Being overweight or obese significantly increases your risk of chronic back pain, osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other serious health conditions. While changes to diet and physical activity levels have been emphasized as components of prevention and treatment, there has been growing concern in the past two decades over the addictive nature of the types of foods featured in the standard American diet. This means that changing how we eat might require more than basic willpower.
Fats, Sugars and Salt: The Trifecta
Fats, salt and sugar act on the brain in the same way drugs do; they affect our reward systems, meaning that some people may come to rely on them for feeling pleasure. A number of brain chemicals responsible for feelings of pleasure, including dopamine, have been shown to activate in a similar way in those who eat indulgent foods as in those who use drugs. For one review of the biochemical effects of sugar intake, see www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
Food addiction may be more ubiquitous than we think. Usually, we think of binge eating when we think of food addiction. But the category may be expanded to include people who overeat foods they know are unhealthy for them, but not necessarily to the point of binge eating. Binge eaters often experience serious consequences in their work and social lives due to their eating. People who can’t seem to avoid fats, sugars and salt may be able to function normally, but may suffer health consequences related to their diet.
For those who rely on certain foods for happiness and comfort, losing weight can be an especially difficult battle. Cutting down on the three feel-good groups can lead to withdrawal symptoms and cause anxiety or depression. This means that medical professionals and patients need to take into account their relationship to unhealthy food when devising a plan to get to a healthy weight.
Treating Food Addiction
One method for overcoming your addiction to fats, salt and sugars is to avoid them to the extent possible. You need a bit of salt each day for optimal body functioning (up to 500mg, according to the CDC – a drastic reduction from the 3,400mg the average American consumes). Likewise, our bodies use sugars and fats for basic functions. The key is to get these from healthy sources. Fruits and complex carbohydrates like beans and whole-wheat products contain sugars that are better for the body than refined white sugar or corn syrup. Fats from olive oil, avocados, yogurt, nuts and olives can replace unhealthy fats from butter, red meat, cheeses and ice cream. Salt is hard to cut down on; those who consume salty foods on a regular basis tend to be insensitive to other flavors, meaning all their food tastes bland without it. However, other flavors like vinegar and garlic can be used in place of salt. Nutritional yeast flakes, also called B12 flakes, have a salty flavor and can be added to most dishes. Cutting out the addictive foods will likely lead to withdrawal symptoms like headache and irritability. The body needs to detox for a week or 2 before you start feeling better. This “cold turkey” approach may be useful to people who don’t have a history of psychological disorders or trauma.
Food addiction is often correlated with a traumatic event in a person’s life, particularly childhood abuse. The article at www.sciencedaily.com, for example, shows that women who suffered childhood abuse are almost twice as likely to develop food addiction as those without a history of abuse. When emotional and psychological issues are involved, it’s important to identify and treat them as part of your weight loss plan. Without addressing the underlying factors of unhealthy eating habits, you aren’t likely to successfully change them. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy in which you can work on both processing the trauma and your relationship to food.
For some, losing weight may be a more complex issue than simply making a few lifestyle changes. Understanding how the foods we eat affect our brains can help us better address the prevalent problem of obesity.