Scientists have shown, repeatedly, that for some of us food acts like a drug on our brain. It causes all the same neural pathways to light up, it gradually takes more and more food to produce the same effect, and it’s very, very hard to quit.
In fact, if you feel like your life won’t have as much pleasure in it if you give up sugar, you may be right. Some of us need a lot more sugar in our systems to light up the same neurological pleasure and satisfaction centers than do “normal” eaters. This is why your friend can eat a small amount of chocolate a day, feel satisfied, and be done with it, while you are getting to the point where a whole bag of M&Ms isn’t even doing it for you anymore.
People used to think it was a matter of willpower – “How hard it is to just put down the fork?” For some of us, it’s very hard indeed. Our bodies may physically crave sugar, fat or dense carbs the same way an alcoholic craves alcohol.
They’ve also found that obese individuals are more likely to have the same genetic marker that have been previously identified in alcholics and drug addicts. There are, of course, also social and emotional factors to addiction, such as trauma and stress.
In determining food addiction, we generally use the same kinds of questions we use to determine drug and alcohol addiction:
- Do you feel like your eating is sometimes out of your control?
Do you find yourself eating to the point of uncomfortableness? Do you often wish you had more control over your eating? Do you find yourself overeating the same kinds of food – those with sugar, fat and flour – much more than you might overeat, say, a salad or vegetables? Do you eat differently when you’re by yourself than when you’re with others?
- Is your eating causing distress or problems in your life?
Do you find yourself going out of your way to get certain foods, if they’re not immediately available? Are you afraid of finding yourself in a situation where you can’t get your craved food? Do you avoid social situations because you’re afraid of overeating? Is your overeating affecting your health? Are your eating decisions causing you anxiety, guilt or depression?
- Have you developed a tolerance?
Are you finding yourself eating a greater quantity of the craved food in one sitting than you used to? If you look back at the quantity you might have eaten, say, 5 years ago, was it smaller than today, and do you feel that if you ate that smaller quantity today, it wouldn’t be satisfying? Are you, in general, wanting to eat more sugar/fat/flour than you used to?
If any of these is true for you, you may have developed a biological addiction to food. The foods that are most addictive are what they call “highly palatable” foods – sugar, fat, salt and flour.
As they say, the first step in treating addiction is noticing when you have one. Realizing that these foods actually affect your brain chemistry and make it harder to stop eating them may help you avoid beating yourself up for it. Society still sees addictions, especially food addictions, as a character fault. We need to be gentle, but honest, with ourselves and each other.
If you feel like you might have a food addiction or other eating disorder, we urge you to get in contact with your doctor or other medical professional for help.
Next time: Applying the Addiction Model to Food Addiction