One of the biggest questions in nutrition research at the moment is this: Is it really possible to become addicted to food?
We now accept alcohol abuse, drug abuse and even gambling as recognised addictive disorders. All of these activities and substances are supplementary to our lifestyles; they are not absolutely necessary for human survival. Food however, is something we cannot live without. We depend upon it for energy to keep our bodies working and without it, we would die. This is why the idea of a 'food addiction' sparks so much debate in the health and food industries - surely we are all addicted to food if we all depend on it?
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Control is the crux of food addiction. We all need food every day but the problem only arises when we lose control of our intake and eat too much of it. 'Food addiction', therefore, is not so much an addiction to food itself (we all have this), as an addiction to:
- eating too much food
- eating a certain type of food.
Risks of overeating
Overeaters, people who regularly eat too much, or eat an excessive amount of the same type of food, are more likely to develop the following health problems:
- become overweight or obese
- develop diabetes
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- heart disease.
Why are so many people overeating?
61% of UK adults are now overweight and the waistline of the average UK woman has expanded by seven inches in just 60 years, indicating that many of us are eating too much. Most experts attribute this to the increase of readily available processed foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar; otherwise known as junk food. There are a number of reasons why experts blame junk food for the UK's obesity epidemic, including the following:
- addictive foods (chemical)
- binge eating disorder (emotional/psychological)
- consumer culture (cultural).
What exactly does 'addictive' mean? Addictive describes any substance or activity that a person becomes chemically dependent on for a 'rush', 'buzz', or 'high'.
What does chemically dependent mean?
A person has become chemically dependent on a substance or activity when they can't function normally without it. Is it possible to become chemically dependent on (or addicted to) certain kinds of food? In order to answer this question, we will first need to look at why humans developed the capacity to become addicted to things in the first place.
The origins of addiction
A few thousand years ago it took far more effort to survive than it does today. Back then we had to build our own homes, kill our own food and fight off competitors for our potential mates. Scientists believe that our nervous systems evolved to reward us for these particularly strenuous activities. If we didn't enjoy them in some way - why would we do them? The humans who derived the most pleasure from eating food would have put more effort into finding it, meaning they were less likely to starve to death, and the humans who derived the most pleasure from having sex would have put more effort into finding a mate. Both of these factors increased the humans' survivability and made them more likely to reproduce and pass on these reward traits to future generations.
How does the reward system work?
Scientists studying lab rats discovered (by accident) that when they attached an electrode to a certain part of a rat's brain, the rat would voluntarily activate the electricity by pressing a bar in their cage, suggesting that they found the stimulation pleasurable. The rats would press the bar over 2000 times in a single hour, until they were too physically exhausted to press anymore. On further investigation, researchers discovered that the part of the brain causing the pleasurable stimulus was the mesotelencephalic dopamine system, the part that controlled the release of 'feel good hormones'. This is the very same system that has been seen to light up during activities such as eating, sex, exercise and drug abuse.
In one U.S. study into the effects of junk food on the brain, 48 healthy young women ranging from lean to obese were given a milkshake to drink while they had their brains scanned. These scans were then compared with a second scan, where participants were not given a milkshake. The researchers found that the milkshake caused certain areas of the women's brains to light up - the very same areas found to light up on people with substance addictions.
Drugs and alcohol stimulates feel-good chemicals by hijacking the dopamine system.
Eventually, our bodies become more and more resistant to the dopamine rushes and we find ourselves craving more of the substance or activity that produced the flood in the first place.
Can food be addictive?
We know that people become dependent upon substances such as cocaine, alcohol and nicotine, but can people really develop uncontrollable and addictive relationships with food? Certainly - we've all heard of the phrase 'chocaholic', a colloquial term comparing a person's love of chocolate with an alcoholic's pathological dependence on alcohol. But what started out as a light-hearted neologism may in fact be an uncomfortable truth: chocolate just might be as addictive as certain drugs.
There is increasing evidence to say that some foods are more effective at activating our reward system than others. Scientists believe that junk food is particularly full of addictive properties. Particularly addictive foods include:
Sugary junk food can send our blood sugar levels soaring, which can induce cravings.
When you eat something particularly sugary, such as a milkshake or a piece of cake, your body is thought to go through the following cravings cycle:
- Step 1 - The sugar causes a surge in blood sugar, causing the pancreas to produce more insulin to help break down the fat and carbohydrate.
- Step 2 - The insulin causes the blood sugar levels to drop rapidly, which then sends a false message to the brain saying sugar levels need to be topped up again.
- Step 3 - This message manifests as a craving, which a binge eater may find difficult to resist.
- Step 4 - The person gives into the craving and binges on sugary foods, which starts the cycle again.
This generates a sugar dependency and explains why many of us experience intense craving for things like chocolate, cakes and other sweet treats.
Effects of low blood sugar
Low blood sugar has the following effects:
- weak feeling
- difficulty concentrating
- rapid heartbeat
You are strongly advised to consult your GP if you think you have low blood sugar levels.
Daily recommended intake of sugar: 90g (half a cup).
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has estimated that if everyone in Britain reduced their sugar intake by 1.75% a day, 3,500 premature deaths could be prevented every year.
One U.S. study scanned the brains of a group of junk food lovers to see what would happen if they were shown pictures of high-fat foods. The junk food pictures were found to activate the orbit frontal cortex (the decision making part of the brain), causing it to release a surge of dopamine. When cocaine addicts were shown pictures of cocaine, the scans showed exactly the same results.
Daily recommended intake of fat:
- unsaturated - 70g
- saturated - 20g.
Junk food and the 'bliss point'
According to the ex-commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Professor Kessler, some food manufacturers spend time creating combinations of sugar, fat and salt that are so tasty they trigger what is known as the 'bliss point', the point at which people find it hard to stop eating even when they are full. These junk-food products are carefully engineered to stimulate the 'feel good hormones', which contribute to food addiction. Many junk foods stimulate our appetites instead of satisfying them, causing us to eat far more than we really need.
Repercussions of calling overeating a 'food addiction'
If food addiction were to become a widely accepted theory, many food manufacturers would have a huge legal struggle ahead of them. It's likely that we would see a massive overhaul of food labelling, warnings, age restrictions and accessibility. Would sweet shops become 18+ only, like off-licences? Would McDonalds be forced so serve salads instead of Happy Meals? This overhaul could eventually be very inconvenient and frustrating for people who do manage to control what they eat.
This leads us on to our next important question - do we tackle the food itself, or do we try to help the people who are addicted to it?
As well as looking at addictive foods, researchers and health professionals have looked at the emotional and psychological causes of food addiction.
'Binge eating disorder' is a medically recognised eating disorder (alongside anorexia and bulimia), characterised by the intense urge to eat large amounts of food in short periods of time. People with binge eating disorders are highly likely to be overweight due to their inability to control the frequent and overwhelming impulse to eat. Binge eaters tend to feel guilt, repulsion and remorse immediately after giving in to cravings. Binge eating disorder is a mental health problem; however, the symptoms are indicative of an addiction.
What does binge eating disorder feel like?
Imagine you are three days into a health regime and you're suddenly faced with a big problem at work. The last thing you want to do now is go to the gym or tuck into a salad. You go to the supermarket and find your favourite cake. You know it tastes delicious and you've enjoyed it many times before. You can envision yourself going home, putting on a film, tucking into your cake and blissfully forgetting about all of your work problems. You've been craving this kind of food for ages and you feel like you deserve a reward after three long days of resistance. Besides, once it's gone it's gone. So you get home and eat the treat quickly and sheepishly, and for a while you feel satisfied. Then, suddenly, the guilt creeps in and you feel terrible for relenting. You feel like you have no control over your actions and you start to feel powerless and worthless Every day is a tiring struggle not to give into your cravings, and every time you do give in, you feel greedy and disgusting, and your self-esteem plummets.
This is one example of how a binge eater might feel and how they might try to talk themselves into a binge. Triggers for a binge can range from anything between work, domestic problems and boredom, to trauma, depression and grief.
Causes of binge eating disorder
Although there is no one cause for binge eating disorder, episodes of binging are usually triggered by underlying psychological or emotional issues. These could include:
- low self-esteem/low self-confidence
How common is binge eating disorder?
It's hard to discern just how many people in the UK suffer from binge eating disorder because as of yet, there is no official way of diagnosing it. However, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 10 to 15 percent of mildly obese people who signed up to weight loss programmes consider themselves to have a binge eating disorder.
Overeating and binge eating disorder is often referred to as 'comfort eating'. Comfort eating refers very much to the strong emotional connection binge eaters have with food. Perhaps there is a certain food you associate with happier times- such as cake (we eat this at birthdays and other celebrations), or perhaps the act of eating large amounts of food blots out other thoughts and allows you to escape from your problems for a while, in the same way a book or film might. This could result in a dependence on food for emotional support, and without it you may feel anxious, agitated or low, which could ultimately trigger a food addiction.
We live in a culture where most things are readily available within a few clicks of a button. We can now drink, smoke, gamble, eat and satisfy ourselves sexually without even leaving the comfort of our homes, making it very easy to over-indulge and develop these dependencies.
In fact, the way we live and the traditions we follow make it almost impossible to avoid addictive substances. Pubs, for instance, are there for us to visit so we can socialise over a drink, which usually happens to be alcohol. We also traditionally drink wine with dinner, smoke cigars at Christmas, eat chocolate at Easter and consume cake and champagne at birthdays. Our culture is steeped in traditional and often unhealthy habits which make avoiding these things very difficult indeed.
All addictions start because a person decides to try something. If the 'thing' wasn't readily available to try, we wouldn't become addicted to it. Our consumer culture may be partly to blame for the addictions many of us develop. Food addictions are particularly easy to fuel and difficult to shake. Supermarkets aren't full of cocaine, or heroin. A drug addict might be able to breeze down the aisles, whereas a food addict will see food shopping as the ultimate battle. Bright, tempting packaging and effective advertising only serve to make the problem worse.
Whether food addiction is caused by the addictive properties of the foods we eat, the emotional and psychological issues we each face, or the consumer culture we live in, the fact is: we are eating too much. Overeating damages our bodies and it damages our environment. If we continue to use the world's resources at the current rate, we can expect to run out of food completely by 2050.
How to stop binge eating
There are two ways to beat food addiction. The first is to tackle the physical symptoms and the second is to tackle the emotional causes. Both of these can be addressed together via the following techniques:
- change your diet with nutritional advice
- address your emotions with hypnotherapy.
Changing your diet could help you fight the cravings that fuel your food addiction. It is important to maintain a healthy, balanced diet and to always consult your GP before making any significant changes.
Here is are some general nutritional tips to help you stop binge eating:
- Do not 'diet' - Many experts believe dieting (preventing yourself from eating certain things, usually sugar, carbohydrate and fat) can in fact cause you to binge more. This is because the restraint can be so tiring for some people that eventually they cave in and end up eating even more than they usually would. Completely eliminating your favourite junk food from your diet is likely to end in a binge where you eat all the food you spent all of that time avoiding. The trick is to eat the foods you enjoy, but to eat them in moderation.
- Keep a food diary - Lots of food addicts, like drug addicts and alcoholics, are in denial about what they do. Binge eaters especially will hide their habit away by eating in secret and discarding of all evidence.
If you want to help yourself - don't lie to yourself. Keep an honest food diary at the end of each day to remind yourself what you ate. If you graze habitually throughout the day because you're bored at work, keep hold of the packets and count them at the end of the day. If you write down how you felt before and after you ate the food, you will be able to get a better understanding of why you overeat and what emotions can trigger a binge.
- Explore different foods - Have a scout of your local supermarket and look around for things you wouldn't usually try. Track down healthier alternatives to your favourite foods. This doesn't mean choosing the low fat or low calorie version as these are usually packed with sugar. Instead, find things you enjoy as much, or almost as much, as the food you think you are addicted to. For instance, if you like to have a biscuit with your afternoon cup of tea, opt for a 30 calorie rich tea instead of an 85 calorie chocolate digestive. This way you still get a sugar rush, with only half the calories.
- Wean yourself off sugar - It is widely known that we build up taste tolerances to certain foods. The more sugar we have, the more sugar we want. For this reason, it's a good idea to start cutting your sugar intake by a small amount every day. There's a good chance that if you do this slowly, you won't even notice it. For example: if you have sugar in your tea, have a little less than you had yesterday. Many people find that once they get used to tea with no sugar, tea with sugar tastes horrible.
- Eat filling snacks - Whole-grain is filling, low in fat and calories and full of fibre. It staves off cravings because it's full of slow-releasing energy. It also helps your digestive system to run more smoothly. Eating porridge in the morning will also fill you up and keep you feeling steadily energised for most of the morning.
- Tell friends and family - Ask the people close to you, whether family, friends, colleagues or house mates, to help you out. If they see you reaching for the biscuit tin, they can gently remind you of your resolution.
- Eat little and often - Instead of the usual breakfast-lunch-dinner tradition, why not break your large meals into smaller, more frequent snacks? You could try something along the lines of the following healthier meal plan:
1. Breakfast: 30g porridge oats made with half water, half milk and half a spoonful of runny honey.
2. Morning snack: one apple and a handful of mixed nuts and seeds.
3. Lunch: four whole-grain crackers with hummus and a smoked salmon salad.
4. Early afternoon snack: natural yoghurt with fruit and a dash of honey.
5. Late afternoon snack: one small slice of whole-grain toast with olive oil spread.
6. Dinner: couscous with roasted vegetables, pine nuts and pesto chicken breast.
7. After-dinner snack: a small glass of fruit juice (not from concentrate).
Remember to keep your portions small and not to overload on fruit. Increase your portion of whole-wheat and reduce your portion of meat to cut down on fat. The above is general advice only and you are advised to seek help from your GP or a nutritionist before changing your diet. If you would like to consult a nutritionist, you may like to use our partner directory Nutritionist Resource, which lists policy-approved nutrition professionals from across the UK.
Addressing the physical effects of overeating is one thing but addressing the underlying causes of food addictions is quite another.
More often than not, there is an underlying psychological or emotional cause for food addiction. If we ignore these issues, no diet or health regime on earth is going to work in the long run. Even if you manage to eat your way to a healthy weight, what happens when something in your life goes wrong. Will you have the strength to find comfort elsewhere? Or will you revert back to your old eating habits?
How can hypnotherapy fight food addiction?
During your hypnotherapy session, your hypnotherapist may try to coax you into a state of deep relaxation. This state is comparable to a deep daydream. Can you remember a time, perhaps in a meeting or back in the school classroom, when you were suddenly jerked 'awake'? You weren't asleep, but you stopped paying attention to your surroundings. You probably couldn't remember anything of what your boss or teacher said during this time, and you probably had no idea how much time had passed.
When you are in this state you tend to be more receptive, which gives your hypnotherapist a chance to access parts of the unconscious you might usually suppress. Your hypnotherapist will then aim to identify the patterns in your thoughts, feelings and behaviours that lead you to binge eat. He or she will explore your relationship with food and eventually try to offset these patterns. By breaking the bond between emotion and eating, you may eventually be able to break your dependence on food.
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