Is food addiction real?
Evidence suggests that food addiction is very real, especially when it comes to processed food containing excessive amounts of sugar, fat and salt.
Why do we crave sugar, fat and salt? Well for one thing, they taste good. But if we break it down from a scientific perspective, foods rich in sugar, fat and salt interact with our saliva and trigger the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes us feel good.
Experts further explain that because our brains are wired to enjoy things that make us happy, when there’s an increase in our (feel good) dopamine reward system, we’re triggered to want more despite knowing there may be negative consequences later.
It doesn’t stop there. Over time, our tolerance for these sneaky suckers builds up so we need more to feel that same reward, further promoting dysfunctional eating patterns. Basically, the more you eat, the more you’ll need to reach that over-the-moon bliss point. This stimulation has been compared to what happens in drug and alcohol addiction, triggering the same pleasure centers of the brain.
Symptoms of food addiction
Researchers at Yale developed a Food Addiction Scale, a 25- point questionnaire used to help identify food addiction. Below are some common feelings associated with food addiction:
- Feeling hopeless about your relationship with food
- Wanting to stop eating but feeling like you can’t
- Having intense cravings despite eating and feeling full
- Eating to escape from feelings
- Feeling guilty or ashamed about what or how much you’ve eaten
- Withdrawal symptoms, such as agitation, when cutting down on or eliminating certain foods
Foods commonly linked to eating addiction
- Sweets (cake, doughnuts, ice cream, chocolate)
- Starches (bread, rolls, pasta)
- Salty snacks, often which are starchy (chips, pretzels)
- Fatty foods (fries, burgers)
- Sugary drinks (soda, specialized coffee drinks)
Physical, emotional and industrialized food addiction
The reasons we crave sugar, fat and salt is partly physical, partly emotional and partly because of the environment we live in.
The industrialized food trap
What makes food addiction so powerful? When our reward system is maxed out with the optimum amount of sweetness, sensation of fat and flavor burst of salt, that’s when food addiction is most evident.
So, what if you found out that your favorite foods from the store (you know, that box of sweet and creamy Oreo cookies or salty pretzel thins) are explicitly engineered to be addictive? Would knowing that they’re deliberately designed to max out your reward systems, even if it’s at the expense of your health and weight, strike a pain point?
Manufacturers conduct research specifically to determine and engineer which foods tempt consumers’ taste buds the most. They spend BILLIONS to create the perfect balance of sugar, fat and salt in every bite, ensuring that we’ll come back for more.
It doesn’t help that processed foods rich in sugar, fat and salt are so easily accessible. It’s especially challenging for children (who are often the target of marketing) to ignore the temptation and their natural craving for these fat- and sugar-laden foods. To further complicate things, manufacturers use an array of words to indicate added ingredients, such as 50+ Names for Sugar.
Just like the processed food itself, when you walk into the grocery store you’ll find it’s perfectly designed and laid out to make us want to buy these foods. Have you ever noticed how the most processed big name brands seem to sit on the shelf at eye level? Or how there’s an array of candy bars, sodas and snacks at the checkout counter for a last-minute impulse purchase?
Some claim that it’s ultimately the consumer’s decision what to buy and how much to eat, which to some degree it is. But is that completely fair when we, as consumers, are being targeted and tempted with these perfectly engineered products? This is another critical reason why it’s important to understand labels and eat real food.
Physical versus emotional food addiction
Research has shown that when there’s an imbalance in certain hormones, our brain can signal that we need to eat more. Some of the most common hormones that work to ensure we consume the right amount of food to fuel our bodies are:
- Cortisol (the stress hormone)
- Thyroid hormones (regulates our metabolism and digestive function)
- Ghrelin (tells our brain we’re hungry)
- Leptin (signals our brain that we’re full)
If we’re chronically exposed to extreme levels of these hormones (too high or too low), hunger will persist and our body will seek food until the need is obtained.
There’s also been studies that have shown nutrient and mineral deficiencies (such as zinc and magnesium), as well as mistaking hunger for thirst, can play a role in triggering and stimulating our appetite.
When food addiction stems from emotion, it may take more than just willpower to combat. You see, emotions have superhero strength! Literally, they’re like the Hulk times ten. When you use food to self-soothe, you may find yourself powerless to the profound advice of choosing veggies over french fries, even if you want to. Why? Because your emotions can hijack your voice of reason by demanding instant gratification (aka FOOD), and it’s safe to say your logic just doesn’t stand a chance.
Some common underlying triggers:
- You’re depressed, lonely or feel a sense of shame
- You’re upset or angry
- You’re anxious or stressed
- You’re tired
- You’re bored and feel like you don’t have a purpose
- It’s a childhood habit that’s been carried into adulthood (such as being rewarded for good behavior)
So what exactly is emotional eating? It’s when you eat in the moment to satisfy a feeling rather than hunger. For a minute, while you’re eating, you’re able to dodge a feeling or difficult emotion by replacing those feelings with a burst of energy or pleasure. Basically, it’s about what food allows you to escape.
Recognizing when you eat in response to emotions is one of the most critical aspects to obtaining a healthy diet, and is often left unaddressed. Without understanding the triggers behind your eating habits, emotion almost always wins the battle. Once you begin to recognize and manage those feelings, you have conscious control to make better choices that don’t involve food, and you’re able to create a healthy lifestyle long-term.
What to do about it?
Depending on the root cause of food addiction (physical, emotional or industrialized) making healthy changes may require more than just willpower. If you think you may have a food addiction, you can talk with your healthcare provider about natural ways to manage it. Some other options are given below.
Because so many processed foods are now engineered to tempt our taste buds, knowing what to look for and how to choose healthier, real food options is imperative. You’ll find plenty of tips and strategies for healthier eating in our popular course Healthy Eating Made Simple: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Real Food. You’ll learn how to restore the ancient nutrient fundamentals by taking it back to the basics and understanding the distinction between minimally processed foods and ones formulated in a lab.
If you feel that you may have an imbalance in hormones or a nutritional deficiency, it’s best to seek help from your healthcare provider. They will be able to effectively evaluate and address these issues.
If you feel your food addiction stems from an emotional aspect, it will likely require addressing the root cause and developing healthy coping skills. Similar to the layers of an onion, you may have to peel back one layer at a time. One simple approach to this concept is to practice and incorporate the actionable steps in our proven system Break Free from Emotional Eating. While this clearly isn’t the only way, it’s specifically designed to tackle the emotional aspect of eating.