Addiction to food, specifically highly-processed and ultra-palatable snacks, affects close to 15 percent of the American population. And because the human body legitimately needs food each day, as opposed to drugs, nicotine, alcohol, or other addictive vices, overcoming a negative food addiction often does not come easy.
Food companies understand human nature, as well; the majority of foods marketed and sold these days specifically target the brain’s fat and sugar sensors. These low-nutrition foods reward our brains more than our bodies, though. High-calorie snacks leave us feeling hungry despite the enormity of their physical volume. They also spike our insulin response in the bloodstream, which taxes our liver for no apparent reason other than a dopamine spike in the brain.
Frankly, most food-related deaths are preventable, or at least avoidable in the short term. And yet, obesity rates continue to climb and cardiac deaths continue to spike during this modern age of easy food and easier snacking.
How do we overcome negative eating cycles?
Overcoming a negative eating cycle starts with understanding brain function. Many people believe dopamine operates like a reward system, but it actually operates as a habit building system. Dopamine encourages behavior that helps us survive: eating, drinking water, having sex, and other healthy behaviors all trigger dopamine responses in the brain.
But modern man has in essence “hacked” that system for his own mental benefit and bodily harm. Drugs, alcohol, and unhealthy foods all trigger excessive dopamine release without having “earned” the spike with a healthy habit. Unhealthy fats and sugars both trigger dopamine responses by 130-160 percent of normal, which then builds the habit of unhealthy eating faster. More dopamine means more chance of constructing a negative habit.
“The cues that surround these foods start to take on a life of their own,” says Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “When you see a fast food sign or a vending machine, that has such power and drive for us that even if you’re not hungry, or even if your doctor just told you have diabetes, you might want to have these processed foods you know aren’t good for you. They’re everywhere; we’re constantly on the defensive against doughnuts at the morning meeting, and the late-night advertisement for pizza.”
Beating unhealthy food addiction means finding value in healthy foods, too
But since dopamine is released during all meals to some extent, there must be more to the theory of food addiction that just dopamine. Some experts believe sensors in the upper intestine may play a role in becoming addicted to certain foods, or that glands like the hypothalamus (which performs many bodily functions, including determining hunger) may play a role.
The key takeaway is simple: addiction to unhealthy food is both complex and simple at the same time. Your habits determine your health; and learning to relish the dopamine release from eating healthy and feeling great each day can create incredible habits that will serve you for a lifetime.
“Don’t hate yourself for not being able to avoid addictive foods because it isn’t easy. It’s using our biology against us,” Gearhardt says. Learn what makes you turn to these foods, whether it’s certain emotions, places or even a time of day. “Just try to be aware of that so you can prepare yourself to have alternative ways of coping or strategising in those moments of temptation.”