Ten Steps for Beating Food Addiction

How many times have you vowed, on a Sunday night or Monday morning, to start the week clean and stop eating foods containing sugar or flour, stop eating fried foods or rich dairy products, or drinking alcohol, soda and other caffeinated or sugary beverages? Probably more times than you care to admit. So what happens to all those good intentions?

Monday morning arrives and you start the day doing well at breakfast, and maybe even lunch, but once you experience stress, overwhelm, boredom, fatigue or a myriad of other unpleasant triggering emotional states, you grab your favorite comfort food or beverage with an “I don’t care; I need this now” attitude. Later, you experience the remorse, guilt and shame and, with your tail between your legs,  vow to do better tomorrow.

You may find that there is little to no thought between seeing the food or beverage and consuming it; you seem to have no impulse control with certain substances. You may also find that when you give in to your cravings, you can’t stop and you eat or drink more than you intended. Perhaps your cravings intensify, rather than abate, after you indulge them. And even though you feel defeated, ashamed and guilty, you find yourself eating or drinking these substances again, perhaps as soon as the next meal.

If this scenario feels familiar to you, you may be struggling with food addiction. People with food addiction have difficulty controlling their intake of particular foods and beverages, such as:

  • Sweets like candy, chocolate, cookies, cake, candy, ice cream, scones and doughnuts
  • Starches like bread, crackers, pasta, white rice and pizza dough
  • Salty snacks like chips and pretzels
  • Sugary drinks like soda, fruit juice and sweetened coffee beverages
  • Caffeinated foods and beverages like chocolate, coffee, tea and soda and
  • Fatty foods like hotdogs, ribs, sausage, bacon, hamburgers, cheese, pizza, French fries and other fried foods.

Food manufacturers actually design food products today with an artificial concentration of fat, sugar and salt in such a way that they act like drugs and stimulate the release of powerful feel-good chemicals in the pleasure centers of the brain. Processed foods and sugar are chemically addictive because of their effect on the brain’s intrinsic “narcotics,” the endorphins. Sugar, for example, provides a quick fix of endorphins and also temporarily raises levels of the mood enhancing chemical serotonin.

Processed foods and many fatty foods also stimulate the release of a chemical called dopamine, which drives us to seek more pleasure. Addictive eaters tend to have diminished dopamine receptors and its this relative shortage of dopamine receptors that drives the addict towards the substance or activity that best releases extra quantities of this euphoric and invigorating brain chemical. Our bodies are wise–these chemicals have always been necessary for our survival as a species. They drive us to seek pleasure by eating the most calorie-dense foods we can find and engaging in pleasurable activities, like mating with an appealing partner.

Chronic exposure to these highly palatable foods changes our brains, conditioning us to seek continued stimulation. Over time, a powerful drive for a combination of sugar, fat, and salt competes with our conscious ability to say no.  David A. Kessler, MD, author of The End of Overeating, terms the resulting behavior “conditioned hypereating.”  He suggests that this behavior involves a “high-degree of sensitivity” (to these artificially concentrated foods), “a perceived loss of control, an inability to feel satisfied, and obsessive thinking.”  Sounds like addiction, doesn’t it?  In sensitive individuals, even the aroma or just a taste of food can trigger this conditioned hypereating.  And because these foods are highly pleasing and calming, stress and intense emotional states can overpower our best intentions, heighten the power of the food as a cue and drive us to seek out these foods. 

After years of constant exposure to and consumption of these highly palatable foods, your brain changes. As a result of the constant level of hyper-stimulation from these foods, your brain attempts to protect you by decreasing the number of dopamine receptors (so that you don’t feel as much stimulation.) In doing so, you develop a tolerance to your addictive foods and a typical serving no longer feels rewarding. So what do you do?  You eat and drink more to get the same level of stimulation. And along the way, you damage your health,  pack on the weight and feel like an addict.

If you tend to feel compulsive with certain foods or beverages, there is a good chance that you may also be allergic to them. When you think of allergies, you most likely think of unpleasant symptoms such as hives or rashes.  But did you know that not all allergic reactions are unpleasant?  You may in fact feel better after eating allergenic food. This reaction is called “allergic addiction.”  In an attempt to soothe the irritation caused by allergic foods, your body releases powerful soothing brain chemicals.  And over time you can become quite addicted to these pleasurable chemicals.

The most common causes of food allergy are:  wheat, cane sugar, dairy products, eggs, fish and shellfish, tree nuts, alcohol, berries, citrus fruits, peanuts, tomatoes, soy, yeast, food additives and pesticides.

The majority of people who come to see me for assistance with their overeating or emotional eating have some level of food addiction, whether or not they are overweight. The good news is that food addiction has more to do with imbalanced brain and body chemistry then willpower or discipline. Correcting your imbalanced chemistry will greatly reduce cravings and help you figure out what portion of your overeating or imbalanced eating is emotional in origin.

Here are ten steps for beating food addiction:

1) Keep a Daily Food/Mood Log for two weeks.  Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues and try to eat only when you feel true physiological hunger. See if you can stop before you are full. Write down everything you eat, especially noting how you feel before and after eating, both physically and emotionally. Do you feel satisfied when eating time is over and ready to move on to other activities?  Do certain foods lead to overeating and foraging for more food? Do you feel food-focused or obsessed and compulsive with particular foods? You may already have a good idea which foods cause problems, but taking the time to fill out a food/mood log can provide additional insight into your relationship with food. Make a list of all the foods that lead you to feel out of control and overeat. Be on the lookout for the allergens listed above.

2) Make a list of all your food triggers— events, places, associations, emotional states, stressors–that lead you to seek out the comfort and stimulation of your favorite foods and beverages. Resolving food addiction isn’t just about gently releasing foods that no longer serve your body—it’s also about examining your lifestyle so that you can make changes that will support your recovery. Write down a few changes that you can make right away. For example, perhaps you need to pack a healthy lunch for those weekly lunch meetings where you tend to get derailed by all the delectable offerings. If you’re in the habit of skipping breakfast and then grabbing a muffin and coffee at work, plan a little more time for a proper morning meal. If extreme hunger leads you to make unhealthy choices, be conscious of refueling about every 3-4 hours. A piece of fruit and a handful of nuts will hold you over until the next meal.

3) Add unprocessed whole plant foods, especially fresh, raw, green vegetables and fruits to your diet. These foods have sustained us since the beginning of time. The fiber in whole foods fills you up and helps move toxins out of the body. The nutrient-dense profile of whole foods balances your body and brain chemistry and helps to reestablish normal reward responses for natural foods. Keeping addictive foods in your eating plan can be a slippery slope back to eating them in larger quantities when you’re under emotional stress. You can re-sensitize yourself to whole, unprocessed foods in a short period, usually one to three months. As you add these wholesome foods, you can gently crowd out the processed foods and excess foods of animal origin that damage your health and lead to addiction. Your taste buds will readapt, and your cravings for artificially concentrated foods will diminish. If you’re eating animal products, including eggs and dairy, make sure they are hormone and pesticide free. Choose organic and non-gmo whenever possible.

4) Address any hormonal or brain chemistry imbalances with your health care practitioner. Adrenal burnout, thyroid imbalance, low or high blood sugar (insulin imbalance), sex hormone imbalance and low or high brain chemicals can cause fatigue, low energy, cravings and weight gain. Your health care practitioner can help you balance your hormones. A psycho-pharmacologist can suggest supplements (amino acids, vitamins and herbs) to help balance your brain chemistry.

5) Meet most of your daily essential fatty acid requirements with unprocessed, uncooked whole foods, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and other seeds, nuts and soybeans.

6) Move your body. If you’re not exercising, begin to include mild to moderate exercise into your day. Start with the easiest form of exercise– brisk walking. Regular physical activity reduces stress and stimulates brain growth which translates into a more focused brain that makes smarter self-care decisions. Physical activity also contributes to a sense of well-being and calmness. If you are over-exercising, pull back. This can be a stressor that imbalances your body and brain chemistry and leads right back to cravings.

7) Plan more time for adequate sleep and periods of rest in your week—your body needs rest to rejuvenate, heal and repair itself.

8) Identify the major stressors in your life, including environmental toxins, and begin to think about ways to reduce them. Chronic stress imbalances the body and brain and leads to stress eating, emotional eating and intense, exaggerated cravings for comforting foods and beverages.

9) Practice daily mind-quieting exercises. Meditation and breath-counting exercises strengthen the part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), that helps you rein in impulses and stay focused and vigilant. Practicing mind-quieting exercises daily helps to stimulate new PFC  brain cell formation and to repair damage. And  a strong PFC is required to repair and reclaim your hijacked reward center.

10) Catch and Reframe self-defeating thoughts that lead you to make unhealthy food/beverage selections and derail your progress.When you’re standing in the break room and hear that small voice say “I don’t care; I need this now” pause for a moment and see if you can access an inner nurturing voice capable of soothing and comforting you and reassuring you that your needs can be met. That voice might say something like “I know the urge feels intense right now for chips, but let’s first try eating the carrots and hummus that we brought.”  When you’re shopping after work and feeling exhausted and you hear that voice say “Let’s get cookies and ice cream NOW,” try setting a gentle limit, saying something like “I know you’re tired (and not really  hungry) and would like a sweet treat; let’s go home and have some berries and almond butter instead.”  The more practice you get at catching and reframing self-defeating thoughts and setting gentle limits with yourself, the sooner you’ll give your imbalanced eating and food addiction the boot.

Yale University researchers and world-renown scientists acknowledge that food addiction is real–we all need to start taking food addiction seriously.

Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://overeatingrecovery.com.

Image courtesy of marin /FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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