Overeating during the holidays and New Year’s may now be in the rearview mirror. But that doesn’t necessarily make losing or maintaining weight easier for everyone — even if you resolved to make healthier food choices. It may be a tough work to keep a healthy weight and diet. For some people, it can be especially difficult.
A 2013 study from the nonprofit Public Library of Science found that about one in 20 people (5% of the general population) met the criteria for food addiction. Whether you’ve heard people claiming to be “junk-food junkies,” “chocoholics” or even needing a “sugar fix,” food addiction can be quite serious.
More than an impulse
Food addiction is characterized by seeking the foods or food behaviors that we are addicted to, eating or doing them compulsively, and having great difficulty controlling those urges despite harmful consequences, according to the Food Addiction Institute.
“Once addicted, eating certain foods changes the brain in ways that make abstaining from one’s ‘trigger foods’ very hard, even for those who desperately want to,” according to the organization.
The most common addictive foods are high in flour, fat, grains, sugar and salt or some combination of these. The most common addictive eating behaviors are bingeing, purging and volume-eating.
“Food addictions are a consequence of hormonal problems caused by the diet,” says Barry Sears, founder and president of the nonprofit Inflammation Research Foundation in Peabody, Massachusetts. “An unbalanced diet that leads to food addictions is also the starting point for many neurological disorders, such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorders, as well as a wide range of ‘mind-body’ disorders.”
When it comes to the relation between weight and food addiction, Sears says, appetite control is centered in the hypothalamus, a small region of the brain that releases hormones and regulates body temperature.
“In food addictions, this control is often reduced by inflammation,” he says. “As a consequence, the hypothalamus is not receiving the necessary hormonal signals from the blood or the gut to stop eating. Without the necessary hormonal control of the hypothalamus, you gain weight.”
Relationship with food
It’s important for everyone to understand and be aware of their relationship with food, says psychologist Laura Minch McLain, site director of the Renfrew Center of Georgia, an eating disorder facility in Atlanta.
“Individuals who struggle with food are often trying to manage their emotions,” she says. “There is usually a co-occurring mental health issue, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD and trauma, bipolar disorder or ADHD. For those who struggle with food addiction, there is a higher rate of alcohol abuse, as well.”
Sears says for people to keep a healthy weight and diet while managing food addiction, the two fastest ways are to increase the intake of non-starchy vegetables and increase the intake of fish oil.
“The non-starchy vegetables are rich in fermentable fiber that is required for the bacteria in the gut to produce many of the transmitters needed by the brain,” he says. “The fish oil will reduce inflammation in the brain. Either one is good, and both together are synergistic to retake control of the neurological pathways that lead to food addiction in the first place.”
McLain says she encourages people to practice balanced eating habits and to eat a variety of different foods to satisfy specific cravings in moderation.
This provides “freedom with food. When we avoid certain foods or label them as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ we can start to create an unbalanced relationship with food that can lead to problems with food addiction and disordered eating in the future,” she says.
A helpful way to change eating habits is to slow down and practice eating mindfully, McLain says. When you have a meal, it’s important to make your plate that encompasses a few items and sit down to eat.
“We encourage people to pay attention to their hunger cues and any emotions they might be experiencing at the time of eating,” she says. “When you take care of your body, it will respond accordingly, and that is different for every person.”
If you or someone you know may be suffering from food addiction, you can visit https://www.foodaddicts.org/ for more information.