Food addiction similar to drug addiction? Sound crazy? Interestingly enough, as more research emerges on the topic of food addiction, scientists are discovering that overeating may be caused by a change in brain chemistry, similar to the change induced by drug addiction. This information refutes a long-held belief that food addiction and overeating are simply caused by a lack of willpower and discipline.
Dr. Dana Small of the John B. Pierce Laboratory and Yale School of Medicine is studying how various foods affect the brain’s reward centers. To conduct the study, Dr. Small fed obese, overweight and slender volunteers a small amount of milkshake through a tube.
According to a recap of the study published by The Grio, “Dr. Small found that, while drinking the shake, heavier subjects showed a different response in their brain’s reward centers than the other volunteers, suggesting that weight gain had actually changed their brain responses, making them more impulsive when it comes to overeating.”
In addition to this change in brain chemistry, individual genetics also play an important role in what — and how much — people eat. Another important factor? The type of food. Healthy items like carrots and apples aren’t likely to become addictive. Instead, highly processed and refined foods carry a higher risk of addiction, much like highly processed and refined narcotics.
Dr. Small’s research doesn’t only have implications on helping people understand the root causes behind food addiction; it also helps identify more effective treatment options that can help food addicts reach a sustainable recovery.
One such recovery program, cited by The Grio, is Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, which uses a 12-step program that addresses both physical and emotional ties to food.
“The group, which has more than 4,000 members, says they manage their addictions by avoiding certain foods and eating only three measure[d] meals a day,” according to The Grio. “Those who work the program swear it works for them.”
Programs like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous hold much more potential than the crash diets and restrictive eating plans that entice Americans to spend millions each year in an effort to shed pounds and wean themselves from addictive foods. By focusing on emotional and physical ties to food, much as you would in a drug addiction recovery program, individuals can begin to see a full picture of how and why they relate to various foods, thereby giving them the tools to break out of an unhealthy cycle and move toward a healthy recovery.
Do you have a food addiction, are you a food addict. As silly as this may sound, I think most of us are addicted to food and here’s why.
One definition of an addiction is “a compulsive behavior that leads to negative consequences.” What better way to explain what happens when we eat more than we should. We gain weight, feel bad, become less healthy and engage in destructive behaviors like dieting. Given how destructive overeating is, why do we do it?
Being addicted to food is pretty easy to explain if you do a little research on “pain avoidance.” Pain avoidance simply means that human beings by nature will do everything they can to avoid pain.
When we eat, especially if we eat highly desirable foods like sweets, fats and salt, we are being satisfied and rewarded and we feel pleasure, often in heavy doses. When we deprive ourselves of food, like when we are trying to diet, we are creating “pain” in the form of no satisfaction and no reward. Thus eating feels good, not eating is painful.
The psychological research about the relationship between pain and pleasure is pretty well established and its effects can easily be seen in everyday life. Most of us when faced with a painful choice will walk away instead of getting hurt, either physically or emotionally. Few people choose the painful route because walking away is simply less painful, even if it’s something we’ll have to deal with later. The immediate pain avoidance response is almost always the choice we make.
This is what happens when we overeat or eat something we know we shouldn’t. When we think about food or are actually eating the food, our brain is deciding which is the more pleasurable or less painful option, eat or not eat. As much as we know we shouldn’t eat that second helping of food or that donut, our brain recognizes the pleasure it will get when we do eat. It recognizes that not eating is the painful alternative and as usual, picks the least painful choice.
The next time you find yourself in the kitchen and decide you want to eat something, even though you know you’re not hungry, be aware of the mental gymnastics your mind plays in order to get you to eat. It will say “this time won’t hurt” or “I won’t do this tomorrow” or “I’ll work it off at the gym tonight.” These excuses are nothing more than your brain’s attempt to put off the pain to a later date. Unfortunately for us, we’ll go through the same routine the next time the choice is up for grabs.
So yes, most of us have food addiction and the only way to change it is to figure out how to make eating less, a more enjoyable choice.