Although commonly derided by many as a baseless invention, food addiction is a very real issue that’s been widely supported by a variety of studies. Just as you can talk about other substance abuse problems like alcoholism, gambling, or drug addiction, so can you find evidence of social impairment, risky use, built-up tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms with certain addictive foods.
These foods are usually high-fat, high-sugar junk food. Consuming sugar has been demonstrated to activate the rewards center in the brain just like gambling and other substances do. Addictive foods cause the brain to release endorphins and seek out that same feeling again. The effect of these addictive foods lessens over a short time if the junk food is eaten regularly.
All of this creates a damaging cycle that can wreck weight loss programs and cause serious, chronic health problems like heart disease or even type 2 diabetes. Food addiction can even present similarly to a binge eating disorder if it gets out of hand.
If you know the right methods and what signals to look for in your own body’s response to the new absence of addictive foods, overcoming food addiction is very much possible. It would be calloused to say overcoming food addiction is easy, but it certainly isn’t impossible. Read to find out what food addiction is, how to overcome a food addiction if you have one, and some helpful tips to guide you along the way.
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What is Food Addiction?
There are those people for whom weight loss has never been an issue, who can eat a seemingly endless supply of fast food and high-sugar desserts without any weight gain at all. Advantageous genetics are likely behind it, but that doesn’t quite answer the most interesting question: why do they continue eating fast food?
We all know that a fast-food cheeseburger hits the spot from time to time. Bizarrely enough, junk foods like ice cream and salty fried snacks like french fries and chicken wings feel good to eat. They actually have a measured effect on brain chemistry. The reward system in the brain runs on dopamine and fast food triggers a flood of dopamine that creates a feeling of pleasure.
Since our brain’s pleasure centers enjoy the feeling of that dopamine release, they start to look out for the junk food that triggers it. That’s where a serious food addiction can start to develop.
8 Signs of Food Addiction
Not everyone who eats addictive foods or indulges in some compulsive overeating from time to time has a food addiction. Here are some signs that unhealthy eating habits have evolved into full-blown food addiction:
Fixation on Certain Addictive Food
Many people have favorite foods and might spend several minutes gushing over particular aspects like its taste or uniqueness. But with food addiction, that gushing will start to sound more like adoration. Think about the way self-identified “coffee addicts” talk about the importance of that morning cup. Food addiction can make fast food, ice cream, or soda take on an importance that will dwarf even the most obsessed coffee fixation.
Hiding Consumption of Addictive Food
Even before noticeable weight gain or other negative effects have become obvious to observers, people with a food addiction might start to feel shameful about how often or how much of the addictive food they’re eating. Perhaps somewhere in the mind, we recognize when we’re overindulging even when we don’t explicitly recognize it. Sneaking off to the ice cream truck every day or lying about how many times you’ve been to the new fast food restaurant can be signs of food addiction, although not necessarily on their own.
Eating Despite Negative Effects
People without any understanding of food addiction typically point to this action as the place where willpower should come in and solve the problem. What they’re failing to understand is that willpower is a sort of immaterial invention and doesn’t really have a concrete, observable mechanism in our brain chemistry the way food addiction does. Our brain’s pleasure centers get all fired up over fast food, and that can lead to problems. One of the more serious signs that food addiction has progressed to a dangerous level is when we know precisely how it’s affecting our health or overall diet and we keep eating it anyway.
Making Repeated Excuses
Now, this isn’t “making excuses” like you might find a reason to skip the gym when you’re hungover, but rather the small explanations about why you can have some addictive food this time without needing to worry. Of course, the problem is when these excuses become a regular feature of your eating habits. It will require some honesty and perhaps even a food diary to find out whether this is taking place more often than you remember. It’s important to make note of how often you have to work out why eating high-fat junk food won’t matter “just this once.”
Negative Lifestyle Effects
Just like any other substance addiction, there is a stage when junk food can occupy such a large space in the mind that it can start to interfere with friendships, duties, and hobbies. Often this is linked to having to lie about how often addictive food is being eaten, but it can also be because too much time is spent consuming addictive food. Imagine someone who is continuously driving to the edge of town because there’s a triple burger at a fast-food restaurant there. If they start being late to work or to pick up the kids from school, that’s a serious indication of a terribly disabling food addiction.
Food Addiction Enablers
When people start to drink too much or develop a more serious drug addiction, what usually happens is that their friend circle slowly starts to fill up with other people who have the same drug addiction or drink just as much. Friends who don’t enjoy getting wasted all the time or taking drugs will stop coming around if that’s the only thing going on. Somehow, people with the same addictions always find each other. It’s one of the ways food addiction can be enabled. It can’t be wrong if everyone is doing it, right?
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Maybe the food addiction started with a certain soda or a kind of potato chip and spread from there. Food addiction is a definite possibility if that dopamine flood in the brain’s pleasure center doesn’t come until you’ve consumed even more of the addictive food. If a fast-food cheeseburger used to do it, but over time it takes a second or third burger to get the same feeling, then food addiction could be the culprit.
It might sound funny to people who have never experienced it, but food addiction can create withdrawal symptoms just like alcohol or drug addiction can. Sure, heroin withdrawals are likely to be much more severe, but all that high sugar content and fructose is something your body can get used to, especially if the tolerance has developed and the addictive food has been consumed in large quantities for a long period of time. It’s hard to know if there are withdrawal symptoms because you have to quit eating the addictive food to know.
Do I Have a Food Addiction?
Not every food addiction looks the same. If you have 6 or more of the above signs, it’s likely you have a food addiction or are slowly building one. As you can see, they tend to play off each other. For instance, being secretive about eating addictive food will lead to negative lifestyle effects and could well cause food addiction enablers to become your central circle of friends.
The most important thing about studying food addiction is understanding what it looks like so you can stop it before it gets really bad. If you want to know how to beat food addiction on your own, that’s the easiest way. So even if you only recognize a few of the above signs in your eating habits, it’s never too late to fix them.
How to Break Food Addiction
Impaired control is a common sight in people with a food addiction, as this study from 2019 indicates. That doesn’t mean a food addiction will look the same as a binge eating disorder. It can also manifest in constant snacking or massive portions at mealtimes.
What anyone with a food addiction should understand and take to heart is that it is not easy to overcome food addiction. It takes an incredible amount of drive and concentration, constantly and potentially for weeks or months at a time, to tackle food cravings and start eating real food instead of the nutritionally bankrupt addictive foods our brain chemistry causes us to fixate on.
Since everyone’s brain chemistry is different, their food addictions are typically different too. It’s hard to say how to break food addiction definitively for everybody, but here are some hints that should help you along the way:
1. Quit Dieting
This might be a controversial or confusing first piece of advice, but it’s going to help avoid a potential relapse or possibly even an outright breakdown. It cannot be stressed enough how difficult it is to completely kick a food addiction, especially if it’s progressed to an advanced stage. For this reason, the biggest favor anyone trying to break their food addiction can do for themselves is not to also pile on weight loss or other fitness goals.
If you want to lose weight, that’s fine and you can keep it in mind. But trying to focus on dieting while you stifle a bad food addiction can lead to incredible amounts of stress. Too often, that also leads to lapses where addictive food is used to soothe the guilt. Emotional eating in this context can lead to compulsive overeating and that will ruin both the dieting plan and any progress made beating a food addiction.
2. Cut Out Media
The food industry is completely indifferent to the negative effects of their social engineering and ad campaigns. It’s all about selling burgers, sodas, and other junk food. One of the primary tools they use to suck people into the trap that frequently leads to food addiction is marketing on the TV, internet, and radio. Unfortunately, this includes many series on streaming websites. It’s impossible to completely stop consuming all media without turning into a hermit, but limit the number of commercials you’re viewing if possible. Remember that marketing is always trying to create anxiety that their product can solve. Treat advertising like a monster movie: while it’s running, repeat to yourself that the monster isn’t real.
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3. Stop Drinking Alcohol and Caffeine
Both these beverages reduce inhibitions and cause poor dieting choices. With coffee and other drinks that are high in caffeine, the body begins to crave sugary coffee cakes or doughnuts. Plus, too much caffeine can create anxiety and for too many people junk food and emotional eating have become the most effective tools to treat anxiety.
Alcohol definitely lowers inhibitions more than coffee or other drinks with other caffeine content. There’s also a high likelihood that the bar or restaurant will have addictive foods like chicken wings and french fries and drinking lots of alcohol will only make it more likely that a relapse will occur. If you’re alcohol dependent, you might want to handle that first. One addiction at a time.
4. Change Your Eating Habits
This is a no-brainer, but what are you supposed to eat if you can’t eat the high-fat, high-sugar addictive food your brain chemistry has become attuned to? The simple answer is real food. That doesn’t mean all the things at the supermarket that scream low-fat or sugar-free. Often these foods have sweeteners that can create the same effects as real sugar.
Real food means food that is sold to you pretty much the same way it looks when it grows. Fresh fruits and vegetables and lean grass-fed meat are the way to go. Addictive substances like fructose have no place in your shopping cart anymore. Look for unprocessed foods that won’t play pinball with your blood sugar levels instead.
5. Start Journaling
The psychology of food addiction is such that your brain might not even register when it’s tricking itself or justifying poor eating behavior. If you’re making excuses or justifying how, just this once, a greasy fast-food meal won’t matter, then it’s unlikely you’ll recall it later. Your brain might even block it out, making it impossible to even remember how many times you went with addictive food instead of real food. The best way around this is to keep a food journal. Nothing is too insignificant to write down; everything you eat and even every time you felt like having fast food or junk food should be written inside. For it to be especially effective, note times when you successfully avoided relapsing.
While dieting and kicking a food addiction at the same time can be stressful and untenable, adding some exercise will go a long way in replacing the dopamine that junk food gives. That doesn’t mean you should start weightlifting every day of the week, but 45 minutes or so of lighter exercise every day will really make you feel good. Plus, once your body gets used to the lack of high-fat and high-sugar foods, it will cut down on the number of food cravings you experience. All it takes is a bit of running or even some light stretching and yoga.
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7. Mindful Eating
Mindfulness is not only one of the best ways to kick a food addiction, but it also sets you up for future fitness goals like weight loss. Mindfulness is awareness of your surroundings and what you’re putting into your body. This is a bit different than just changing your diet, however. Mindful eating can also be counting macros, shopping organic, and learning how to cook delicious and healthy recipes. Eating with intention will also help balance your feelings about food in general, making emotional eating less likely.
8. Drink Plenty of Water
Many times, food cravings are actually just the body in need of water. If you consistently have a food craving for something sweet, you might just be dehydrated. Once you start drinking enough water, it gets easier to continue. Depending on the size of your body, you might need between 3 and 4 liters of water per day. Athletes and more active people likely need more. Water supports the proper function of everything in your body and it will curve cravings and reduce the likelihood that you turn to junk food when it’s time to eat.
9. Beat Food Addiction With Others
It’s nice to know how to beat food addiction on your own, but don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and loved ones to help you get through it. If your social group became more or less based around food addictions, it can feel impossible to break out, like you’re going to have to change your whole lifestyle. It’s much easier when you have someone you can talk to. There are professional group therapy organizations, which may even meet online (a blessing since COVID became a reality) and are frequently low- or no-cost.
10. Push Through Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms may include depression grief, anxiety, edginess, and antisocial behavior. Everything addictive food makes us feel will be gone, and if the dependency was prolonged it can feel like a literal hole in the center of your being. Powering through withdrawal symptoms is not easy, in fact, it’s probably the most difficult part. But having loved ones, friends, and professionals there to help you will make it easier. To truly push through the withdrawal symptoms, though, requires quitting addictive food completely, cold turkey, and maintaining an absolute resolve that it won’t return.
Food addiction is a serious drag on lifestyle. Overcoming a food addiction takes lots of willpower, organization, and support. Knowing how to break food addiction will require an in-depth look at the particulars of you food habits and some honest reflections on some hard truths. It’s not impossible but it will likely take some time.
Naysayers and people who lack empathy for sufferers of food addiction because they’ve never experienced it or seen its horrible effects on a loved one always try to make overeating and weight gain a failure of willpower and nothing else. Granted, healthy eating habits require self-control to adhere to them, but food addiction is the result of brain chemistry and not poor choices.
The food industry has spent decades discovering how it can use social engineering and specific flavor profiles to make fast food and more appealing at the expense of our health. Nevermind how it might change the eating habits of millions of people, as long as the food industry can keep selling hamburgers and have us reaching for processed foods like ice cream, potato chips, and drinks with high sugar content like soda and juice.
Nefarious meddling and clever marketing by the food industry has slowly but steadily distanced us from the sources of our food and knowledge about its contents. Modern grocery stores are minefields of high-fat junk food and so-called “healthy” alternatives that are just as filled with artificial sweeteners and fructose. Yogurt is an especially illustrative example of this; some brands pack more sugar into a container of yogurt than there is in a can of soda.
The upside to all this is that once you notice the patterns and the tricks laid out by the food industry, you can begin to reverse bad habits. If your compulsive overeating or unhealthy food choices have developed into full-blown food addiction, it will take time and effort to break away from the junk foods that have thrown your eating behavior into such disarray.
While dieting will likely over-stress you if you’re trying to overcome food addiction at the same time, it will also help you achieve weight loss goals and keep that food addiction buried once it’s gone. Exercise is one of the best ways to get that endorphin charge junk food gives us. If you need any help finding out how to overcome food addiction permanently, one of our Fitplans is just what you’re looking for.
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