It starts first thing in the morning. The moment you open your eyes you’re bombarded with food thoughts.
You tell yourself today is going to be different, you will eat only healthy food. You make a good start by eating a nutritious breakfast. You resist the temptation to buy cinnamon doughnuts on your way to the office. So far so good – then stress hits.
It can be any kind of stress from a new project deadline to an irate customer. A little later you find yourself wolfing down sugary palliatives that leave you craving more. You feel angry, guilty and ashamed. You feel more stressed. Already you’re plotting your next food fix.
You wonder – why do I keep caving into these cravings? Like most food addicts you blame lack of willpower and discipline – when it could be you’re addicted to food and it’s your brain driving you to overeat.
Most sceptics will say you can’t be addicted to food. We need it to live and people who binge just need to exercise greater self-control and learn to ‘say no’. But a growing body of evidence says it’s not that simple, and the ‘just say no’ approach won’t work for a food addict.
The cravings are not for broccoli or apples. The fix is for highly processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt and research suggests these foods are biologically addictive.
Like addictive drugs such as cocaine and nicotine – highly palatable foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine. Once you experience the ‘bliss point’ associated with increased dopamine transmission in your brain’s reward pathways, overeating is usually a given. You want more. The reward centres in your brain override willpower and overwhelm other signals of fullness and satisfaction. As a result, you will keep eating even when you’re not hungry.
Currently, the way to assess and diagnose food addiction is limited, and there is no official medical or psychological standard. What is apparent are people who show signs of food addiction fit the diagnostic criteria for substance dependence or addiction found in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V) used in the diagnosis of psychological disturbances.
For instance, a food addict may develop a tolerance to processed foods, needing increased amounts over time to achieve the same pleasurable feelings most of us experience from eating far less. Food addicts will continue to overeat despite negative consequences, such as weight gain, health problems or damaged relationships.
And like people who are addicted to drugs or gambling, people addicted to food will have trouble stopping their behaviour, or cutting back. Many more food addicts struggle with daily preoccupations of buying food, overeating and recovery as they wrestle with feeling sluggish and lethargic after a binge. Some may experience withdrawal when suddenly cut off from sugar – just like addicts detoxifying from drugs.
The challenge for food addicts is to work out how to enjoy food and eat without constantly being dogged by the need for more. You can start by asking is your sugar/fat/salt habit causing you harm? Look around and note the people, places and things that trigger a binge. Can you change or modify your lifestyle so you’re not exposed to cues to overeat on processed foods? What can you do, other than eating, that is more effective at giving you comfort? The aim is to cultivate other avenues of pleasure, instead of relying on potato chips to make you feel good.
In addition to pumping up your self-care skills, you may also want to replace highly processed foods with healthy choices. There’s nothing wrong with loving particular tastes, but perhaps you can mimic those tastes in a more nutritious way.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 26 August 2014.