Is My Favorite Food Addictive?

Food Addiction

Date

Do you have difficulty putting down the packaging once you nibble that first tortilla chip, cookie, or other favorite snack?  Well, you’re not alone. Processed foods are engineered to increase appetite and make you eat more.  Most of us are influenced by addictive tendencies when it comes to sweet, salty, or fatty foods.

Can You Really Be Addicted To Food?

Our favorite processed foods create a biological dependency similar to other addictive substances like nicotine or cocaine. The biochemical process is extremely complex, going beyond the much-discussed dopamine reward system. Other neurotransmitters, like feel-good serotonin, drive the addiction response (2).

Over time, exposure to addictive foods is associated with “brain reward dysfunction” (12), contributing to increased appetite and weight gain. The food addiction response operates under similar neurological mechanisms as fear, stress, and anxiety (19). These emotional and biochemical reactions are closely intertwined, making treatment approaches a complicated endeavor.

Which Foods Are Most Addictive? (16)

In general, the more processed the food and the higher the sugar content, the more likely for that food to have addictive properties. The powerful combination of sugar, fats, salt, and caffeine can increase the addictive effects.

  • Sugary foods & drinks, including chocolate
  • Ultra processed foods like chips
  • Fast foods like pizza
  • Fatty foods, with added sugar or salt
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Alcoholic beverages

Which Foods Are Least Addictive?

  • Vegetables
  • Protein-rich foods
  • Fats without added sugar or salt

Blame It On Sugar

Sugar is one of the most addictive substances. As the sugar content is increased in chocolate, a pleasurable delight that activates both the pain-lowering and pleasure-reward centers of the brain, the addictive properties also increase (7).

To learn what qualifies as a sugar, with now nearly 300 sneaky names being used, take a look at the following blog post:

Sweet Sugar Science

More Sugar Pitfalls (19):

  • Sugar increases your desire to eat.
  • Sugar consumption is linked to emotional disorders like anxiety and depression.
  • Sugar contributes to brain fog and and an inability to concentrate.

To better understand how sugar affects your brain, see an excellent TED-ed video clip by Dr. Nicole Avena, also listed below (3).

Restriction or Inclusion Therapy?

Views about the origination and legitimacy of food addiction impact therapeutic protocols. Therapists and nutritionists who specialize in binge eating disorders often propose inclusion therapies that don’t restrict addictive foods. After all, food is different than drugs in that we all need to eat. It’s also stemming from the belief that the eating disorder is mostly psychological in origin.

Newer approaches that integrate knowledge about biochemical influences may suggest short-term food restriction. Treating food addiction like drug addiction, by addressing the physical causes, may help those with binge eating to recover more quickly when also addressing the psychological components.

If you suspect you have any type of eating disorder, contact a therapist or nutritionist who specializes in disordered eating.

Proposed Nutritional Approaches

  • In the short term, a whole foods diet that is higher in fat and lower in carbohydrates may help to improve brain-reward dysfunction (6).
  • Implementing Timed Interval Eating may help to re-set true hunger cues by lowering insulin levels, allowing digestive rest, and encouraging improved gut health.

My Story

I’m a sugar addict, and I’ve struggled with bouts of extreme appetite and binge eating. In my attempts to better understand my own condition, I’ve tried a few different approaches to help determine if it’s psychological or biochemical in origin.

What I’ve Learned in My Personal Journey:

  • Elevated insulin directly affects appetite and creates further hormone imbalances
  • When restricting all processed sugars except whole fruit, my appetite disappears like a drug addict no longer being controlled by a substance
  • Menstrual cycle influences are tied to the condition, but are not the root cause condition
  • Timed Interval Eating, combined with mindful and intuitive eating, enables me to eat sugar in moderation because my appetite will “time out” at a set interval (ex: 6:00 pm).
  • For me personally, the root cause of binge eating was not psychological. Instead, it was biochemical, and sugar consumption followed by binge eating caused emotional distress.

What Do You Think?

Tell me what you think about food addiction. Are you addicted to any foods?

Author: Laura Farnsworth, MS, CNS, CN, Integrative & Functional Nutritionist at Craving4Health.com

References:

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  • Avena, N. (2014). How sugar affects the brain. TED-Ed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEXBxijQREo          (EMBEDED)
  • Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
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