Addiction is a health issue that can take many forms. We're familiar with alcoholism or drug addiction, but can people really be addicted to food? After all, food is a basic need of human beings, so how is that even possible? For those who experience it, it's a very real issue. Here's why.
Eating is a normal function necessary to maintain life in many life-forms, including our own. We require sustenance to maintain our energy levels and basic biological functions, such as growth and cell renewal. However, food doesn't just affect the body — consuming it also has physiological effects on our brains.
"When we eat, the feel-good hormone dopamine, which controls the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, is released," says Dr. Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist. It turns out this is similar to what happens when drugs or alcohol are introduced to our system — it feels awesome, and we like it.
For some people, however, the pleasure centers in the brain are more active than in others, which means they experience far more food-related pleasure when eating. This can lead to overeating and binge-eating, which can then result in physical distress and overwhelming guilt, which is paired with an inability to discontinue these habits and feel better (do note, however, that this type of bingeing doesn't include aspects of bulimia, such as intentional vomiting, although it can happen naturally as a result of the overeating).
Dr. Keith Kantor, a nutritionist with a PhD in nutrition science and CEO of the Nutritional Addiction Mitigation Eating and Drinking program, explains that certain foods seem to be more addicting than others — for example, those that contain potent amounts of sugar, sodium and processed fats.
"Food originally was not processed and contained only natural occurring fats, sugars and sodium that the body was made to use for metabolism, for optimal energy," he said. So while our ancestors didn't have unhealthy processed foods readily available, we certainly do, and it can be a factor in a developing (or ongoing) food addiction.
One of the obstacles to treating a food addiction, says Albers, is that it's not recognized as a disorder in the DSM-5, the handbook health care professionals use to diagnose mental health disorders.
'"This is partly because, unlike addiction to alcohol or drugs where there's a physiological response, here, individuals have a psychological relationship with food," she explains. She notes that food addicts who avoid their triggers won't necessarily go through withdrawal, but they struggle with the same feelings. She says when she works with clients and listens to their experiences, it's very similar to the language and the behaviors to other kinds of addiction.
However, the first step to overcoming a food addiction is becoming self-aware that you may have a problem, Kantor explains. If you realize that food may play a negative role in your life, or you find yourself binge-eating or eating food when you're not hungry, you may have a food addiction. Additionally, those with this affliction often go out of their way to get a desired food or become fixated on how to get it, where they'll get it and how they'll pay for it.
Once you recognize these behaviors, there are some simple steps you can take on your own.
"Replace your unhealthy food choices with healthy unprocessed options like fruit instead of candy, nuts instead of chips or 70 percent dark chocolate instead of processed candy bars," Kantor says. "Ensure that you are eating a balanced diet rich in healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, quality protein and whole, unprocessed carbohydrates. If your diet is packed with optimal nutrients, your cravings will reduce simply because your opiate receptors will not be stimulated and hormones like insulin levels will be in optimal range."
Albers has additional suggestions, including embracing mindfulness practices. "Teaching people how to use mindfulness to ride out the craving and get to the other side of it without responding to it is key," she notes. "I always suggest taking a nature walk, meditating, piling blankets on top of you to feel warmth and comfort (a sensation we get from most foods) and so on."
Of course, simply making food swaps and riding out your severe cravings may not be enough, but there is hope — you don't have to tackle food addiction alone. Seek out support groups, or reach out to a qualified counselor or psychologist if you feel your efforts are not giving you the results you need.
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