“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!”-from an Alka-Seltzer commercial, 1972
You try to live healthy. You exercise regularly, eat well, see your doctor once a year, try to avoid negativity and gossip, hold doors open for people, donate to charity, and are even kind to animals…. but, every once in a while, there’s this dark side that emerges. Afterwards, you feel guilty, sick, and totally disgusted with yourself. You’re in denial. You rationalize with a series of yeah but types of statements. “Yeah but, my weight is good, Yeah but, my BMI is under 30, Yeah but, my blood pressure is normal, or Yeah but, I’ll work out extra tomorrow.” You can’t accept the obvious. You are a food addict.
Even if you are a healthy and physically fit person, there probably are foods that you absolutely, positively, cannot resist. In fact, there is even a conspiracy in the fitness and health industry to justify the occasional gorging on your “guilty pleasure.” It’s called a “cheat day,” where your regimented diet has a built in day where you eat whatever you want. Usually, this means overeating some food, dessert, or culinary delight that you struggled to resist the other six days of the week. If you do this as part of your diet, don’t feel guilty. It’s probably the only way to deal with food addiction. And, like everybody else, you probably have foods that you are addicted to. Yes, addicted!
If you grew up in the United States during the Baby Boom generation, then you were raised in the Golden Age of food. You grew up watching television commercials, singing along to advertising jingles, and slogans that have become part of our consciousness. Meals were something that were planned, prepared, and eventually ate. If there was any left, it was carefully wrapped and stored away for a smaller meal the next day. There was always a country somewhere-China, Japan, or Africa- where kids were starving, so you had a great deal of respect and gratitude for whatever your parents put on the table. Yes, we all had our occasional Twinkie, Yodals, or Pixie Sticks binge, but we seem to get by, purple tongues and all. The food production industry kept pace with the demands for food as well as our faster paced way of living. “Fast foods,” designed to keep up with the lifestyle and our compulsion for addicting foods became more and more a part of our diet. The manner in which these foods were preprocessed and produced is what led to food addiction.
Human and animal experiments consistently show that foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt can be as addictive as drugs such as heroin and cocaine. They trigger the same pleasure centers of the brain that are activated by these drugs. Feel good chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, flood the brain with pleasurable sensations. These chemicals can override the brain’s ability to perceive fullness, creating the need to overeat. As a result, people overeat, feel good about it at the time, and then later feel guilty.
It’s not just junk foods that can cause this addiction. It can also occur with foods that contain large amounts of sugar, salt, or even wheat. Some insidious culprits are:
⦁ White bread and pasta
⦁ Salty snacks of any type
⦁ Fatty foods, particularly fast foods. Probably anything you purchase through a take-out window or some guy delivers to your home will fit this category
⦁ Chocolate. Cacao itself, is healthy. The sugar used to remove cacao’s natural bitterness is what makes chocolate problematic
⦁ Sugar. This is the number one culprit and the big kahuna of all food problems. Sugar is not just granulated sugar, but includes fructose, lactose, corn syrup, and naturally occurring sugars
A recent study at Connecticut College compared laboratory mice’s responses to cocaine and Oreos. Researchers found that the mice not only preferred Oreos over cocaine, but that Oreos activated significantly more brain neurons than cocaine did. “This correlated well with our behavioral results and lends support to our hypothesis that high fat, high sugar foods are addictive,” Joseph Schroeder, associate professor of psychology at Connecticut College, said. Their explanation was that sugar addiction is hardwired into the human animal. We are capable of producing small amounts of naturally occurring chemicals that are released through breast milk, believed to be one of the ways that babies bond with their mothers. A baby associates sugar with nurturing and satisfaction. It’s the first pleasure that a human receives. We are biologically set to crave sweet things and consume as much of them as possible.
Like all addictions, there is no standardized testing method to diagnose food addiction. A diagnosis of addiction is based on behavioral principles and an individual’s unique, subjective responses to a substance. Here’s some simple questions to ask yourself about food addiction:
⦁ Do you end up eating more than you planned when eating certain foods?
⦁ Do you get cravings for certain foods despite being full and after eating and nutritious meal?
⦁ What happens after you eat that certain foods that you are craving? Do you eat more than you intended, eat until you feel excessively “stuffed,” and feel guilty later?
⦁ Do you promise yourself after this gorging that you will limit future consumption, “I’m not going to eat _______________ like that again?” Do you find it difficult to keep the promise you made yourself?
⦁ If foods that you crave are presented to you unexpectedly, do you find it impossible to resist eating too much of them?
⦁ Do you make excuses to yourself and others about your consumption of certain foods?
⦁ Do you continue to eat certain foods despite being aware that your body and mind have a negative response to them? In other words, do you eat certain foods despite the fact that you know you will feel terrible afterwards?
Keep in mind that the typical food addict, much like the typical alcoholic, doesn’t always look like you think they would. Many alcoholics and drug addicts are highly successful, well put together people who are hiding a secret. Many food addicts are not overweight, but they are people that sometimes use food as a drug to satisfy emotional pain, depression, loneliness, and unmet needs. They rationalize with expressions like, “If my body craves it, then my body must need it.” Plausible, but often a rationalization for making a poor food choice.
Of course, an occasional binge on a forbidden food is pretty normal. Next time you are about to undertake that 12 inch stuffed crust Papa John’s pizza, or whatever your food of choice is, ask yourself some questions before diving in. Eat slowly and mindfully, allowing your brain to notice the pleasurable feelings, thus slowing the whole process down. If you find there are certain foods that are difficult for you to control, then don’t have them around. Don’t make excuses like, “The kids like them, it’s Halloween, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, or Super Bowl Sunday,” without being fully honest with your intentions. If it’s an excuse for you to overeat and feel guilty, then rethink that decision.
Remember, food can be medicine or poison, the choice is yours.
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