“I’ll have just one more bite…” Yes, food addiction is a real psychological condition, and can lead to a host of health problems down the line if not adequately treated. Today, we’re going to suss out the difference between a craving and full-blown food addiction, as well as some strategies to regain control.
We’ve all felt it. You’re at home, bored, and looking for something to boost your spirits. A craving kicks in, and you realize you could really go for that new Oreo-flavored ice cream container that’s just sitting in your freezer, waiting for you. You know you’ve already had more than your fair share of calories today, and you’re behind on your exercise for the week, but imagining the waves of pleasure rolling through you as you bite into that creamy, sugary deliciousness is just too much to resist. You hop up from the couch, run to the kitchen, and before you know it or fully realize what you’ve done, half the container is already in your stomach.
Sound familiar? If so, don’t be too hard on yourself. Food addiction is a real problem, and while you’ll need to take responsibility for learning to cope with the condition, it’s not entirely your fault. Today’s highly manufactured foods have essentially been designed to hijack your brain’s reward system to the point where intense cravings — and yes, even addiction — can be a predictable result. The reason why is simple: for evolutionary reasons, our brains are designed to release a pleasure chemical called dopamine when we eat. We evolved this reaction so that we’d be internally motivated and incentivized to find food and stay healthy.
The problem is, natural and whole foods simply can’t compete with today’s mass produced pleasure foods in terms of this dopamine release. Eating an apple might make you feel good, but having a few donuts can border on ecstacy. By desensitizing your reward centers, processed food companies have intentionally or otherwise begun to manifest food addiction in consumers. We become hooked on the feeling of pleasure that comes with eating certain foods, and it becomes all too easy to lose the ability to say no.
Obviously, this is a dangerously unhealthy way to live. Food addiction, if left unchecked, can result in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and all manner of problems that can take years to mitigate or undo. Compounding this problem is the distinction between simply craving something and actually being addicted to it. If you’ve found that you’ve made a conscious and serious decision to diet or avoid certain types of food, but end up binging on them anyway, the chances are that you’ve progressed beyond craving into actual addiction.
Today, there’s more help for this condition than ever before. Talking to your primary doctor about a possible food addiction is a start, while specialized therapists and psychologists can give you an actionable plan to “reset” your brain’s reward system when it comes to food and start re-establishing a healthy relationship with the things that you eat. Often, one of the most difficult steps is to look inward and realize that you do in fact have a problem, and that your own willpower and discipline are simply not enough to make substantive changes anymore.
The good news is that there is hope for food-addicted eaters — all it takes is the courage to recognize the symptoms and reach out for help.