One of the biggest obstacles people face when they try to switch to a healthy eating strategy is overcoming food cravings and preferences that have been ingrained after months or years of following a less than optimal diet. Perhaps you have been there; made a commitment to follow a healthy diet in an attempt to start shedding some of the fat that has accumulated after years on a diet high in fast food and sugar, followed it successfully for some time, and suddenly experienced a setback as you give into the doughnut craving that has been buzzing in the back of your head since you first started out on this new dietary path. For those who are highly motivated to get into new and healthy habits, this small cheat isn’t enough to trigger a return to old habits, but for those who haven’t steered out a planned course and/or have especially potent cravings for “unhealthy” foods, this small setback might be all that’s needed to put the new and healthy journey to a halt.
Can you get addicted to food?
When most of us hear the word addiction, which is a state characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences, drugs and cigarettes typically come to mind. Alcohol is also high up there on the list, but other substances in our food are often not included under the “addiction umbrella”. We all know that hamburgers, coca cola, and chocolate taste good, but few of us probably look at these products as addictive. This is in many ways a mistake, because as everyone who has an unhealthy relationship with food and/or regularly feel a powerful desire for a bar of chocolate or a doughnut will tell you: Food can certainly be addictive. This notion is backed by recent scientific studies which support the idea that food addiction is a real phenomenon (1, 2, 3, 4).
There is evidence that bingeing on sugar-dense, palatable foods increases extracellular dopamine in the striatum and thereby possesses addictive potential. Moreover, elevated blood glucose levels catalyze the absorption of tryptophan through the large neutral amino acid (LNAA) complex and its subsequent conversion into the mood-elevating chemical serotonin. There appear to be several biological and psychological similarities between food addiction and drug dependence including craving and loss of control (5).
Some “experts” would say that there is no such thing as an addiction to food, but I think the millions of people out there who find it almost impossible to stay away from their favorite convenience food would disagree. Skyrocketing rates of obesity, newfound links between the brain, the gut, and food cravings, and mass consumption of fast food further highlight the damaging effects of the modern food environment. Obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other disorders related to suboptimal nutrition are among the most prevalent chronic health conditions in the world today, and it could easily be argued that fast food is the “addictive substance” out there that causes the most health-related damage every year.
Food addiction, eating addiction, food cravings… It doesn’t really matter that much what you call it; what matters is that we understand that we’ve created an evnironment where it’s easy to develop an unhealthy relationship with food.
We live in a world filled with potential stimuli that fall outside of what our bodies evolved to deal with. Prior to the last couple of centuries, fast food, internet, social media platforms, artificial lighting, and pornography sites were nowhere to be found, and if we go even further back, to our days as hunter-gatherers, it becomes clear that we’ve distanced ourselves dramatically from what could be considered the baseline for our species. For millions of years, the human brain and body evolved in environments where the most palatable food around was honey, meat, and fibrous fruit, and the aforementioned modern commodities we now take for granted were clearly not a part of daily life.
All of the most highly addictive foods out there are novel foods from an evolutionary perspective. Highly processed foods, such as pastries, sugar-laden drinks, and doughnuts, are especially tough to deal with for the human brain, as they have an evolutionarily novel nutrient composition. Food manufacturers deliberately combine sugar, starch, refined fat, and salt in various quantities to produce products that are more palatable and rewarding than anything that was available throughout most of human evolutionary history.
Honey is a highly preferred food for hunter-gatherers, who will typically go to great lengths to acquire this sugary substance. In the modern world we’ve supercharged this natural food by combining large amounts of glucose and fructose, the two types of sugar found in honey, with other refined ingredients to produce end-products that cause a massive dopamine and insulin rush. Chocolate, coffee, and alcoholic beverages can also have an addictive effect, largely because these foods contain substances that have an especially potent effect on our brain.
A look at nutrition through the lens of evolution clearly shows us why we are so drawn to doughnuts, pizza, ice cream, and other highly processed and palatable foods. In an ancestral natural environment, the instinct to seek out and consume safe and calorie-dense foods – such as honey and fatty meats – would have been adaptive in the sense that it improved our ancient ancestors’ ability to survive and reproduce in a milieu where food was something you didn’t take for granted.
In the modern, industrialized world, where we have constant access to cheap, calorie-dense, and hyper-palatable food, these ancient tendencies work against us by setting us up for fat accumulation, obesity, and metabolic havoc. Combine this with the fact that antibiotics and highly processed foods promote gut dysbiosis and alter our food preferences, and you got a recipe for disaster. In other words, while our ancient ancestors could just listen to their body and “give” in to their natural desires, we sometimes have to deliberately oppose the signals our body is sending us.
Some people manage to enjoy chocolate bars, cupcakes, and alcoholic beverages in moderation, but for others, the consumption of such modern food items can turn into a daily occurrence, and a constant battle between biology and willpower occurs. I have been there. My weak spot is primarily dark chocolate, which most people would say is a healthy food that provides a plethora of health benefits. However, the dark side of dark chocolate is that it contains several “addictive substances”, and the consumption can quickly get out of hand. This is especially true in this case since most of us look at dark chocolate as a health food, and we therefore allow ourselves to eat more of it than of something that we know is unquestionably bad for us.
Overcoming a food addiction
So, you might ask, what can I do to overcome my food addiction? Here are my two cents…
As everyone who’s been trapped in a vicious cycle of unhealthy food cravings knows, there is no magic bullet or simple trick. Willpower and patience are the main keys to a successful change, not expensive supplements, cleanses, or “cures”. I think a relatively strict 21-day Paleo-Based Diet challenge is a great place to start. Make sure you’re eating enough food so that you don’t go around feeling hungry and fatigued, eat plenty of protein, vegetables, and healthy fats, and make sure you don’t overindulge on sugary fruit. The reason many people find this type of dietary challenge to be so effective is that it eliminates addictive foods, “rewires” your brain, and changes your gut microbiota, which are all essential elements for overcoming food addictions.
When the 21 days are up, you can either choose to continue with the a fairly strict diet, or you can ease into a 85/15 or 90/10 rule. When you add new foods into your diet, choose those that you don’t find especially addictive, and avoid foods that you have previously had a problematic relationship with.
Personally, I have found that it definitely takes some willpower to eliminate a specific food that I have long been consuming and craving from my diet, but when I get over the first week, I typically notice that the cravings have started to subside.
Further reading: My three-part series on sugar cravings…
Do you have any foods that you find it almost impossible to stay away from? Do you have any strategies you recommend for overcoming intense food cravings?