With the introduction of refined sugars into modern diets, an alarming portion of the world’s population seem to be swallowed up by food addiction.
Food addiction is a new and controversial term, but the many people who have experienced and overcome food addiction will tell you that this addiction is very real.
But how do we become addicted to food – something we all need to survive? And how can we overcome a food addiction when complete abstinence from food is obviously not possible?
What is Food Addiction?
Simply, food addiction is being addicted to junk foods in the same way that people are addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Think about it: Why can some people buy a pint of ice cream and have it last the month, while others set out to have one bowl, but end up eating the whole container? This mirrors the classic struggle of an alcoholic: having “just one” is practically impossible.
Mark Hyman, MD, offers another good example in his writing about food addiction: Imagine a massive bowl of broccoli or apple slices. Can you think of anyone who binges on broccoli? That is to say they start eating it and can’t stop until it is all gone?
Now picture that same massive bowl full of potato chips, or a huge plate of cookies, or litre of coke. It is easy to imagine those foods disappearing in one sitting while the consumer feels helplessly satisfied and ill at the same time.
This is true because broccoli and apples are not addictive, but processed foods such as ice cream, cookies, and soda can become addictive substances.
How Does it Work?
Food addiction hijacks your brain’s reward system in the same way as other addictions.
Studies reveal that high-fat, high-sugar, processed foods affect the brain in the same way as drugs such as heroin and cocaine. These foods affect neurotransmitters such as dopamine in the brain – eating these foods makes us feel good temporarily and crave more.
Foods that are high in refined sugar, wheat, or salt – or a factory developed combination of all three ingredients to create a “highly palatable” food – are the most problematic when it comes to addiction. Most of today’s junk foods are designed to be as addictive as possible, which keeps people coming back for more (and in turn, creating major profits for the manufacturers).
Do You Have a Food Addiction?
All addictions share similar behavioural symptoms. It is not a lack of willpower that keeps people using their drug of choice – no one wants to be an alcoholic or drug addict, nor does anyone want to be obese and addicted to food.
The following questions can help you determine if you have a problematic relationship with food:
- Do you eat much more than you planned of certain foods such as chips, ice cream, or chocolate once you start?
- Do you often eat so much of certain foods that you feel “stuffed”?
- Have you made many unsuccessful attempts at cutting back your consumption of certain foods?
- Do you continue eating unhealthy foods despite growing negative physical and emotion consequences (weight gain, feelings of guilt, health problems, etc.)?
- Do you hide you consumption of unhealthy foods from others?
- Do you frequently experience cravings for certain foods, even if you are full?
- Do your eating habits cause you significant distress and interfere with your ability to function in work, school, or at home?
- Do you feel agitated or anxious when you don’t have certain foods available to you throughout the day?
If you answer a resounding yes to more than half of these questions you probably struggle with an addiction to food.
Like other addictions, food addiction can have severe social, psychological, and physical consequences. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are only a few of the most common health problems associated with food addiction. These conditions can cause missed work, limit a person’s ability to participate in activities they enjoy, and ultimately death. Feelings of shame and guilt, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety are also common amongst those struggling with addiction.
Not surprisingly, those in addiction recovery are more susceptible to becoming addicted to food. Replacing one addiction with another is not uncommon, and those formerly suffering from drug addiction may find they begin to use foods addictively.
There is food addiction help available though, and if you are struggling you are certainly not alone.
Overcoming Food Addiction
Overcoming addiction is daunting and challenging. How can we overcome an addiction to food when tempting foods are more accessible than alcohol or any other drug?
These tips can help you take control of overeating and food cravings:
- Do not go on a “diet”.
In the first few months of regaining control of your eating habits, weight loss should not be part of your focus.
- Completely cut out sugar and artificial sweeteners from your diet.
And know that this is forever. You may never be able to eat junk food like a “normal” person again. But once you stop eating the addictive foods you now crave, the cravings will slowly go away.
- Make a plan for what you will eat.
List healthy foods you already enjoy and incorporate them into you daily diet. Make thorough weekly meal menus and a plan for how you will stick to them.
- Eat three meals a day.
If you skip breakfast you will inevitably feel hungry and tempted to go for a candy bar at 10am. Make sure you eat three regular meals a day and try to avoid eating anything in between.
- Identify feelings, places, and foods that will trigger relapse.
Make a plan for what you will do each time a craving comes up, or a co-worker brings a box of doughnuts to the office. You may have to change your routine; maybe you take a different route to work to avoid driving by the bakery you stop at every day.
- Get support.
Enlist the support of your friends, family, or therapist. If you want to get beyond food cravings you will need people to talk to and support you as you change your habits, thought processes, and daily routine.
These are excellent ways to start your path to recovery from your addiction to food, but if you have tried to change your eating habits and failed many times you may need to seek food addiction treatment from a professional.