As a wellness Doctor, I am extremely concerned about the obesity epidemic in America and the plethora of health problems that are created. Skyrocketing cases including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure are growing exponentially over the last two decades. A major component of the obesity crisis is the availability of plentiful and cheap processed foods, often high in sugar, salt, processed chemicals and unhealthy fats. We have evolved to seek out these flavors because they are present in calorie-dense foods. But, in modern Western society, the calories our ancestors had to struggle for are now overabundant.
The Newest Research
A brand-new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience gives further credence to the idea that unhealthy food can indeed be addictive. Unhealthy foods may alter the brain’s ability to tell us when we are full. When this brain “switch” is turned off, junk food ceases to satisfy, and an individual craves more of it – in other words, he or she becomes addicted.
Is Food Addiction Real?
Consider the definition and criteria for addiction. An addiction is a compulsion that often becomes destructive to personal health and social relationships. The term has long described abuse of drugs or alcohol. Today, science shows that the same brain activity associated with drug and alcohol addiction is also present in compulsive behaviors like problem gambling, as well as use of seemingly benign substances like food. Several of the behaviors used to diagnose addiction are evident in cases of compulsive eating, including loss of control over use, repeated failure to change behavior and continued use despite negative consequences.
Brain Chemical Changes May Trigger Overeating
Several neurochemicals and hormones work in tandem to control our appetites. Imbalances of any of these may be possible causes of overeating and food addiction.
For instance, in an extensive study on addiction, patients’ brains showed decreased dopamine receptors. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that activates the brain’s reward system, reinforcing behaviors that cause pleasure. A decline in dopamine receptors is implicated in heroin and cocaine addictions. According to scientists, a similar process occurs in food addiction.
Cortisol, best known as the “stress hormone”, may also play a role in food addiction. The endocrine system reacts to high levels of cortisol be releasing natural opioids (chemicals that alleviate pain and cause euphoria) to reduce the effects of stress. These opioids are also released in reaction to consumption of enjoyable food. Compulsive overeating therefore may manifest as a reaction to emotional strain as the brain seeks pleasurable opioids to combat stress.
Which Foods Are Addictive?
The most notoriously addictive food ingredient is sugar. It triggers release of opioids and dopamine, the chemicals linked to addiction. Researchers observe that sugar withdrawal symptoms parallel those of withdrawal from morphine or nicotine. Carbohydrates, especially highly processed ones, also show great potential for addiction.
Tips for Beating Junk Food Addiction
The first step is to reduce the amount of sugar or processed foods that you consume on a daily basis by writing down everything you eat for one week. I mean EVERYTHING that you consume. When I review diet studies with patients the number one problem is ORAL AMNESIA. Most people eat unconsciously and never stop to look at what is consumed throughout the day.
The second step is to plan your meals (and your snacks) ahead of time. This reduces stress of figuring out what to eat and will save money due to buying only what you need for planned meals. If unhealthy foods are not in your house you will be way less likely to eat them. If you feel that you are addicted to unhealthy foods, it is important to avoid situations and foods that could trigger a binge for you. This could mean taking a route home from work that avoids your favorite fast food outlet or unplugging the television if you find yourself tempted by commercials for junk foods.
The third step is to do this process for 21 days straight to create a new healthy habit. If you only change this old behavior for a few days it is not reinforced as a habit and will only be a temporary patch and not a long term lifestyle change.
Finally, remember that it is extremely difficult to adhere to a diet that deprives you of all pleasurable foods. Rebuilding your taste buds by eating a variety of foods with all 6 vital tastes helps stop the sugar cravings. Eat sensibly and enjoy healthy, satisfying natural foods that do not trigger overeating.