The Dangers of Food Addiction (and How To Beat It)

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Picture of a man with food addictionThe evidence for various types of food addiction has been increasing over recent years.

Nutritional choices play a large role in these conditions.

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, eating addictions are 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?

Picture of sugary donuts

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 foods 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 is now rampant in society – and I suspect the addictive properties of these foods plays a significant role.

Key Point: Food addiction is an unhealthy relationship with food in which we are never truly satisfied and always need more.

What Are the Symptoms?

Man showing symptoms of food addictionAsk yourself this: “Do I have an unhealthy relationship with food?

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 suffer from 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 end up buying 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.

Key Point: It’s not always obvious that a food addiction is present. If you display some of these symptoms of addiction, it might be worth considering.

What Causes Food Addiction?

Close-up of someone's brainThe causes of food addiction are multi-factorial and include how much influence industrial food companies have on dietary guidelines (1, 2).

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.

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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

Picture of overweight man.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 addictive behaviors relating to alcohol or drugs, food addiction can be 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:

  • Worse cholesterol profiles and higher levels of triglycerides (7, 8)
  • Higher blood sugar and insulin levels, both of which are CVD risk factors (9, 10)
  • Increased risk for all cancer as blood glucose (and insulin) levels rise (11)
  • According to several studies, the higher the insulin levels, the higher CVD risk (12, 13)
  • Significantly increased risk of type 2 and type 3 (Alzheimer’s) diabetes (14, 15, 16)

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

Picture of vegetable oilIndustrially 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).

They also release toxic carcinogens under exposure to heat, cause inflammation and oxidative damage inside the body, and worsen the omega 3-6 ratio (18, 19, 20, 21).

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

Picture of a woman who has 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

Picture of woman who is eating too much foodThe more you eat foods you have an unhealthy relationship with, the more you begin to crave them.

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 feel hungry 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.

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.

 

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?”

Picture saying to avoid junk food.

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 sustainable diet that you find both enjoyable and satisfying.

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.

Overeaters Anonymous

An organization who provide supportive in-person meetings all around the world.

Website: https://oa.org/

Recovery From Food Addiction (RFA)

A program with a focus on abstinence from wheat, sugar, and flour.

They also offer worldwide meetings.

Website: http://www.recoveryfromfoodaddiction.org/

Food Addicts Anonymous

Covering almost all eating disorders, Food Addicts Anonymous provide e-mail, phone, and face-to-face meetings.

Website: http://www.foodaddictsanonymous.org/faa-you

SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery focus on self-management and recovery training and have a large online community.

Website: http://www.smartrecovery.org/

Food Addiction Institute (FAI)

The Food Addiction Institute provide treatment programs and retreats for food addicts.

Website: http://foodaddictioninstitute.org/for-food-addicts/professional-help/

The Ranch

The Ranch operates an in-patient facility to help people overcome eating disorders.

Website: https://www.recoveryranch.com/treatment-programs/eating-disorder-treatment/

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.

Website: https://www.foodaddicts.org

Acorn Food Dependency Recovery

Acorn Food Dependency Recovery Services provide in-patient and out-patient programs to help people overcome addictions to food.

Website: https://foodaddiction.com/

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.

Website: http://shadesofhope.com/

If you are lucky enough to have a doctor with a good understanding of nutrition, it may also be worth speaking to him/her.

Final Thoughts

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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful, informative article. I’m a food addict and I conquered it for three years with the ideal protein program. I’m now trying to get back. It’s so true. One piece of bread starts it all over again. I want to be healthy. I’m trying. Your article helped me! Food is my hobby!

    • Thank you.
      That’s great – glad it was helpful to you!

      You’re right about the bread. One piece of bread quickly becomes a piece the next day, and the day after that too…
      Keep trying and don’t give up – there are still many yummy foods that are good for you 🙂

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