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Can You Be Addicted to Food?

The cookies lure you to the cupboard with a siren song.  Chocolate seems as vital as oxygen.  Can you be addicted to food?  The answer points to a force greater than willpower alone. Guest author Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read

A Sugar High

In one experiment, Hoebel and his team kept the rats away from food for 16 hours at a time—while the rats slept and then for 4 hours after waking—which, Hoebel said, is “a little bit like missing breakfast.”  Then the rats got unrestricted access to rat chow and a 10% sucrose solution, which is similar to—you guessed it—soda.

After a month on this schedule, the rats showed the 4 symptoms characteristic of addiction.  First, they binged, meaning when they finally had access to the sugar water, they drank unusually large amounts.  Second, they exhibited signs of withdrawal, indicated by tremors, staying in a dark corner of the cage, and reacting passively to stress.  Third, they showed cravings, as measured by working very hard to get the sugar after a period of deprivation and consuming more than ever before when they finally got it.  Finally, when deprived of sugar, they chose instead to ingest an alcohol solution, showing cross-sensitization. 

Drugs, of course, create a much bigger effect, but the process of the brain becoming addicted to its own dopamine is essentially the same.  It’s a jump from rats to humans, but here are 5 take-home lessons from our furry friends:

How to Beat a Food Addiction

  1. Mom was right when she told you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  So eat breakfast, preferably with protein. Your risks of bingeing on fat, salt, or sugar is high when you’re famished or feeling deprived, so eat regularly.
  2. In the case of sugar, trade your soda for water.  Notice I said water, not diet soda.  Fake sugar disrupts the body’s innate ability to regulate intake of sweet foods and has, counter-intuitively, been linked to obesity.  If you miss the fizz, try sparkling water.  If you miss the caffeine, coffee, which has its detractors and supporters (such as Nutrition Diva), is still better than soda.
  3. Shake up your habits.  If that sleeve of cookies calls you to the kitchen after dinner, stay out of the kitchen during your danger times.  Take yourself for a walk, seek out company to support and distract you, or do some evening errands.
  4. Experiment with abstinence versus moderation.  For some, cutting out problem foods entirely is the best solution.  For others, to avoid a feeling of deprivation, moderation is the way to go.  Work with your own personality to find what works for you.
  5. If food is controlling you and your life, seek help.  Frustrations with food can run the gamut from occasional “stress eating” to a diagnosable eating disorder like Binge Eating Disorder or Bulimia.  Find a qualified mental health provider whom you like and trust. 

Lastly, forgive yourself if you slip up.  It takes time—sometimes a long, frustrating time—to change your brain back.  Enlist the help of those closest to you and ask them not to tempt or shame you.  Partner up with a friend who is also trying to cut back.  Eventually, you’ll feel more comfortable around fat, salt, or sugar.  And that, my friends, is sweet.

References

Davidson TL, Swithers SE.  2004.  A Pavlovian approach to the problem of obesity.  International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 28(7): 933-35.

Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG.  2008.  Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.  Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1): 20-39.

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Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine.  Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School.  In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders.  Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness.  She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2.

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Mouse and evil cupcake photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.