Many or most people, regardless of their weight, can expound theories and facts regarding weight loss but few will address it as possible food addiction. Experts abound, yet obesity weights continue to soar. It is one thing to understand the theory of maintaining a healthy weight, but another to fully understand the physiological and emotional drivers that are mostly responsible for being overweight.
Even having a complete and full understanding of this is no guarantee of healthy weight – there are plenty of overweight health professionals, so education is only part of the answer.
Unless the emotional reasons for continually gaining weight are understood, addressed, absorbed, and reconciled or overcome, weight balance will be an ongoing battle.
This article on food addiction will give some insight into eating disorders, and how being addicted to particular foods or eating behaviors can be similar to or different from a diagnosed eating disorder.
You will learn what causes a food addiction, and why your brain favors food that is not the best choice for your health. This is very powerful knowledge to have.
It may be that you think you know why you continue to eat the way you do, even though it is harming your mind, body and emotions, but you may be surprised at some of the causes that can lead to this behavior.
You will discover the signs and symptoms of a food addiction, and whether or not your sweet tooth qualifies as such. Finally, you will arm yourself with the tools to establish a healthy relationship with sugar and junk food, and how to beat an addiction to just about any type of food.
Why Is It So Easy To Be Overweight?
If you are a few pounds overweight, you are in good company. As many as 2 in 3 children and adults in industrialized, modern nations have an overweight problem. This would not be a problem if being too heavy wasn’t linked to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues.
A Modern Problem – Our Primitive Brain
Our inbuilt systems evolved to ensure the survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Both taste receptors and chemical rewards positively selected for those foods and food types that were beneficial to survival, but in extremely short supply. However, today, in modern societies, these same “foods” or chemicals that mimic them, are all too readily available.
In more than small amounts some are injurious to health and also cause unhealthy weight gain. The primitive part of our brain that is in charge of our survival mechanisms doesn’t recognize this, and still rewards for ingesting them, regardless of quantity.
Most people allow that primitive, but powerful, part of their brain to overrule their rational, thinking brain, and let it make their dietary choices unconsciously for them. That part of our thinking is like an untrained child, basing its food choices on taste and feeling good.
For health’s sake we need to train our adult, thinking brain to take charge, and make grown-up choices based on our nutritional requirements instead.
What is Healthy?
In too many cases, overweight and obesity occur because the heavier-than-healthy person doesn’t realize that the foods they think are healthy really aren’t.
Many people feed their children fruit juice drinks, white bread, sandwiches with deli meat, granola bars, and order chicken fingers or chicken nuggets instead of a cheeseburger at the drive through because they think those are healthy food choices. If those are typical foods you are feeding your child, you are possibly promoting overweight and obesity, not fighting it.
Those foods, among many others, are highly processed and full of obesity-promoting ingredients like sugar and high fructose corn syrup. So in some cases, education is all that is needed to change dietary, lifestyle and exercise habits, and can be the starting point to a healthy body weight.
In many cases though, the knowledge is already there, but an emotional issue causes unsafe eating behaviors.
Diet Industry to the Rescue … Or Not
Wait a minute, you say, the multi-billion-dollar weight loss industry has the answer! Just look at all the “I lost 40 pounds” diet testimonials you see on television every day. There is no end to the number of crash diets and “pop a pill to get the weight loss you need” marketing messages that promise to deliver you from your addictive eating behavior.
A recent search for the term “weight loss diet” in Google produced more than 10 million web pages of information. Unfortunately for many dieters, the weight you lose, and usually more, often returns with a vengeance soon after your diet is over.
This is because the problem is that being overweight is not always about simply knowing what to do and what not to do. And diets aren’t the answer to emotion-driven eating problems.
On top of that, traditional diets usually lead to more binge eating and unhealthy nutrition practices, because they don’t address the underlying emotional and physiological issues that are at the core of the problem. Weight loss dieters know all about overeating and binge eating, two common food addiction practices.
On a physiological level, this can be due to nutritional limitations of the particular diet – some diets don’t allow you to get the nutrition, minerals, vitamins and healthy food components your body needs.
This leads to a constant alarm bell sounding in your brain that tells you to eat, since you are not getting the nutrients you need. This feeling of hunger is an inbuilt survival response. Unfortunately, the mind/body response to acute hunger does not select for nutrient value, but selects for energy value.
High-energy foods are the high-GI simple carbs, exactly the last thing an overweight person needs, but our primitive survival mechanisms don’t recognize that.
You reach for the comfort food that makes you feel good and soothes your emotions, but has very little to no nutrition, you store simple carbohydrates and fat as energy reserves that never get used, and you pack on the pounds.
Eating Disorders and Food Addiction
Far more often, the health problems which accompany unhealthy eating practices are more about emotions and feelings, than they are about a lack of nutritional knowledge.
Let’s get started by comparing an eating disorder with a food addiction.
Binge-eating disorder is a diagnosed, classified mental illness. There are often multiple emotional, biological, psychosocial and environmental factors at play.
To effectively manage the condition, the complex issues which drive an eating disorder absolutely must be handled by a team of health and wellness professionals, a support network, your own efforts and ongoing input from everyone on your wellness team.
Is Food Addiction An Eating Disorder?
The Eating Disorder Hope website has this to say about food addictions…
“Food addiction is a disease that is characterized by a loss of control over the inability to stop eating certain foods.
Essentially, a person can become addicted to the chemical reactions resulting from the consumption of particular foods, particularly highly palatable foods containing increased levels of fat, sugar, and salt. A chemical dependency on food can be likened to a drug addict who becomes addicted to the high or euphoria experienced when abusing their substance of choice.”
The National Institute of Mental Health in the US says this regarding eating disorders …
“There is a commonly held view that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are actually serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors. Obsessions with food, body weight, and shape may also signal an eating disorder. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.”
There are definitely similarities there. Both food addictions and eating disorders can make a person feel they are absolutely out of control when they eat, even if they know their behavior is unhealthy and dangerous. Binge eating and food addiction can appear identical. This is why it is so important for you to get professionally diagnosed rather than attempting self-diagnosis.
Brain Response to Food
Alternatively, food addiction is much more of a biochemical process. As mentioned earlier, a particular class of food or an individual food can cause a chemical reaction in your brain which makes you crave that particular food. In many cases, although each individual is different, addiction can be conquered by slowly replacing the unhealthy, addictive food with healthy, natural foods which also create a “feel good” biological response.
You teach your mind to like foods that boost physical and mental health, instead of those intentionally manufactured to create unhealthy addiction.
This is not to say that a food addiction is less serious than an eating disorder. You may experience varying degrees of both of these unhealthy eating behaviors. Also, your physiological and chemical makeup is unique to you. What may be addictive to you, virtually impossible to turn down, may cause no similar response in someone else.
Food Addiction is a Real Addiction
It is increasingly realized that being addicted to food is no less dangerous than being addicted to alcohol, tobacco or drugs. The self-esteem issues, fear of being out of control, health problems and social withdrawal of many people who are addicted to eating mirror those of alcohol, tobacco and drug addictions.
Since overeating is not seen as near the problem that drug addiction is, there is often no outcry from friends or family members. Left untreated, the mental, emotional and physical health results that come from giving in to long-term food addiction can be medically expensive, and downright deadly. It also has huge impacts on quality of life, including mobility issues.
Professional help in diagnosing whether your problem is a food addiction or binge-eating disorder will help determine the most effective management and treatment options for you.
What Causes A Food Addiction?
You just learned that food addiction is driven by your desire to re-create a pleasurable feeling you had in response to some food.
At this core process lies the reason for your survival. Your mind and body are designed to work in tandem to reward you with chemicals and hormones that make you feel happy and peaceful when you do things that boost your chances at surviving.
Why Processed Foods Can be Addictive
Food manufacturers intentionally put highly addictive chemicals like salt and sugar into much of the processed food you eat. Refined sugar and the harmless looking table salt you use every day trigger the chemical response mentioned earlier by the Eating Disorder Hope website. When you eat and you boost your level of “happy hormones” with these foods, it makes you want more.
Manufacturers learn how to make that food as cheaply as possible, and do whatever they can to make it last as long as possible on grocery store shelves. This means in many cases removing all the healthy nutrients that make natural foods rot and wither quickly after they have been harvested.
The quartet of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins provide us feelings of extreme pleasure. Eating certain foods, fast foods, refined sugar, salt and other foods like refined chocolate causes the release of those 4 chemicals.
Stress and Food Addiction
Chronic stress is almost synonymous with our modern life. Again, the triggers that are built into our survival mechanisms work against us today, when the things that trigger our stress responses are more often emotional than physical, and ever-present. Our primitive brains, however, can’t tell the difference, and fills us with damaging stress chemicals.
When we are chronically stressed, but eating certain foods hits our “feel-good” sensors, it is any wonder we subconsciously reach for the foods that give that response? You feel happy and peaceful, as opposed to stressed out and anxious. It takes a large degree of mindfulness to overcome these natural tendencies.
So when chronic stress is present in your life, you can become addicted to foods which deliver the opposite feelings, and this is why it may be tough for you to beat some food addictions, since you are treating your stress by eating. So in this way, stress can lead to a food addiction.
Tasty Food, Good Company
A food addiction may also be caused by accident. You try some new food because your friend says it tastes marvelous, and it leads to the release of happy chemicals that make you feel good. Your brain notices, so the next time you want an emotional boost, you reach for that particular type of food, in some cases not even understanding that there is an unhealthy addiction starting to form.
Mental and Emotional Triggers
In some cases, doctors have noticed that a chemical or hormonal imbalance tends to increase the chances that a particular person may be addicted to the experience a certain type of food delivers.
Sometimes substance abuse leads to chemical imbalances which promote food addiction. While eating disorders are generally caused by psychological or social factors, sometimes an addiction to a particular type of food can spring from that disorder.
The human body and mind are intimately linked. According to what you eat, the experiences you have, the amount of physical activity you engage in, your environment, relationships and a ton of other factors, your emotional, physical and mental states of being will be affected in some way.
You can read part 2 of this article on food addiction HERE