Until recently, I found the notion of “food addiction” to be a load of horse poop. But after reading David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating, I started wavering. Kessler’s theory is that food manufacturers have, over the years, engineered the balance of fat, sugar, and salt in fast food and junk food to the point of making them irresistible. Why? Because they’re a bunch of greedy, thoughtless bastards. It’s a compelling argument and a great read.
(Full Disclosure: Kessler doesn’t actually refer to anyone as a “greedy, thoughtless bastard,” but it felt really great to write that.)
Now, a couple studies out this week have made me a true believer. First off, this study out of Sweden (usually, I don’t trust the Swedes, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt this time) shows that ghrelin, “a neuropeptide that both activates the brain’s reward system and increases appetite” can have similar links to both sugar and alcohol.
In a new study published in the online journal PLoS ONE, researchers examined the genes of 579 individuals chosen from the general public. It emerged that people with certain changes in the ghrelin gene consume more sugar than their peers who do not have these changes. This link was also seen in people who consumed large amounts of both sugar and alcohol.
“This shows that ghrelin is a strong driver when it comes to tracking down rewarding substances such as sugar or alcohol,” says researcher Elisabet Jerlhag from the Sahlgrenska Academy’s Department of Pharmacology.
And in a second study, researchers at Yale showed that certain activities in the brain identified with addictive-like eating behaviors are similar to those associated with substance dependance.
“As predicted, elevated FA scores were associated with greater activation of regions that play a role in encoding the motivational value of stimuli in response to food cues. The ACC and medial OFC have both been implicated in motivation to feed and to consume drugs among individuals with substance dependence,” the authors write. “In sum, these findings support the theory that compulsive food consumption may be driven in part by an enhanced anticipation of the rewarding properties of food. Similarly, addicted individuals are more likely to be physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally reactive to substance-related cues.”
So there you go. Food addicts, you have my sympathy – for about five seconds and then I’m going to start lecturing you. So bask in the solicitude for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
Okay, first off, these studies and Kessler’s book show that you’re not, technically, addicted to food. You’re addicted to crappy food. Delicious, convenient, and fun? Yes, but also crappy. The reason I mention this is that “food” addicts often wallow in their misery, claiming that their addiction is worse than alcohol or other drug addictions because they can never go cold turkey. They need to eat, right?
I’m calling horse poop on this argument. Yes, you need to eat, but you don’t need to eat Dolly Madison honey buns. Are you addicted to carrots? No. Are you addicted to apples? No. Are you addicted a piece of plank-grilled salmon with sides of steamed broccoli and whole-grain couscous. No! These aren’t the kind of foods that do the Humpty-Hump with your anterior cingulate cortex and making y’all sugar silly. These are the kinds of food you need to eat to survive.
Just as many recovering alcoholics reach a point where they’re able to show up at a party, order a mineral water with lime and have a great time as the people around them booze up, you should be able to reach a point where you can have a fine meal at just about any restaurant without ordering a double side of Bloomin’ Onions and an Oreo Parfait for dessert.
You are not a food addict. You are a crappy food addict.
This feeds into my second point, which is that you need to stop wallowing. I’ve watched a number of friends overcome addiction over the years, particularly alcoholism, and generally, admitting there’s a problem is the first step. The painful journey to recovery starts there. Conversely, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “I’m addicted to food! I’m 300 pounds and I’m miserable! Say, are you going to eat the rest of that banana cream pie?”
It’s official. You’re an addict. The studies above attest to that. Now do something about it. If you’re the DIY type, read Kessler’s book. Another great resource is the chapter on desire in psychologist Tara Brach’s excellent book Radical Acceptance. If you need more support than that, look into Overeater’s Anonymous. Or throw out all the junk food in your house. Or create your own reward system. Or make a point of being naked every time you open the fridge. Just do something!
And on a final note, if you’re a food addict and you’re about to throw an angry missive at my head via the Real Fitness Nerd comments box, keep this in mind. I’m not just some skinny guy being an ass. I’m some skinny guy being an ass who has spent the bulk of his life struggling with eating, who still copes with psychological scars from being a fat kid, who still actively has to work not to pork out on pork rinds – sometimes, since we’re playing true confessions here, by getting a little too carried away in the opposite direction and eating a little less than I should.
But for the most part, I’m doing alright. I did it. I made a change, and no one held my hand. So consider this tough love and do something about your crappy food addiction.