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Food Addiction and the Brain

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Food addiction can be a normal response to too much stress. Doesn’t matter. There are ways to get your life – and eating habits — back under control.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

“Betcha can’t eat just one?” Especially if it’s one of your comfort foods – something unhealthy you reach for reflexively when the pressure of life is suddenly too much.

Food addiction. It’s that subconscious need to feel good right now, which can only be satisfied by the first bite of something sweet, salty, or savoury that we experience as safety. It’s emotional eating for your mind, where you’re more addicted to the feelings you get from the process of eating than from the food itself. 

Food addiction is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, there is an organization, The Food Addiction Institute, which is dedicated to the understanding and treatment of the illness.

Its mission: “Advocating widespread acceptance of food addiction as a disease of substance abuse and the availability of effective, abstinence-based solutions.”

Like drug or alcohol addiction, food addiction can take over your life and create distance between you and those you love. You may find yourself so obsessed with food that it interferes with work or school. It can create negative body image issues and deep feelings of shame, preventing you from doing things you love. And this leads to isolation and depression. 

When stressed out, feeling down, or seeking praise, people often reach for food. We’ve been trained that food – especially “treat” foods – provides the relief, pleasure, or reward we seek. 

Also, people tend to crave salty or sweet foods when stressed because they are convenient and give that instant buzz. And eating foods that we like but “shouldn’t” eat gives that extra boost to dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in the brain and nervous system that gives a thumb’s up for engaging in basic life-sustaining behaviours.

Naturally, the more often we are rewarded for our eating, the more deeply the pattern gets ingrained. If chocolate chip cookies are our reward food, then each time we get triggered we reach for the cookies. We are simply wiring our brains to pair cookies with pleasure, reward, and relief.

When stress happens, your brain may take the mental highway to relief, causing you to shove cookies in your face every time you hit one of life’s potholes! Over time, the brain adjusts to excess dopamine, which reduces the high you felt compared to your first experience. So, each time you get triggered, more of that food is required to get your hit of dopamine. 

Such coping mechanisms aren’t inherently negative. Addiction occurs when we are triggered too often! So, while food provides a path to relief, it also leads to addiction and outcomes like metabolic syndrome, obesity, and disordered eating. 

Know thyself

The key to recovery is self-awareness. Know your own tendencies and habits. Then intercept them. Experts suggest these recovery strategies: 

Avoid environmental cues. This might mean avoiding the stores where you always buy your addictive foods, or the restaurants where you don’t need a menu or the coffee shop that has your order ready. If you can’t say, “Actually, I am going to have something different today,” then just keep walking.  

Begin to use healthy rewards to rewire your brain. You can get satisfaction from ordinary pleasures like walking outdoors, time with friends, or doing something creative with your hands.

Learn to manage stress and unpleasant emotions. Try a relaxation technique such as visualization or yoga. 

Find something that connects you with something bigger than yourself by volunteering for a couple of hours each week. As Tony Robbins says, “Giving is the secret to living.” Studies show that those who volunteer live longer and happier lives. 

Quick fix

The reality is that stress is inconvenient.  There isn’t an ashram on every corner, sliced veggies and hummus dip at the supermarket checkout, or a nature trail outside your office door. And you can’t just skip buying groceries or take the day off each time you get emotional.

So, for those of you who just need to get a grip long enough to get outside, get supper on the table for your kids, or pick up the phone to call your friend, read on.

Stop. If you can, sit down. The emails will come, the kids will scream, the craving for chocolate chip cookies will still be there. 

Right now, the only path your brain knows is the one it is wired to take: food. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to do the next right thing right now. Besides, you don’t have the mental or emotional resources, or the opportunity, to do any of that more complex stuff right now. 

Then start counting. Backwards: 5-4-3-2-1. Repeat. Or try saying the alphabet backwards. It’s like counting sheep to fall asleep. Normally we count up, so going backwards requires our attention. It will distract you long enough to get you off that neural highway.

Once you’ve calmed down, you can get on with the business of preparing for the longer-term solutions listed above. 

And remember, while food can be addictive, it can also be pleasurable. Go ahead, enjoy your life. Every last bite.

More Insight: Check out this great article on self-empowerment and how to make positive change.

Author: Jennifer Graham is a writer in Nova Scotia. She practices the “Lost Arts” of cursive writing, paper mâché, pie-making, letter writing, and acts of everyday kindness. She is a regular contributor to Optimyz.


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