Deli CaseThe term “food addict” is tossed around loosely.  Many people claim to be addicted to sugar, or potato chips, or chocolate or . . . .

The term “addiction” sounds serious, and it is, so we should be careful how we use it in relation to food, or we may end up contributing to our own eating challenges by feeling incapable of changing them.

There is a lot of debate in the scientific world about whether or not food can be addictive.  So far, there is no psychological diagnosis code for it like there is for drug or alcohol abuse issues, but there are similarities.  I think the more important question is “Does it feel addictive to you?”

Do you feel out of control with food, either all food or, more likely, certain types of food?  This can feel terrible!  That matters.  It is worth addressing as a problem, regardless of what we call it.

While research does show that highly palatable food (high sugar, salt, fat) can trigger reward centers in the brain, causing a drive to eat more, there does not appear to be a chemical habit chain connected with it in the brain as diagnosable “addictions” create.  The feeling of addiction to food seems to come more from the behavioral habit side of things, and behavior chains do form in response to what we practice.  It is simply rewarding to repeat the behavior (Mmmm, tasty!), so we practice it over and over.  Tolerance can build up over time as well, making it necessary to consume more in order to get the same reward; in this sense it is similar to more recognized addictions.

So, is there hope for those who struggle with intense cravings that lead to out-of-control eating?  I think so – absolutely!  

Because the feelings are so behavior based, we must take into account the ways we may be setting ourselves up to make a reward more irresistible.  If you have ever tried a rigid weight loss plan (who hasnt?!) or cut out things like sugar completely, you will know what I’m talking about.  The urge to eat those restricted foods can feel overpowering, beyond the capability of a mere mortal to resist, right?  You have just primed your body for a binge on the very foods you were trying to avoid.  Of course dieting is not the only cause of cravings, but it is widespread.

While it is not a smart strategy to test willpower unfairly (ie. leaving M&M’s in candy bowls throughout your house, for instance, if that is a difficult thing to resist), it can be equally hard to keep to a black and white standard like “NO M&M’s for the rest of my life.”  That takes a lot of mental energy to resist, making it likely that in a weak moment self-control will fly out the window in a big way.

Emotional eating, either diet-induced or life-induced, is another reason for uncontrolled eating habits to form.  Eating in response to emotions works to some extent to soothe uncomfortable emotions, so practicing eating as a “solution” can easily become an automatic response to emotional discomfort.  Practicing other techniques, more supportive ones, can slowly and deliberately build new habit chains.

There is no doubt that the chemistry of food affects mood and cravings.  Eating more natural, healthy food will definitely help, and I highly recommend it.  That is stating the obvious though.  As human beings, we need to be accepting of our emotions and habits.  These will certainly affect our ability to eat well.  By keeping boundaries kind and realistic, the outcome is almost always better. Be patient.  Be curious.  It takes time.

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