For you, going back for seconds at dinnertime is never enough. Not a snack session goes by that doesn’t involve entire bags or boxes of food “disappearing.” Day and night, it seems, all you can think about is food. The question claws at the back of your mind as you reach into the refrigerator, again: could you have a food addiction?
Food addiction is more common than you think. Several studies have only begun to investigate the prevalence of this condition in the United States, though it’s impossible to estimate the percentage of Americans that might be addicted to food. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has yet to classify food addiction as a mental health problem, making it difficult to diagnose and treat.
Therefore, it’s important that you’re able to recognize if you or someone you know might have a food addiction. Some foods are more addicting than others, but it’s about more than just willpower or cutting them out of your diet. Tackling a food addiction takes some major adjustments to your lifestyle. But it’s not impossible.
Let’s take a closer look at what an addiction to food looks like, the foods you’re most likely to become addicted to, and how to kick your addiction once and for all.
What is food addiction?
Like an addiction to alcohol or drugs, a food addiction occurs when someone becomes emotionally and physically dependent on food. Usually, they eat large quantities of food without being able to control their behavior. Often, someone with an addiction to food experiences a psychological response to eating that makes them crave and consume food even when their bodies don’t want it.
Wondering if you might have a food addiction? The most common symptoms of this condition are as follows.
Symptoms of food addiction
- Nonstop food cravings, even when full
- Always thinking about where you’re going to get food next and what you’ll eat
- Continuous binge-eating or compulsive overeating despite health consequences
- Losing control over what, how much, how often, and where you eat
- Needing to consume more food to satisfy your craving
- Multiple attempts and failures to stop overeating
- Eating behaviors start to affect work, school, and social life
What can cause food addiction?
- Family history of substance abuse
- A personal history of substance abuse
- Experiencing trauma early in life
- Co-occurring mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder
- Co-occurring dependence on alcohol or other substances
What makes some foods so addicting?
Ever wonder what makes you feel happy? That would be your neurotransmitters — chemicals in your brain that basically control everything you do. Dopamine is one of these chemicals, and when you eat certain foods, it floods your brain and activates feelings of pleasure. Your brain runs on a “reward” system. The more you do something that triggers your brain’s pleasure centers, the better you feel. The better you feel, the more you’ll want to continue a specific behavior — like eating junk food — that makes you feel good.
Let’s say you eat a piece of chocolate when you’re stressed about an important meeting coming up at work. After you eat that chocolate, you feel better. Guess what? Your brain will remember that. The next time you feel stressed about something, your brain will prompt you — via a very intense, hard-to-resist craving — to eat a piece of chocolate. Based on how that chocolate made you feel better the last time you were stressed, your brain will assume the same thing will happen again.
Over time, our brains come to recognize that certain behaviors make us feel good. We begin to “crave” those behaviors, because in a way, they make us feel “high.” Unfortunately, what happens to people who abuse alcohol can happen to someone who abuses food, too. They’ll start to crave it nonstop. What’s worse, they’ll need to eat more and more food to achieve the same “high” they used to before this all started.
The world’s most addictive foods
If you think you might be addicted to food, don’t worry — there is hope. One way to stop your obsessive food cravings is to stop eating the foods that flood your brain with too much dopamine. Before you can do that, though, you need to know what these foods are.
According to research, foods high on the glycemic index — mainly processed foods full of added sugars — most often release chemicals like dopamine into your brain in large amounts. You can start by eating the following foods less often.
Pizza, ice cream, bacon — what do all these foods have in common? You can’t stop eating them, sure — but that’s because they’re heavily processed. Processed foods contain mounds of added ingredients like dyes, salt, and a thousand different types of synthetic sugar. If it comes in a box or package, it’s probably processed. You’re currently thinking, “But I don’t WANT to stop eating pizza.” Of course you don’t! It’s addictive!
Here’s the good news: most of what you can buy at the grocery store, you can make yourself at home — and it’s much healthier that way. Even still, if you can’t stop eating junk, it’s not your fault. The chemicals in this stuff is messing with your head — literally.
Of all the foods that can oversaturate your brain with dopamine, sugar is one of the most dangerous. Not the kinds of sugar in fruit, but the sugars added to cookies, cakes, ice cream, even potato chips and granola bars. Sugar is added to your food to make it sweet, but that only tells your brain it needs more, more, more. Cut back on processed foods loaded with added sugars, like cookies, brownies, breakfast cereals, and ice cream.
“Fake sugar” has been a controversial topic for decades, and it looks like it will continue to be that way for awhile. Animal studies suggest artificial sweeteners might contribute to food addiction, though more research needs to be done in humans to be sure. Still, we’re just not sure what these chemicals might be doing to our bodies, and how they might affect us in the long-term — especially when it comes to food addiction. Your sugar-free soda might seem safe, but if you can’t stop drinking it, artificial sweetness might be to blame.
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