I receive multiple emails a week requesting tips and tricks for overcoming food temptations. People have become obsessed with food; addicted to the feeling of satisfaction.
Do you want to break this pattern of food addiction? Aren’t you tired of constantly wondering when you should eat, what you should eat and if the latest diet will finally help you lose the fat and give you the body you want?
Sure, it’s exciting to try that new juice cleanse your friends have been raving about, but ask yourself: “Is this sustainable”? Will this diet or eating plan provide you with the knowledge and tools you need to carry on by yourself, to maintain a healthy weight?
A close friend of mine confided in me how her first thought every morning was about what she’d eat that day. Even with a demanding career, she often worries more about what constitutes ‘healthy snacks’ and when she’s allowed carbs, if any.
Do you identify with my friend? Do you often feel like your whole life revolves around food? Maybe it’s time you confront this addiction and take action.
Why do we eat?
Food provides us the energy we need to function, grow and repair our bodies. However, food is often used to curb emotional hunger as well as physical hunger. We eat for:
- Entertainment: We often eat to pass the time, because we’re bored and eating gives us something to do.
- Comfort: Comfort food is something that provides you an intense feeling of satisfaction, usually coupled with some kind of happy childhood memory. Comfort food is believed to trigger feel-good hormones (dopamine and serotonin) in our brains, which is why it’s not uncommon for you to want a big bowel of pasta after a hard day at work.
- Satisfaction and Reward: We eat to indulge our taste buds, seeking pleasure from eating rewarding foods, usually high in fat and sugar. Hence my cautionary advice of the “cheat meal” for some people.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Food
Any food consumed in large quantities can be unhealthy, even vegetables. Too much of anything is ultimately bad for you. It’s your diet that’s classified as being healthy or unhealthy, not one particular food you’re eating.
A healthy diet is one that incorporates a variety of foods, preferably fresh, whole, unprocessed foods that stay within your specific calorie requirements. In order to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume over a certain period of time. The source of the calories don’t matter, healthy or unhealthy; a surplus of calories will increase your body fat, even if you eat healthy. This is a fact not many people understand.
So, losing fat is all about energy in versus energy out. However, in my opinion it’s more difficult to overeat on calorie dense foods (e.g. vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and whole grains), than it is to indulge in processed foods (e.g. chips, chocolates and energy drinks).
Can you be addicted to food?
The science of food addiction has now established that highly palatable foods (low nutrient, high-calorie, very sweet or salty, and fatty foods) produce biochemical effects in the brain similar to that of drugs.
Both food and drugs activate the same regions in the brain, including the amygdala, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and striatum and both substances act on dopamine receptors.
People addicted to food become physically and psychologically dependent on these high fat, sugary foods and can experience symptoms of withdrawal when not eating these foods for a period of time.
Symptoms of food addiction
Food addiction can be measured by applying the seven Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR) criteria for substance abuse. I’ve adapted these symptoms to apply to food addiction in particular.
- Escalation of use: Eating greater amounts of food, even when not physically hungry. Needing more and more food to feel ‘satisfied’.
- Loss of control: Feeling the persistent need to indulge in food and not having control over the amount or frequency of consumption. You’ve tried and failed numerous times to cut down on certain foods.
- Social consequences: You’ve started hiding food and tend to eat alone, because you feel ashamed and embarrassed of how much you’re eating.
- Personal distress: Feeling guilty and depressed about your eating habits and loss of control. Spending a lot of time recovering from the effects of overeating.
- Obsessiveness: Spending a lot of time thinking of, purchasing, preparing and eating food. Experiencing intense cravings for food even when full.
If you’re experiencing one of more of these symptoms, you might be addicted to food.
Since ancient times people have been drawn to the allure of sweet foods like honey, berries and dates. Sugar was, and in many ways still is, a major source of energy. However, because of its sweet taste we’ve started adding sugar to food and drinks that don’t naturally contain it, increasing our satisfaction of eating or drinking. Sugar can be classified into two broad categories:
- ‘Nutritive sweeteners’ provide energy:
- Carbohydrates (sucrose)
- Fruit sugar (fructose)
- Milk sugar (galactose + lactose)
- Sugar alcohols (sorbitol, maltitol etc.)
- ‘Non-nutritive sweeteners’ are used to replace the taste of sugar and contain no energy:
The effects of sugar on your brain
The general consensus is that sugar can be enjoyed, in moderation, as part of a healthy diet. Despite that, the enhanced taste and aroma of sugar may lead you to consume larger and larger quantities. You’re gaining weight and have started craving more sweet stuffs, only feeling ‘normal’ after you’ve devoured that second chocolate bar.
According to a recent study, sugar has a direct influence on our dopamine system, influencing reward-related brain regions and behaviors. Look at it this way, when you’re feeling sad or upset and you eat a block of chocolate, dopamine and serotonin are released, similar to when using cocaine or heroin. You start to feel better and your mood improves. Now your brain has made the association that eating something sweet (behavior) will make you feel happier (reward).
If you continue this particular behavior-reward pattern your brain will learn to rely on sugar. You become addicted to the feel-good hormones sugar gives you, a powerful reinforcing property.
Symptoms of sugar addiction
Much like the above symptoms of food addiction, when you’re addicted to sugar you need larger quantities to bring about the same euphoric experience. You go through symptoms of withdrawal, similar to that of a drug addicts such as intense cravings and headaches.
You might also feel more tired, experience bloating and skin breakouts. You’ll gain weight and never really feel satisfied.
Effects of too much sugar
According to Dr. Mercola consuming too much sugar over the long-term can contribute to the shrinking of your hippocampus, which is a hallmark symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.
For the brain to make the specific fuel it needs to function, it needs fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates. Too much sugar can lead to inflammation in ways we don’t yet fully understand. These may also result in impaired cognitive function, like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Consuming too much sugar, regardless of your weight, can have serious consequences:
- Diabetes: Large quantities of sugar have a negative effect on your body’s ability to regulate insulin. This, combined with increased liver glucose production can ultimately lead to the development of type II Diabetes.
- Obesity: Adding a large amount of empty calories into your diet will lead to you gaining weight and spiraling out of control.
- Premature ageing: Too much sugar can cause damage to your DNA and specific proteins, putting strain on your body’s metabolic control of sugars, resulting in you aging faster.
- Hormone disruption: Sugar dampens the suppression of the hormone ghrelin, which signals your brain when you’re hungry, and disrupts the hormone leptin, which helps you feel satisfied after eating. Furthermore, sugar decreases the pleasure you derive from food by reducing the dopamine signalling in your brain’s reward center, which compels you to eat even more sugar to feel the same level of satisfaction.
- Heart disease: A diet high in sugar may stimulate your liver to dump more harmful fats into your bloodstream, increasing your risk of heart disease.
- Cavities: We all know sugar is bad for your teeth, but it also promotes bacterial growth and can cause infection of the gums.
According to Nutrition Action, in 2012 the average American consumed 22 to 28 teaspoons of added sugar a day, that’s 350 to 440 empty calories. The American Heart Association recommends that women don’t eat more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day and men eat no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar a day, but let’s be honest, that’s still a huge amount of sugar. In my opinion if you need more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day, you’re addicted to sugar.
Too Much Healthy Fats
Fats supply calories and the essential fatty acids you need to help you absorb essential vitamins, such as vitamin A, D, E and K. However, not all fats are alike. Some types of fat are essential for bodily functions, others can have negative effects.
Dietary fats are found in both plants and animal foods and categorized as saturated (bad fats) and unsaturated (good fats).
Bad Fats are fats with a high percentage of saturated or trans fatty acids and most are solid at room temperature.
- Saturated fats are mainly found in high-fat meats and dairy products. For example, fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb, cheese, butter, milk and tropical oils like coconut and palm oils.
- Trans fatty acids are present in foods that contain ‘partially hydrogenated’ vegetable oils. For example, margarine, fried foods (like fries and doughnuts), and processed foods like cookies, pastries, microwave popcorn and cakes.
Good Fats are fats with a high percentage of unsaturated fatty acids and most are in liquid form when at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are predominantly derived from plants and vegetables. These fats contain Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and are essential to your health, because your body cannot make them, you need to get them from dietary sources. Unsaturated fats can be further categorized into:
- Poly Unsaturated fats: Fatty fish like salmon and sardines, sunflower and sesame oil, seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seed and sesame seeds), and Walnuts.
- Mono Unsaturated fats: Vegetable oils like olive oil and canola oil, nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans, and pistachios), avocado and peanut butter.
The only type of fat you don’t need in your diet is trans-fat, but the other three are important to incorporate in proper proportions. Yes, even saturated fats, like coconut oil and palm oil. One table spoon of fat, saturated or unsaturated, contains about 120 calories. The reason you need to reduce your saturated fats is because they don’t provide the Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids your body needs.
However, eating too many good fats can also be bad for you. One of the most notorious dieting mistakes most people make is eating too many fats which contain two times the number of calories per gram of fat.
Eating too much nuts
Just as you need to pay attention to the type of fats you eat, you need to think about how much fats you’re eating. Eating too much of anything provides an excess of calories.
Eating too many nuts and seeds can lead to more than just weight gain. Nuts are ridiculously addictive, try having just 10 almonds and walking away. I don’t know about you, but that takes some serious willpower. Another side effect of eating too many nuts is feeling gassy or bloated, because they’re so high in fiber. That’s not sexy.
Overcoming food addiction
Eating too much food, especially sugar and saturated fats, is bad for your health and may lead to food addiction. Considering the behavioral similarities between drug addiction and food addiction this is a very real concern. Here are a few ways you can prevent and/or break your addiction to food.
- Remove all processed foods from your kitchen. Make it harder for yourself to eat that candy bar by simply not having it around.
- Recognize and accept the emotions you’re experiencing. It’s okay to be upset, angry or sad. You don’t have to eradicate those emotions with food. Stop, acknowledge the emotion and think of an appropriate outlet.
- Season your food with herbs, spices and lemon juice to help satisfy those taste buds.
- Learn to cook. The best way of controlling the amount of fat, sugar and salt you eat is to cook the food yourself, using basic ingredients. This might seem time consuming, but there are simple ways which you can prepare quick meals, that are also healthy.
- Keep in mind that although nuts are healthy fats, they are high in calories. Proceed with caution.
- Gradually reduce the amount of sugar and sweeteners in your tea and coffee, aiming to eventually have none at all. Avoid soft drinks and fruit juices all together.
- Read the label. The ingredients listed will always put the component most used in the product first, then the second most used second and so on. For example, if the first ingredient listed on your bottle of ketchup is sugar, that ketchup consists more of sugar than any of the other ingredient following it.
- Exercise a little bit every day. The endorphins from exercise are a great replacement for the euphoria of food.
- Cut out processed foods and switch to whole foods instead. Fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats, eggs, beans and legumes.
- Choose non-fat or low-fat milk and milk products, just make sure they didn’t throw in a lot of added sugar to make it taste better.
Ask yourself, am I eating to live or living to eat? Being addicted to food, needing it to feel happy, or eating compulsively and never feeling satisfied is a real concern and should be addressed. Believe me when I say you are not alone. In America there is an abundance of cheap foods, readily available. The temptation to eat is constant and food is in your face wherever you go these days.
Try to focus on nutrient dense food and reduce your intake of foods and beverages that are high in solid fats, added sugars, and sodium. You can control your health by making better choices. You can break your food addiction by changing your behavior-reward patterns.
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Philip J. Hoffman
Certified Sports Nutrition
Certified Fitness Trainer
Expert Fat Loss Coach
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