Addictions and Food
Over the years I have been asked if there is such a thing as food addiction. First let’s look at what is an addiction? Here is one definition: An addiction causes people to engage in a recurring activity that causes harm to the person. It is often described as a compulsion to engage in some specific activity to produce mood altering experiences and this experience has life damaging consequences.
Addictions often have both physical and psychological components. There is discomfort upon quitting the addiction. Most people would not overindulge in anything that hurt them physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. With addiction one or more of these areas are negatively affected.
Now look at how addiction can relate to food. Ask yourself these questions:
1. Does your eating behavior create a problem in your life, but you continue to do the same thing over and over?
2. Do you eat to change how you feel?
3. Does the thoughts of food weight and body size enter your mind at unrelated times? Do you feel out of control with your eating?
4. Are you afraid to start eating something because you are afraid you cannot stop?
5. Do you obsess about eating certain foods?
6. Do you find yourself eating when you had resolved not to eat?
7. Do you eat more than you wanted to?
8. Do you use other activities or substances to stop your eating behaviors?
Not long ago, there was a potato-chip ad that challenged, “Betcha can’t eat just one!”. Many took on the challenge and lost. Food manufacturers have done an exquisite job of recognizing and tapping into our cravings. Why does this challenge some of us and not others?
It is widely accepted fact that some people are more susceptible to becoming addicted than others. Some have a hereditary disposition to become depended on mood-altering substances. Sometimes people are self-medicating, stuffing their feelings or are deficient in emotional regulating skills.
Any behavior engaged in repeatedly can become a habit. A habit is simply an activity that you do so often that it becomes natural. Most people observe that any activity repeated for about a month becomes a habit. It is important to be aware of the habits we are forming. This can be used as a positive, life enhancing activity or the building blocks of an addiction.
Even our thinking becomes habitual. Our negative self-talk can be so natural that we don’t realize that we are beating ourself up or that it is having an effect on our life. It takes work to create a good habit, but it makes life easier. Bad habits are easily formed but make life harder.
I have never met a client who was addicted to broccoli. Why? Although broccoli is good for your body it does not produce mind-altering effects like some other non-foods. Isn’t it interesting that the most common food addictions are comprised of manufactured fats, chemicals, salt and/or sugar?
Many of us have our favorite food, but what makes food an addiction? If we apply our previous definition of craving, obsessive thinking, and compulsion even in the face of harmful effects, we may come up with a list. See if any of these foods cause a problem for you:
This list can be expanded. Looking at these items we can see some similarities; sugar, carbohydrates, or white flour.
Carbohydrates are our major energy producing food. We need carbohydrates like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and beans. Different types of carbohydrates turn into sugar at different rates in your body. For addiction purposes, I am referring to refined carbohydrates here. The ones that spike your insulin level then drop you into the blood-sugar roller coaster. Even the blood sugar drop causes cravings, bingeing, depression, lethargy, irritability, and drowsiness.
But there is more going on than just blood sugar fluctuations. During functional MRI’s scientists have observed that refined carbohydrates light up the reward system of the brain for some people just like an addicted person using their drug of choice.
It is a good idea to think it through when you are tempted to consume one of these products. Do I really want to feel that way afterwards? Do I want to battle the incessant cravings again? This is one rollercoaster I chose not to ride. There are too many other factors that occur that triggers overeating. There is one sure way to eliminate this physiological response. Don’t put it in your mouth.
Food addictions can progress to other addictions starting with appetite suppressants and diet pills. Many patients at Rebecca’s House Eating Disorder Treatment Programs have progressed to methamphetamine, cocaine, speed, and heroin to curb their appetite and stay skinny.
There are many forms of addictions, but let’s look at how we may be addicted to a few commonly ingested legal substances. Alcohol is probably a good place to start. Many people do not have a problem with alcohol and can drink normally without any consequences. They don’t obsess about it or try to control their intake. It has no power over them.
Then there are others who become alcoholics. They will tell you of the constant thinking about drinking, not drinking, getting their next drink or recovering from the effects of their last drink. This is the hell an active alcoholic lives with. The person may quite drinking only to find the obsessive thinking and surfacing feelings are too much to bear.
Is this anything like our compulsion to eat? Have you experienced that numbed out feeling during eating? Do you eat to make the feelings or thoughts go away? When something upsets you do you look for comfort in food? I have had people tell me that they are thinking about food, weight, diets, body image, exercise… 95% of their waking hours. Does this make sense? Not for someone who has no problem with food, but if you are trapped in the obsession of a food addiction you know what I am talking about. Does eating really fix the situation or feeling, or does it often compound the problem?
Over the years I have seen a great number of people recover from alcoholism only to switch to a food addiction. They use food in a similar way to the way they used alcohol. I don’t need to go into the debate of which is better; I just want to point out the similarities.
I especially see people who are recovering from alcoholism also being addicted to sugar. That makes so much sense. Alcohol is metabolized in the body as sugar. Although it may not have the same devastating effects short term, sugar can and does kill and refined sugar is in almost everything now, even in some brands of potatoe chips!