If you’ve spent time reading my bio and following my blogs, then you know that I lost most of my excess weight in my teens. For most of my life I have stayed within five to seven pounds of my goal weight. Even if you include two pregnancies and the additional year, after each spent losing post-partum weight, you would still have 30 plus years of healthy weight and healthy eating (and exercise) versus 20 years of weight and food issues. But when I experience stress, anxiety, depression, or other negative emotional upheavals, I still crave the very childhood treats that helped fuel my obesity – PopTarts, Ding Dongs, Devil Dogs, chocolate Danish, milk chocolate – you get the theme here. How is it possible, that when emotions flux, I still remember and crave these childhood foods? I had a 15 year love affair with these physically and emotionally addictive foods, that’s how.
Back in 1982, Scientific American published a study suggesting that cocaine was no more addictive than potato chips. The study was later bashed for minimizing the true effects of the very addictive drug known as cocaine. In 2010, a story in the New York Daily News suggested that fatty foods may be as addictive as heroin and cocaine. The author of a Time article referencing the Daily News column, suggested that the original study in Scientific American may have had the information correct. Cocaine and salty, fatty foods like potato chips may both be very, very addictive. And some researchers in 2010 started to assert that the foods, because of their pervasive prevalence in daily life, may actually lend themselves to keeping users even more hooked long term, than cocaine which is costly and less available to the masses. A few months later, a mouse study confirmed the addictive nature of food but also showed an alarming behavior habit. Mice that were allowed unrestricted exposure to large quantities of high sugar, high fat foods experienced a change in their brain circuitry. They seemed to want (and need) more and more of these foods, developing a tolerance that is often observed in serious addictions. In fact, the picture was very similar to the behavior of humans addicted to cocaine and heroin.
In the October 20,2012 edition of Newsweek magazine, science further confirmed what many of us, struggling with food issues and weight have always known. We humans, most of us, are “hard-wired to want the very foods that are the worst for our waistlines and health,” sugary, salty, fatty, high calorie processed foods. We can’t have just one and the more we eat, the more we want. Then add the reasons why we turn to these foods, namely overwhelming emotions. The potent combination of experiencing a mood swing and assuaging it with these addictive foods is the perfect storm for what I call super addiction. You eat and the emotions are immediately soothed by the brain chemistry impact of these foods, whose very nature is to make you want more of them. That means that even mild mood swings demand that you feed them. Who doesn’t have lots of daily mild mood swings? And the drug-like foods take care of you, again and again, as you balloon with excess pounds. And you keep buying the foods which are readily available, on every block across the US. Of course, there are other contributing factors to obesity, and not everyone who is overweight or obese suffers from the vise-like grip of these foods. But many overweight or obese individuals use food for comfort. And that food can become lover and foe, as it calms you down, until you look in the mirror with horror at your growing size….and feel powerless.
If there is one thing experts know, it is that to battle obesity and the powerful pull of these foods, a person needs to feel full in other ways. Support and meaningful relationships, exercise, healthier choices rich in nutrients and fiber, hobbies, professional work that is satisfying and fulfilling can all help to fill you up in lieu of a food fix. Creating a home and away-from-home environment that minimizes temptation can help as well. Science continues to look at the addictive nature of certain foods and its impact on susceptible individuals, trying to find effective treatment options. Maybe the take-away message should be preventing the next generation from exposures to these foods by limiting consumption. That means having them as occasional treats, not daily rewards. That also means requiring the food industry to stop making so many of them.
Amy Hendel is a health professional, journalist and host of Food Rescue, Simple Smoothies and What’s for Lunch? Author of Fat Families, Thin Families and The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, she tweets health headlines daily @HealthGal1103. Catch her guest appearances on Marie! on Hallmark and other local and national news and talk shows.