Food cravings can be a lot more extreme than the occasional raid on the fridge or a biscuit binge and there is evidence that food addiction can be as much of an addiction as alcohol, gambling or drugs.
Scientific research has identified that the reward and pleasure centres in the brain react for some people for food, in the same way as other people react to heroin or cocaine addiction. The dopamine levels are increased giving intense pleasure and like with drugs, we quickly build up a tolerance and need ever more food to get the same high.
What Sort of Food is Addictive?
Food addiction – also known as compulsive eating, centre on foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt.
These highly palatable foods appear to trigger dopamine levels in the brain in a way that natural foodstuffs do not. It is unlikely that anyone compulsively eats apples or fruit and the very nature of these addictive foodstuffs makes compulsively eating them, even more dangerous for physical health.
Addiction is not good for your mental health either. Even a harmless addiction can have unwanted consequences and interfere with your normal life.
Just Too Much Food!
Food addiction is a growing problem and can be blamed in part upon the sheer amount on food that is on offer.
Take a walk round the average supermarket and what do you see? Shelves of high calorie, high fat processed food most of which can be prepared more or less instantly.
There is so much choice and so much tempting advertising and food packaging.
You no longer have to plan meals in advance or allow for time constraints, you can find food gratification more or less instantly. If your budget will not stretch to one type of meal, you can always find a cut-price equivalent of the same thing.
Chocolate bars, crisps and snacks are available everywhere and many people who suffer from food addiction will binge on these high fat high calorie snacks.
The fast food industry must take a huge share of the blame too.
In many towns and shopping centres, we are constantly bombarded with food smells and all types of food for sale – from everything from cupcakes to kebabs.
All this processed food is full of fats, sugars and salts and it tastes great and is comforting. Once we get a taste for these high fat, hyper palatable foods, it is easy for this to develop into comfort eating.
We become hooked on the feel good factor it causes. With the constant pressure to eat more food from all sides, it is hardly surprising that many people are falling into food addiction and it is a growing problem.
The Drive To Reduce Saturated Fats In Our Food
In the UK a new government initiative, the Public Health Responsibility deal is aimed at making food manufacturers and takeaway business reduce the levels of saturated fats contained in the food.
The government are worried about the health implications of an obese population. Food addiction is never mentioned in government figures but it seems highly likely that if food was not as addictive, people would not be obese in the same high numbers as we see on the average high street.
According to the government report;
Reducing saturated fat intakes from 12.7% to within the recommended maximum level of 11% of food energy would prevent approximately 2,600 premature deaths each year
The deal is not compulsory but some major food companies have signed up, including Morrison’s, Nestles and Tesco.
Nestlé’s agreement to cut the fat content of Kit Kat bars by using different oil in manufacture will reduce the saturated fat content from 7.2g to 6.4g in each bar. The move will cut out 3,800 tonnes of saturated fat from more than a billion bars every year.
Although this may not remove food addiction, at least the government are beginning to recognise there is something wrong with our food and our eating habits.
So Why Don’t People Simply Avoid Processed Food?
It appears that most of us are addicted to eating unhealthy food in some way. It is hard to avoid and everyone does it. No one wants to be obese and if it really was as easy to keep to a healthy diet then more people would do it.
The high figures of obesity seen in the western world suggest that many people have some level of food addiction.
Even without having a food addiction, most of us have a weakness for some unhealthy food of one type or another. Most of us have a little guilty secret that we cannot leave alone. Whether it is the local Chinese Takeaway or a certain type of biscuit or cake. It is when it gets out of control and goes beyond normal enjoyment of food it becomes a mental health issue.
There are many support groups around food addiction. One of these groups is Overeaters Anonymous (OA), which is run along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous with the same 12 steps programme.
The OA offers support and a programme of recovery from compulsive eating and operates worldwide. The organisation is free to join and does not provide dietary advice or a healthy eating plan. According to the organisation’s manifesto, OA addresses physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
Where OA differs from the AA or Gamblers anonymous is that this problem is so much harder to manage and deal with.
As on counsellor put it;
when you are addicted to drugs you put the tiger in the cage to recover; when you are addicted to food you put the tiger in the cage, but take it out three times a day for a walk.
You have to eat in order to live so temptation is hard to avoid.
Are You Addicted to Food?
There are a series of questions you can ask yourself to find out whether or not you are addicted to food.
Here are just some of the questions taken from another support group Food Addicts Anonymous, based in the USA.
- Have you ever wanted to stop eating and found you just couldn’t?
- Do you think about food or your weight constantly?
- Do you eat differently in private than you do in front of other people?
- Do you eat large quantities of food at one time (binge eat)?
- Do you eat in secret?
- Have you ever hidden food to make sure you have “enough”?
- Do you eat to escape from your feelings?
According to the organisation, answering yes to any of these questions signifies you may have a problem and need help.
Eat to Live – Live to Eat
Most of us have a complicated relationship with food bound up with our childhood and upbringing, our mental state and many other factors.
It is one of life’s pleasures to sit down and enjoy a meal – especially in company with friends or family. Ideally, we should follow a healthy balanced diet, eat only when we are hungry and meal times should be times of enjoyment and relaxation.
We’ve all seen the TV images of happy groups of people enjoying fine dining and company laughing and having fun together. We’re all told that the Italian way of life is so much better for our health and happiness , that the French do food better than anyone else and that Jamie Oliver always has his mates round.
The problem is that how many of us do this on a regular basis? How many of us have groups of family and friends to eat with every meal time?
Cooking for a family is hard work if you have a full time job and it can be hard to make dinners to please all the family especially if you are pressed for time. Added to that, a third of the UK population lives alone and eating alone can lead to bad habits and a lack of self control. Cooking for yourself just does not seem worth the bother and many people turn to unhealthy easy to prepare meals.
Knowing this, the food industry has come up with a vast range of convenience products that give you all the pleasure and taste of food without the hassle of preparing it yourself. This makes it easy to eat the food that you want to eat whenever you want. Instantly.
Food addiction or compulsive eating is as much of a problem as the more well known eating disorders anorexia and bulimia, but just does not get the attention in the media;
Despite this lack of public profile, food addiction is more widespread and more likely to affect more people than the more well-known eating disorders.
Compulsive Eating – An Addiction or Eating Disorder
Some scientists are sceptical about the roots of food addiction and believe that although it is a real condition, the causes are physcological rather than a physical dependence.
One psychiatric study has come up with some interesting research that has suggested that food addiction does not account for the obesity epidemic. In addition, there is a high incidence of food addiction in under weight and normal weight individuals.
Most Addictive Foods
The Food Addiction Institute has carried out extensive research on all factors relating to food addiction.
One clinical investigation worked with 4,000 food addicts over twenty years and found that bingeing clients reported “having to eat” and “bingeing on” the same foods scientists find most “addictive”:
These are sugars, fats, flours, wheat products, salts, artificial sweeteners, caffeine and sheer volume of food.
Whether food addiction is a physical dependency like smoking, drugs or alcohol or whether it is a behavioural addiction like gambling does not really make much difference if you suffer from this condition.
An addiction is an addiction and the important issue is to get some professional help if necessary to break it and take the first steps to recovery. Food addiction is a serious eating disorder but help is out there and there can be light at the end of the tunnel.
- Overeaters Anonymous – international organisation.
- Food Addicts Anonymous – USA based group.
- BEAT – beating eating disorders – UK based charity.
- Binge Eating Disorder Association. USA organisation.