Can One Really be Addicted to Food?
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By Arpana Gupta, PhD and Riya Sood
Potatoes: My weakness, my Achilles heel. Baked, fried, mashed, sautéed. I somehow cannot say no to them no matter what form they come in. Doesn’t matter how full I am, I always find myself leaning in for another bite. This led to my next question: Why is it so hard to stop eating certain foods? Despite our best judgment, we find it hard to say no to these delicious morsels. Who is to blame for it – our brain or our gut?
Our lab has now begun to delve deeper into the brain gut connection related to obesity and food addiction and this is what we have found.
Scientific evidence reveals the brain’s dynamic role behind food’s enticing, and mood-altering effects. It all lies at the heart of the brain. Our brains are wired to enjoy food; eating and nutrition are primal survival mechanisms. Eating – as well as other essential survival activities – trigger neurochemicals in the brain that travel specific pathways to influence our moods. Essential tasks are motivated through a reward seeking mechanism in the limbic system of our brain that are responsible for regulating craving, hunger and satiety. We enjoy processed foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar (for example think of that delicious slice of chocolate cake), because we find pleasure in the immediate energy they provide. However, for some, eating can become an act of desire, an overwhelming demand for more, and a mental compulsion to eat beyond feeling full. This is characterized by food addiction.
When eating becomes unstoppable, consumes us, and we continue to eat for pleasurable beyond what our body needs is known as Food Addiction.
Crossing the line from eating for hunger to eating for pleasure occurs with wanting more than the homeostatic needs of the body. The addicted brain becomes wired to crave more as soon as even the smallest amount of food has entered the system. It is as if the off switch is “off” and the reward circuitry within the brain is hijacked. As a result, many people with food addiction find themselves powerless and unable to control their cravings.
Like a match igniting a fire, trigger foods ignite a fiery and voracious appetite that makes one want to eat, eat, and eat, describes Dr. Tarman, a world renown food addiction expert.
Evidence suggests that alterations within the brain reward system and neurotransmitter pathways are responsible for food addiction. In individuals with food addiction, over consumption of foods high in fat and sugar can confuse the brain by reducing the reward threshold as a result of reduced levels of a neurotransmitter, dopamine, in the brain. As a result, the reward circuitry becomes highly sensitized, anticipating a greater level of food intake to generate the same level of satisfaction.
An increasing wealth of evidence also suggests that changes in food preferences can be related to changes in the composition of gut microbiota. Our gut harbors about 100 trillion bacteria that play a key role in harvesting energy from food and maintaining a healthy digestive system. In addition, the gut contains about 500 millions neurons that are in constant communication with the brain via the vagus nerve. Approximately 95% of an important neurotransmitter known as serotonin that regulates appetite and mood, is manufactured by gut bacteria. Low levels of serotonin can lead to depression and a tendency to binge on sweet and starchy foods as a coping mechanism. Our lab also found that food addiction was associated with certain types of bacteria and metabolites, that were also present in those with diabetes and depression.
However, what is clear is that both the brain and the gut play a specific role in food addiction and obesity. The increasing prevalence of unhealthy, processed foods pose an increased risk of developing food addiction. Over-eating behaviors can lead to weight gain which can further exacerbate other chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, depression, and cardiovascular diseases. This is why preventing and keeping food addictive behaviors under control is essential.
Here are a few steps to take or help someone recover from food addiction:
The first step begins with recognizing and acknowledging the desire to crave food beyond normal hunger. Keep an open mind and trust that you have the willpower to confront and overcome the compulsion to overeat.
2. Set boundaries with trigger foods
Identify trigger foods, including sugar, flour, highly processed foods, and terminate them. Abstaining from unhealthy, addictive foods will be difficult at first, but it is worth doing to find freedom from food cravings.
3. Practice healthy coping strategies
Continuous encouragement from a support group, community, or counselor can help get through tough days and nights with comfort and hope.
4. Seek professional support
A professional can help implement appropriate strategies and provide sound advice to overcome food cravings in a healthy manner.
Good health is the biggest benefit of eating healthy and saying no to trigger foods. Eventually, the addicted beast inside will deflate and freedom from food addiction will inflate.