Food Addiction?

There is a concept of “food addiction” that has hit the weight loss world.  I would like to explain this phenomenon and bring up some of the finer points that really don’t get talked about our understood very well.

Have you ever wondered why people don’t get “addicted” to broccoli?  Well, maybe not.  We get “addicted” to pizza, cakes, ice cream.  We eat them when we aren’t hungry, we may get in our car in the middle of the night and get one of the foods and eat it because we “crave” it.  All the signs of addiction, yes.  But here are two questions to contemplate:

1.  Are these things actually “food” that we are craving?

2.  What are we actually “addicted” to?

There is some fascinating research done by the food industry on what attracts people to eat certain foods.  When a food is especially attractive to the human palate, it is called “hyper-palatable”.  

When Coca Cola found what they called a “bliss point” for the amount of sugar in their formula, they were involved in food engineering.  Food engineers basically alter the flavors, mostly salt, sugar and oils, as well as texture to create a product that fit what is most attractive to the consumers.  Millions and perhaps billions of dollars is spent in the food industry to trick your palate to eat specific “foods”.  The New York Times did a great article on this that you should read, called the Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.  I suggest everyone read this article to find out what the food industry is doing to help you get addicted to these foods.

But are these things actually food?  I suppose it is a fine point, but to me it seems important.  It’s not really the corn in the corn chips that is getting us addicted, it’s the sugar, oil and salt that is doing it.  These are essentially food additives and aren’t actually food at all.  Would you crave a corn chip without salt or oil?  I doubt it.  Would you overeat ears of corn in the middle of the night?  Especially if you didn’t put butter and salt on it?  I doubt that, too.  So what is going on?  

There is more research being done showing that when foods are hyper-palatable, rats and humans will eat in excess of what they require.  Again, hyper-palatable foods usually have high additions of sugar, fats and salt, in a balance that is unnaturally high, but not overwhelming to the taste buds.  In his book The End of Overeating, Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, Dr. David Kessler explains the science behind what most of us know: “When offered a varied selection and large portions of high-sugar, high-fat, high-salt foods, many of us will eat them in excessive amounts.” (pg 17)  In other words, these are the foods we binge on.

Why is this important?  And why is it important to me that I claim these are not really foods?  Again, would you binge on apples?  Oh, you may go crazy and eat three whole apples, but then you will stop.  You will have eaten about 240 calories and be full.  How many Doritos do you have to eat to add up to 240 calories?  Not many, and it is very easy to eat two or three times that amount of chips, because of the lack of fiber in them.  There is no Dorito tree or plant, these are not a food found in nature.  If  you try to tell me the corn in them is a true food, that is true, until you dry it, pulverize it, color it, add more additives, then add the sugar, salt and fry them in some cheap oil…that isn’t even close to corn.

So the obvious statement I’m making is: we aren’t addicted to “food”, we are addicted to chemicals and additives.  Now here is a thought:  what if instead of avoiding what we think of as “foods”, such as pizza, sodas, chips and sweets; we avoid the chemical additives?  What if we just avoid added sugar, oil and salt?

I’m sure your first response is: “I’d rather die!“, I totally understand that.  In the book mentioned above by Dr Kessler, he explains how the brain reacts when we eat these questionable foods, especially the amygdala.  We also know the these chemicals (sugar, salt and oil) release dopamine in our bodies and make us feel “good”, just as some drugs will do.  I think we have the term correct when we say “addiction”, but I think a more accurate term would be “chemical addiction”.  However, people don’t really look at pizza and say “it’s the chemicals in this that I am addicted to”, I have a chemical addiction.  “Food addiction” is a prettier term.  

I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad that they have a chemical addiction; what I am trying to get us to think about is what we should be looking at in the questionable foods and call them what they are…chemical drugs, meant to stimulate the brain to cause us to be potentially addicted to those drugs.

“But how are salt, fat and sugar drugs?  Aren’t they important for us to consume?”  

Celery has a lot of natural sodium in it, and dates have a lot of natural sugar, and avocados have plenty of natural fats.  Why would you have to add oils to foods to fry them, when you can eat them deliciously without any additions?  Or more relevant, if you are a sugar, salt or oil addict, you will overeat on anything that has these added to it.

Let me say, if you are thin and healthy and have no issues, do exactly what you have been doing and disregard this article.  However, if you “crave” certain foods, or overeat on questionable foods, or have to add lots of salt to all your foods…you may want to think about what that is doing to your health.  You may want to consider you are addicted to the additives in these foods.  And there is only one response to drug addicts…it’s not to cut back or to wean themselves off them…it’s to go cold turkey and avoid them at all costs.

Is this extreme?   How is your health?  If you have chronic health issues, are on any medications, or have much weight to lose, I will suggest you consider what is more extreme…cutting out food additives or having bypass surgery, where they cut open your chest.  Or consider how extreme having your toes amputated can be, or any other surgery or fatality that can come as a result of what you are currently doing.

“But I eat out all the time, how can I avoid what they add to the foods in the restaurants?”

You probably suspect what my answer to that is…cook at home, don’t eat out if you can possibly avoid it.  If you can’t avoid it, look for things that are as close to food as possible, then ask them to not add anything to it.  Salad with no dressing, baked potato or rice with no toppings; do the best you can, as infrequently as possible.

Consider the sugar, oil and salt are appetite stimulants, and overeating often takes place when these are added to foods.  So even though honey, butter and Himalayan sea salt are healthy, honest foods;  if these cause you to consume more than you would without them, you may want to consider whether these things are helping you or hurting you.  How far you choose to go with this depends on what you are facing with your health.  

Here is my strong advice: avoid anything that is processed in any way, and eat what comes from nature.  All the chopping, blending and cooking should be done only in your kitchen, with only the natural ingredients and spices providing the flavors.  You won’t really know how good steamed zucchini tastes until you quit eating pizza and chips.  

If you think you can’t live without those foods that you are used to, find those healthy alternatives and make them.  I have seen cauliflower pizza crust, no added oil chips, and no sugar deserts.  It takes a lot more work to make these things at home, but consider how important your health is to you, and you may find it is will worth it.

Better yet, consider the delicious flavors that are available to us through natural foods:  chopped salads with chopped apples and balsamic vinaigrette; fresh berries in the summer; steamed greens and sweet potatoes; whole grains such as rice and whole oats; steamed vegetables; raw vegetables with dips;  vegetable soups; lentils, beans and legumes in so many dishes; even Injera bread from teff.  Dairy and meat options are natural additions, should you want to include them.  These are healthy foods, but higher in fat (as are nuts and seeds and avocados) and may not be beneficial to some people.

If you need help eliminating some of these foods from your diet, so you can improve your health and weight, feel free to contact me for a free initial consultation.  You can contact me on my contact page, email me or even give me a call.

To your health!

Patti Bealer