingredients are less appealing,” he says.
For the layperson, the science behind food addictions may feel like a lecture you wish you would’ve heard years ago in school. It’s not too late to learn, though. Eating is a lifelong practice, and so too is the exploration of why and how what we put in our mouths affects our day-to-day living.
Freelance writer Summer Fanous sees the world through unique lenses, thanks to her experiences living in North America and the Middle East. Her passion is using words to craft effective, concise and meaningful written content.