Do you find that you obsess about certain foods, regularly overeat sometimes to the point of feeling sick, constantly yo-yo diet, believe that food negatively impacts your relationships, work or participation in social situations? If so, these are just a few of the signs that you may have a food addiction. Although everyone experiences cravings (estimated at 100% of women and 70% of men in a given year), food addiction that mirrors other types of addictions can be very detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. Although emotional eating plays a role in obsessive eating patterns, a topic for another post, there appears to be a biological reason for food cravings that can be halted with some key dietary changes that don’t involve willpower and calorie restriction, but rather a new understanding and approach to food.
Cravings to a specific food almost always fall into 3 categories, sweet, salty or fatty. Unfortunately, the very foods we crave are usually the cause of the problem in the first place. Researchers have discovered that the same parts of the brain involved in drug addiction (hippocampus, insula and caudate) are activated with food cravings. Additionally sugar, likely the most addictive substance on the planet, triggers the production of the brain’s natural opioids causing the body to have an addiction to its own opioid production and activating the desire for more sugar. One particularly noteworthy study found that cocaine addicted mice actually chose sugar water over cocaine when available. This infers that sugar could potentially be more addictive than a drug addiction. In order to overcome food addiction, it’s important to understand the key players in the body and how the foods we eat impact their function.
Leptin is the hormone produced by fat cells. It is responsible for letting us know when we’re hungry, we’ve eaten enough, our bodies need to burn more fat, and/or reduce fat storage. Each of us has a particular threshold of leptin that the body needs for normal functioning. However, the development of leptin resistance, indicating that the body does not recognize that it is “full”, can trigger overeating and contribute to obesity. Low leptin levels and resistance, like insulin resistance, generally occur from the overconsumption of sugar and grains. The leptin hormone gets overworked storing the excess sugar as fat and eventually the body doesn’t respond to it properly. This can also occur in yo-yo dieters as a result of the “starvation” mode. Less leptin gets produced as fat cells lose fat, triggering hunger even more strongly, but disrupting the brain’s ability to interpret leptin’s signals correctly when eating resumes.
Insulin is the hormone in charge of regulating blood sugar. When blood sugar surges, which is often the case following a meal high in carbohydrates, insulin is released to lower the blood glucose level. This often signals hunger within just a few hours after the previous meal, increasing cravings for sugar related foods. Additionally, when excess carbohydrates are not needed for energy they are then stored as fat. Instead of using fat for energy, you end up using only carbohydrates and the fat stays in the body. This creates a viscous cycle of sugar cravings and weight gain.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in charge of the body’s reward and pleasure centers. Studies have connected high dopamine levels to addictive behavior. In these cases the reward signals for the highly desired foods overpower the signals of satiation. One study showed that extracts from wheat and potatoes contain pharmacologically active benzodiazepines, the main chemical in the drugs Xanax and Valium. These drugs tend to cause dopamine spikes, leading to addiction. This could infer that a similar mechanism takes place with high consumption of these food groups.
In general food addictions can be more difficult to stop than other addictions primarily because we have to eat food to survive. However, by taking the following actions, you can greatly improve your ability to overcome food cravings.
- Cut down or eliminate grains, sugars, potatoes and processed foods. Be particularly weary of the food industry’s objectives to sell food, avoiding anything high in sugar, salt and fat in processed form. Replace simple carbohydrates with high quality, whole food sources of vegetable carbohydrates, protein and fat.
- Avoid MSG and other addictive food chemicals added to packaged foods and some restaurant meals (such as Chinese food).
- Exercise regularly to raise insulin levels and decrease cravings.
- Consult a therapist or coach to identify and overcome emotional triggers.
 Mercola, J. (2011, February 25). Can't beat food cravings? four steps to help you kick your addictions. Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/02/25/cant-beat-food-cravings-four-steps-to-help-you-kick-your-addictions.aspx
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://consciouslifenews.com/dr-mercola-deconstructs-extraordinary-science-addictive-junk-food/1152349/
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-facts-on-leptin-faq?page=2
 (2012, April 19) Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2012/04/well-known-mechanism-underlies-benzodiazepines-addictive-properties
 Pubmed.gov "Occurrence of pharmacologically active benzodiazepines in trace amounts in wheat and potato," Wildmann, J. et. al. Biochemical pharmocology, October 1988: 37(19):3549-59. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3178869
Published On: April 02, 2013