Many of us live a lifestyle that sets us up for cravings. Our alarm rings and we instantly feel stressed. We run out the door, skipping breakfast, commuting, then spending hours sitting at the computer. Does this sound familiar?
This routine sets off our stress hormone, cortisol, and makes us reach for quick fixes like convenient ready-made meals, vending machines, and drive-thrus. Oftentimes, these foods have been manufactured and designed to keep us coming back for more, so the cycle continues.
It’s not like you don’t know the food is bad for you, it’s just that you can’t stop eating it. Learning how to break a food addiction is more than just breaking a bad habit, it’s learning how to involve your body and brain and have them work in healthy harmony.
What is food addiction
Food addiction is the idea that we can be addicted to certain foods or ingredients. The most common addictive foods are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, fat, salt, and calories. So you can imagine how intense a craving can get when all of these factors are in play.
Many people are quick to assume that those who struggle with their weight lack willpower, but this is rarely true. In reality, food addiction is complex and is very similar to being addicted to drugs or alcohol. Addiction means the body is chemically dependent on substances.
Those who have a problem with addiction have experienced a dopamine overload, leading to feelings of euphoria and bliss. These “high” feelings are encoded in the brain and a craving behavior can motivate us to reach this level again.
Food addiction symptoms
Just like with any addiction, food addiction involves a lack of control around the substance and the need to have it in order to feel “normal.” Learning how to break a food addiction can depend on your experience and the habits that influenced your addiction in the first place.
If you’re wondering if you may be addicted to food, here are some common symptoms adapted from the Yale Food Addiction Scale:
- If you’re eating to the point of feeling physically ill
- If eating causes significant psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, or self-loathing
- If you find yourself eating certain foods repeatedly throughout the day
- If you experience withdrawal symptoms when a food is not eaten for a period of time (anxiety, agitation, headaches)
- If you have problems functioning in your daily routine (social activities, work schedule, health difficulties)
Most addictive foods
The consumption of highly palatable foods causes the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine (the reward neurotransmitter) and serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter). The release of dopamine and serotonin activate our brain’s reward system and feel-good chemicals. This gives highly palatable foods the power to establish hard-wired pathways for cravings, hijacking the reward system (similar to drugs like cocaine and heroin).
A highly palatable food has a high concentration of sugar, salt, fat, or a combination of the three. As humans, we have an inborn preference for sweet, fatty, and salty foods. This is because sugar (carbs), fat and salt are — in their very basic forms — essential nutrients that help our bodies survive. In the modern day, food manufacturers exploit this taste preference by making products extra sweet, salty, and/or fatty so your brain lights up and keeps you coming back for more. You might have heard as this tactic referred to as the “bliss point” — that perfect combination of sugar, fat and salt that entices you to buy for of those chips, fried foods and sweets.
In a comprehensive study that examined insufficient-calorie diets in relation to cravings, the foods that were most often craved were those high in calories from fat or simple carbohydrates, or a combination of the two. Simply put: The refining of foods, particularly when paired with calorie restriction, makes them addictive.
How to break a food addiction
When there is easy access to these types of food, particularly in combination with daily stresses, it causes our natural biological systems to go awry. Repeated exposure to large amounts of these highly palatable foods triggers addiction-like responses that drive compulsive eating.
All that said, breaking a food addiction is no easy feat. Addictions are multifactorial and need a multifactorial solution. To help you get an understanding, we’ve shared some lifestyle tips that could assist you in breaking the cycle. Bear in mind that these are general and should never replace the recommendations from your physician or therapist.
“Food is love, food is comfort, food is reward, food is a reliable friend. And, sometimes, food becomes your only friend in moments of pain and loneliness.”
– Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN
Emotional eating often begins early in life when painful feelings are temporarily relieved by eating. The process of eating can be distracting from stress, anxiety, and depression. The avoidance of emotions, paired with the physiological aspect of eating those highly palatable foods can lead to a dependency of these foods during tough times.
A helpful first step to reducing emotional eating is to write down a list of the pros and cons of removing this food from your diet. For instance, “I know that eating this doughnut will help relieve my boredom now, but soon after I will have a stomach ache and feel bad about myself. Is it worth it?”
Sometimes we crave food when we have an unrelated need. Think ice cream when feeling sad, or chips when feeling bored. Here are some useful emotional eating alternative behaviors:
- When you crave nurture: Rest and relax, listen to music, breathe deeply, take yoga, take a bath
- When you have a lot of feelings: Write them in a journal, call a friend, punch a pillow, cry, breathe deeply
- When you need a different distraction: Read an absorbing book, watch a movie, talk on the phone, clean the house, take a nap, put on music and dance or exercise
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in your brain that regulate things like mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin is known as the happy neurotransmitter. If serotonin levels are not ideal thanks to genetics or lifestyle habits, carb cravings increase. This is because carbohydrate-rich foods boost serotonin. The problem is that the serotonin increase is short-lived, leading to further cravings. Dopamine, which is related to behavior, habit and survival, gets flooded in the brain when addictive foods are eaten, making it hard to resist.
Resistance to the hunger hormones (ghrelin, insulin, and leptin) have been related to food cravings. Ghrelin (appetite increaser) enhances the hedonic effects of food. When insulin signals function properly in the brain, it decreases the drive to eat and increases the metabolic rate. Leptin (appetite suppressor), which is secreted in proportion to fat stored in the body, will inhibit the rewarding aspects of food. Resistance to any or all of these hormones can lead to overeating and addictive behaviors.
Overcoming food addiction
Food cravings and addiction involve emotional and mental health, neurotransmitters, and hormones. Write down your motivation for wanting to break free of the food addiction (being there for your kids, preventing disease, etc.), then identify associations you have with the food.
Creating new associations will help break the habit. For instance, maybe you get a “high” eating ice cream while sitting on your favorite park bench and now realize that you do it on a regular basis. Swap the ice cream for some fresh fruit and nuts and you can still enjoy the park and its relaxing surroundings.
The more deprived the body is of vitamins and minerals, the more cravings will occur. A processed food such as white bread will not give a long-term feeling of satisfaction that fresh fruits and vegetables do, particularly when paired with protein or healthy fat. Fresh foods help lower the levels of ghrelin in the stomach, while junk food increases this hormone, leading to more cravings and less satisfaction.
Meditation is a central focus of successful addiction recovery. When people engage in regular meditation, they slowly and steadily release more dopamine. Some additional ways to manage stress and increase resilience include:
- Building a strong social network
- Practicing sleep hygiene
- Working on delayed gratification
The effort-driven rewards system ingrained in our brains is designed to derive deep satisfaction and pleasure when something requires physical effort and/or intricate thought process to produce something tangible. Guess that’s why we enjoy cooking!
Exercise improves our hormone regulation and enhances the body’s ability to respond to stressors. Craving your addictive food? According to Dr. Pam Peeke in her book The Hunger Fix, it’s been shown that even a five-minute walk or quick workout reduces the intensity of our withdrawal symptoms. In addition to decreasing the risk of anxiety and depression, exercise regenerates dopamine receptors, similar to those linked with food addiction in the brain. To see the benefits, simply sneak more physical activities into your daily routine like using the stairs instead of the elevator, cooking or cleaning, and walking to work.
Rest assured that the 8fit team is always here to help you break the cycle. Following our meal and fitness plan can help bring you out of that rut by giving you a meaningful goal to concentrate on. You’ll work towards small attainable targets and get a support system to keep you focused, nurture you, and be there for you when you need it the most.