Treating Food Addictions: Your Body Welcomes Loving Kindness

The concept of food addiction is relatively new in the medical sphere. While it’s been accepted for decades that certain substances can hijack the dopamine pathways in the brain, providing a neurochemical reward which fosters habitual, and obsessive consumption, the term has historically only been used to apply to narcotics like opioids, alcohol, and nicotine.  A person with a caffeine addiction isn’t generally considered an “addict” in the same sense, since the substance doesn’t burden a user with so many deleterious effects as its more destructive counterparts.

Alcohol can cause addicts to become violent, to lose their jobs or destroy their relationships, and comes with a whole host of extreme medical complications. A lifelong coffee drinker, on the other hand, will not experience anything nearly so severe but the addiction can still be harmful to their health over a long period of time.

All chemical drugs are considered addictive. LSD and Psilocybin, for instance, are not chemically addictive, but are still restricted.   Sugar, chips, and soft drinks are very addictive, but have only been thought of as such very recently.

Food addiction is an extremely harmful, lifelong struggle for a great many Americans. Exact figures are hard to come by, but what’s clear from our fast food culture and diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity epidemic is that people need help identifying, treating, and escaping from these addictions.

Attitudes Towards Obesity

It is important to realize that addiction to food is not helped by “fat shaming.” In Western Society, very few people are comfortable being overweight. If a person is overweight, chances are they have  tried many times to lose weight. Repeated “failure” is depressing and discouraging.

It is also important to realize that not all overweight people have addictions. There are many reasons people are overweight, including hormone imbalances and body type. Before deciding that someone is “addicted” to food, a responsible physician will always look at the root cause of the excess weight and then determine a treatment plan.

Weight loss is most successful when patients are able to treat themselves with loving kindness through a difficult process. Patients must also feel confident that their physicians, other medical practitioners, friends, family, and society as a whole will also treat them with respect and loving kindness.

Food Addiction

Food addiction is just like any other chemical addiction. Sufferers experience intrusive thoughts or cravings, tend to hide their unhealthy habits, make disproportionate sacrifices to support their dependencies, eat to the point of suffering, obsess over their trigger foods, and find themselves unable to adhere to their own self-set limits or guidelines (like portion control or “cheat days”). It’s an addiction, in a very real sense.

And just like with any addiction, sufferers are often met with derision and suggestions that stopping is a simple matter of easy willpower — just don’t eat that food anymore, right? — but the reality is much more nuanced.

Especially in the West, food addicts are often faced with a variety of tiny hurdles or encouragements to relapse, even during treatment. Sweets, for instance, are a particularly tricky one. How many of us have been pressured into a piece of cake at an office birthday party, or tempted by a bowl of Great Aunt Anne’s blackberry crumble at Christmas dinner? It’s seen as rude to refuse. Assumptions are made, and pressures are exerted — “What!  You don’t like it? You think it’s terrible? It’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t at least try it...” — and even a single lapse can be enough to push a recovering addict back into the painful cycles they are trying to overcome.

So, sweets are one example, but there are others. Generally speaking, they tend to fall into a few major categories.

What Foods Are Common Triggers of Addiction?

Sweet foods, especially candy, chocolate, or confections, can be habit forming, as well as fatty or salty foods. Chicken wings, hamburgers (with sugary condiments), french fries (sugar is added while frying and then salty thereafter for increased crispness) are extremely addictive and very problematic.

Our lineage goes back about one and a half million years, before our evolutionary predecessors would be recognizable as modern humans, while bipedal apes with simple tools have been around for six or seven million years. Humans as we know them were cooking food over hearths and decorating themselves with jewelry three hundred thousand years ago, and we haven’t evolved significantly since.

In all those millions of years, eating something salty, fatty, or sweet could keep us hunter-gatherers alive more efficiently than leaves or grasses. Fruit was a seasonal luxury, and meat was scarce. Vegetables were coarse (modern farming hadn’t domesticated crops yet). Refined sugar was unimaginable at the time. Complex salts (sometimes called “electrolytes”) let our cells pass water through their membranes, helping keep us hydrated and helping to pass out toxins.

To stumble across a berry bush, or bite into a piece of meat, would set alight our synapses, dumping a hit of dopamine straight into our basal ganglia, giving us the sensation of reward and accomplishment for surviving one more day on the savannah. The humans who didn’t experience that reward, on the average, didn’t live as long.

Now, all of those evolutionary pressures are still there. Our hardwiring hasn’t kept pace with our world. Even a hundred years ago, salt, sugar, and fat were luxuries. It’s only been a few generations since they have been so inescapably abundant.

A fast food burger or a slice of pizza (both foods crammed with all those sensory shortcuts to our pleasure centers) can be bought for pocket change, at any hour of the day, on virtually any street corner. The foods that our ancestors had to tolerate, like cabbages, seeds and leaves, have become hallmarks of the upper class, while frozen meals, donuts, and fast food have become the curse of the underprivileged.

The irony is that, by long tradition, we still associate the consumption of something sweet as a way to mark a special occasion. In the West, we still have our birthday cakes, Christmas puddings, and Pancake Tuesdays (when you’d use up all the eggs and milk in your panty before Lent, so they wouldn’t spoil).

For someone with an unhealthy relationship to food, the pressures come from all sides.

But, with help, these addictions can be managed.

Managing Food Addiction Therapeutically

There are a number of different therapeutic treatment paths by which food addictions can be overcome. Ideally, treatment would blend several different options.

As with any addiction, it’s important to treat the underlying causes. Food abuse may be an escape from life stresses that could be treated more productively, for instance. If those underlying stimuli could be managed, the addiction might become irrelevant and easier to let go. That solution-focused therapy dovetails nicely with trauma therapies, which help a person to heal from traumatic events which may be continuing to influence their behaviors.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT) is another helpful option in many cases. It can be used to forge new habits, coping mechanisms, or thought patterns, and it can help an addiction sufferer to resculpt their relationship with their food triggers and with the wider world in general.

Of course, none of these treatments should be undertaken without proper nutrition counseling, dietary planning, and, in many cases, help with deliberate meal planning. In rare cases, medications to suppress dopamine function may be useful to help curb cravings. These medications inhibit the feeling of satisfaction or reward that comes from indulging an addiction, helping to break the cycle.

Besides therapies, there are a number of good habits that can help a person to break any addiction, including a food addiction:

With dedication, therapeutic support, and some lifestyle changes, any food addiction can be overcome.  Contact Advanced Health today, to set up an initial consultation and get started! We will help put you on the path to a healthier life.

Nicole Bianchi, N.C. Nicole Bianchi, N.C. is a certified nutritionist who helps clients strategically develop food plans for themselves and their families according to their individual needs, situations, health challenges and preferences.

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