While some people maintain that obese people are simply greedy and don’t care about their health, this narrow-minded view is simply untrue.
In a lot of cases, hormonal urges create unrelenting cravings for poor dietary choices that people just cannot control.
And shocking as it may sound, food addiction is one of the biggest killers of the 21st century.
This article will explain what food addiction is, some of the devastating effects it has on health, and how to beat it.
What is Food Addiction?
Food addiction simply means being addicted to food. In this situation, you cannot give it up and feel the need to eat even when you don’t need to.
Perhaps you even find enjoyment from food you don’t particularly like.
For most people, this unhealthy relationship with food is due to an underlying hormonal condition that causes severe cravings. These cravings are especially intense for highly refined sources of carbohydrate such as sugar and white flour.
Both wheat and sugar addictions are becoming increasingly common due to our highly industrialized modern diets.
And unfortunately, they dramatically raise the risk of susceptibility to modern chronic disease.
In particular, the cluster of diseases related to metabolic syndrome are now rampant in society – and I suspect the addictive properties of these foods plays a significant role.
What Are the Symptoms?
I’m sure 99% of people will give a firm NO to that question. However, one of the most shocking aspects of food addiction is that most people don’t even realize they have a problem.
Our society normalizes sugar and highly processed carbs. We even give them to our children as a “reward” for good behavior.
So, reaching for chocolate, cakes, and candies on a daily basis isn’t anything most people worry about. It’s just a regular part of the day that conforms to societal standards.
As a result, how can we know we have a food addiction if we never actually realize and try to cut down on junk food?
Therefore, it’s essential to recognize an unhealthy relationship with food in order to focus on overcoming food addiction.
Food Addiction Quiz
Here’s a quick food addiction quiz to ask yourself:
- Do you ever want to keep eating, even when you are already full? It’s normal for everyone to overindulge at some point, but it shouldn’t be happening on a regular basis.
- Have you often eaten to the point of discomfort and stomachache?
- Do you eat junk food because you feel stressed or depression?
- When you eat a very small amount of chocolate/cake, do you feel satisfied or do you end up eating a huge amount?
- Do you feel guilty about what you eat after finishing it?
- Can you go to a bakery and buy a small item? Or is it so hard to choose that you buy several different things, and eat them all in one sitting?
- Do you ever try to hide receipts/packaging from family and friends?
- When you eat junk food, is it usually only when you are alone?
- Do you ever promise yourself that you’re going to stop eating a particular food, only to end up eating it again the next day?
- Do you ever knowingly “reward” yourself with food that you know is unhealthy? (“I had a rough day today, so I’ll buy some chocolate cookies”)
If more than a few of those sound familiar to you, then it’s possible that you might be a food addict.
And if you are, then it’s time to make a change — and understanding exactly what causes addiction is so important for this.
What Causes Food Addiction?
But from a purely scientific point, food addiction relates to the ‘reward center’ in our brain.
To demonstrate, here’s a general idea of what happens:
- First, someone eats a large amount of digestible carbohydrate or simple sugars.
- What follows is a surge in dopamine levels in the brain, not dissimilar to what happens with class A drugs (3, 4).
- Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes us to feel good about (and desire) things that are helpful to survival. These things include high energy-density foods such as sugars, flours, and refined carbs (in the past, we often had no food in harsh winters).
- There is evidence that as people follow a poor diet and overeat, the body slowly stops responding to food and insulin in the correct manner. The result is that the brain’s ‘reward center’ releases lower levels of dopamine (5, 6).
- As we no longer feel as good as we once did (due to the lower dopamine release), we seek out more food to reach the same ‘high’ as before.
There is also the idea that nutrient deficiencies can lead to food cravings, which would be a side effect of a poor diet.
Why are we rewarded for eating junk foods?
So, if we are “rewarded” for high carb meals, does the brain view concentrated sources of carbohydrate as healthy?
At one stage in the distant past when we lived in the wild, finding a concentrated source of energy (such as high-sugar fruit) would have been important.
And yet we have sugar everywhere these days; it’s an entirely different world now – but these hormonal urges still exist.
And when someone has extreme cravings for a cake or some pastry, yet they can find it on every street corner – that is a big problem.
Fighting addiction is difficult when the foods you are trying to avoid are always in your face.
If we accept we have a food addiction, then that is the single most important thing we can do.
Food Addiction Kills: The Health Consequences
It’s a fact of life that most people worry about their abs or fitting into their favorite dress, but the prevention of chronic disease is a distant consideration.
In reality, it should be a far bigger motivator.
Just like other addictions such as alcohol or drugs, food addiction is a chronic, progressive illness that ultimately becomes fatal.
It’s chronic and progressive because if we do nothing about it, it remains ongoing. And it has progressively worse effects on our health.
It’s also fatal because food addicts ultimately die due to complications such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
What do studies say?
Eating large amounts of carbohydrate — especially processed carbs — is very damaging to our body and results in:
- Increased risk for all cancer as blood glucose (and insulin) levels rise (11)
It’s scary to read, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Links between higher insulin levels and the majority of chronic disease appear to be strengthening each day.
But let’s not let (processed) fat off the hook
Industrially manufactured fats such as vegetable oil, margarine, shortening, and trans fats are also a big culprit in worsening global health.
And if you have a food addiction, then it’s likely you’re eating a lot of them. These fats are in almost everything in a packet – and likely anything from a fast food store or bakery.
They are far from natural and have an extremely harsh manufacturing process that involves the use of solvents, bleaches, and deodorizers (17).
Naturally occurring fats are no problem, but avoid the industrially produced ones like your health depends on it – because it does.
How To Beat Food Addiction
So, the health consequences of food addiction can be very scary. But what can we do to curb our cravings and overcome them?
As earlier mentioned, the first step to breaking an addiction is to admit the problem to ourselves.
Say to yourself “I’m addicted to food, but I’m going to do something about it.”
Once we have done that, whether we want to stop eating fast food or binging on bread – the principles are the same.
Not until we recognize the causes of addiction — our ‘trigger’ foods — can we start to actively evade them and learn how to overcome food addiction.
What causes addiction may vary a lot among individuals; while some find it difficult to quit sugary drinks, others find comfort in huge bowls of rice/pasta. And bread is a huge weakness for many people, due to the particular addictive properties of wheat (22, 23).
The embrace of overall healthy eating is essential too. Rather than simply replacing our trigger foods with other food of questionable quality, we should learn how to eat healthily.
As a very brief overview, healthy foods are naturally occurring and include meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruit, and nuts.
In contrast, it’s best to avoid factory-made foods such as bread, cereal, cakes, candy, and industrial oils.
Dealing with cravings
So, I believe it’s best to cut them out ‘cold turkey’ rather than have constant reminders of how they make you feel.
At this point, many people experience intense cravings and want to eat the foods which make them feel good.
However, this stage is only temporary, and these urges for processed foods reside after a period of avoidance. Usually, the first week is the hardest, after which the cravings become less and less intense.
During this time it is essential not to let yourself get hungry. Stopping eating processed foods such as sugar and bread isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Overeat slightly on fat and protein if you have to, because if you have strong hunger pangs while out of the house, then you may give in to temptation.
Also keeping satiating food handy is a very good idea, and cheese, nuts, boiled eggs, and dark chocolate are all good for this purpose.
Whatever you do, don’t relapse!
Maybe it’s a few weeks after you last had something from a bakery, and your cravings have dropped to a manageable level.
So, just one pastry won’t harm, right?
Unfortunately, this is one of the very worst things you can do. If you have a genuine food addiction, then there is no such thing as moderation. Eat something today, and you’ll likely eat it tomorrow and the day after too.
We call this ‘the law of addiction’ – a recovering smoker can’t have just one cigarette and a former alcoholic should never have a shot of whiskey. Likewise, a former bread addict shouldn’t eat a single piece of bread.
Recovery from food addiction needs a complete dietary and lifestyle change. By learning how to love real food, you can give up the ultra-processed food products for good.
In my case, while I haven’t ever had a full-on addiction to food, I did find quitting sugar and wheat incredibly difficult.
But when you haven’t eaten them for a while, it becomes so much easier, and you begin to realize that they didn’t even taste all that great in the first place.
It’s hormonal cravings rather than amazing taste that brings you back for more and more.
Ask Yourself This: “What Do I Want To Eat?”
If you have read down to this point, and you feel like you have a food addiction, then this is the question you need to ask.
What do you want to eat?
Do you want to stay on the same course as now, and keep eating all the foods that make you feel (temporarily) happy?
Or do you want to stop sacrificing your health and make a positive change?
Only you know the answer to that question, and only you can make the decision to improve your health.
You probably know by now that moderation doesn’t work.
It’s not about how much sugar is too much, or about following the recommended daily sugar intake.
How to get healthy isn’t rocket science, and it just involves eating a natural diet full of real foods.
But to do it, you need 100% commitment – so if the benefits (weight loss, reducing the risk of disease, not being a slave to food) are worth it, then it needs to be an all or nothing effort.
Help Exists: If You Need It, Use It!
If you don’t think you can do it on your own, then it may be worth looking into food addiction treatment.
As recovering from food addiction is incredibly tough, some professionals are available to help.
Here is a directory of organizations specially trained in treating food addictions.
An organization who provide supportive in-person meetings all around the world.
Recovery From Food Addiction (RFA)
A program with a focus on abstinence from wheat, sugar, and flour.
They also offer worldwide meetings.
Food Addicts Anonymous
Covering almost all eating disorders, Food Addicts Anonymous provide e-mail, phone, and face-to-face meetings.
SMART Recovery focus on self-management and recovery training and have a large online community.
Food Addiction Institute (FAI)
The Food Addiction Institute provide treatment programs and retreats for food addicts.
The Ranch operates an in-patient facility to help people overcome eating disorders.
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous
Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience and mutual support, are recovering from food addiction. They welcome all who want to stop eating addictively. There are no dues or fees for members; their primary purpose is to help people abstain from addictive eating and to carry this message of recovery to those who still suffer.
Acorn Food Dependency Recovery
Acorn Food Dependency Recovery Services provide in-patient and out-patient programs to help people overcome addictions to food.
Shades of Hope
For those in a bad situation, Shades of Hope is a residential program for individuals who want to find a lasting solution to their illness.
Hopefully, this has been useful in some way.
In short, just remember that knowing how to beat food addiction is different to doing it and needs a lot of dedication.
Supportive relationships — either family/friends or through support groups — are extremely important.
In other words, nobody going through food addiction is alone if they choose to seek support.
If you have any questions or need any more information, just leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.