Researchers may still be working on the existence and definition of food addiction. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders might not confirm food addiction as a treatable condition with predetermined diagnostic protocol. But for somebody trying to kick the impulsive eating habit and deal with the uncontrollable dependence on certain foods, the ordeal is real and often an ongoing battle. Eating means something different for everyone. For some, the draw of food is so complicated that a solution to health and weight loss issues seems insurmountable. If you're struggle seems too much to handle, you may be experiencing some form of food addiction. This is very real and very treatable.
Food as an Addictive Substance
When we consume addictive drugs, a ‘feel good’ chemical called dopamine (often labeled as “the master molecule of addiction”) is released by the brain. The release of dopamine produces an instant sense of pleasure and satisfaction. But as the dopamine levels dip, so does the associated euphoria. This abrupt end to our elation motivates us to grab the ‘reward’ yet again and the cycle of ‘rushes and crashes’ continue. “Aside from numerous environmental factors that predispose us to overeating, there is also mounting evidence that food addiction actually reflects a change in the way our brains and nervous system function,” says Jennifer Sygo, RD, Cleveland Clinic. The same reward and pleasure centers of brain that are triggered by addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin can also be activated by food, especially those high in sugar, fat, and salt.
Scientists have found a striking similarity between the obsession, compulsion, and preoccupation behavior patterns of drug abusers and food addicts. Similar to alcohol or drug addiction, food addiction can result in intense craving and an inability to control overeating despite the negative implications on one’s health and personal relationships. Besides the physical and psychological dependence, the withdrawal symptoms experienced are also intriguingly similar. The recovery for food addicts, however, is a little more complicated however. Drug and alcohol addicts are taught how to remove the substance from their lives altogether, whereas food addicts cannot simply remove food from their lives.
Gaining understanding of underlying factors, modifying dietary thoughts and behaviors, and learning healthier ways of managing stress and depression as important ways of beating food addiction. The winning strategy would be to spot the potential triggers and work towards conquering them before their start.
Stress: During a stressful episode, the stress hormone cortisol is released - which in elevated levels slows down the metabolism, increases appetite, and affects our food preference and motivation adversely. Another brain chemical, galanin is also known to trigger an increased consumption of fats and alcohol during stress. This is why foods like chocolates, chips, and french fries work serve as self-medication against stress.
Addictive Chemicals in Foods: High carbohydrate refined foods (pasta, white bread, cakes) release ‘calming’ serotonin. Cheese contains traces of ‘addictive’ opiates that bare a striking similarity to morphine. Chocolates have ‘marijuana mimicking’ compounds called anandamides. Repeated consumption of these foods cause us to crave more and more of them and soon we are on our way to becoming a food addict.
Emotional Distress: This is possibly the biggest trigger. Whether feeling tired, lonely, angry, or depressed, we always find solace in ‘comfort foods.’ These foods may seem to pacify our dwindling emotions momentarily and invoke positive feelings, but the fact is that even after a full stomach, life's problems are still there. A constant habit of using food to avoid or diminish stress creates a relationship similar to the use of alcohol or drugs.
Binge Tendency: Overeating frequently may impair the ‘appetite suppressing’ effects of the hunger controlling hormone, leptin. When we indulge in ‘out of control’ eating, the system of responding to ‘hunger cues’ or ‘satiety centers’ don’t work well, and we overrule the natural tendency to stop eating after feeling ‘full.’ Making it very hard to trust what you're feeling in order to moderate yourself.
The Bottom Line
The only way to reclaim control of the kind, amount, and frequency of foods you consume is to be honest and aware. The tell tale signs of food addiction are an uncontrollable need to eat certain foods (even when not hungry), going out of the way to obtain them, avoiding family get togethers and professional parties for the fear of overeating, and eating to the point of feeling sick and/or guilty. Consult a registered dietitian, therapist, or health professional if you think you may have a food addiction.
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