An increasing number of studies suggest food has highly addictive qualities that are just difficult to overcome. The need for food is a basic requirement for human survival, but it can also be abused.
Don Prince said that for years he has struggled with an unhealthy relationship with food. Addiction is a progressive condition when untreated.
“I just took for granted the health portion of my life,” Prince said. “It was more about having a stack of Oreo cookies with a glass of milk at 10 o’clock at night while I am watching TV in bed. I would justify the cookies. When you are bored, you stick your hand in the bag of Oreos and that’s when food addiction occurs.”
Dr. Cali Estes, a psychologist who specializes in addiction, is among the experts who believe sugar and flour, much like heroin and cocaine, activate dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain, and can affect those who are more susceptible to addiction.
Estes said the foods trigger pleasure sensors that prompt feelings of satisfaction. Similarly to drugs and alcohol, Estes said some people use these foods to suppress emotions.
“It’s a numbing out effect," Estes said. "It’s a short window while you are eating it, or thinking about it, but it’s enough serotonin dopamine to make you happy for a short period.”
When that “high” is gone, people actually go through stages of withdrawal, starting with irritability and fatigue, and then eventually leading to insomnia, headaches and restless leg syndrome.
“All the same symptoms of heroin on a lesser level,” Estes said.
Along with psychological factors, Estes said there can be biological factors that lead to food addiction, including hormonal imbalances, brain chemistry abnormalities, and medication side effects.
There are experts who believe processed foods’ hidden sugars have contributed to the worsening of the obesity epidemic. Researchers estimated last year that one in four adults in the U.S. will have severe obesity in 2030.
Through therapy and direct coaching, Estes said she helps clients change addicts’ mindset about food and helps them learn to replace addictive foods with healthier alternatives.
For more information about food addiction, complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale questionnaire and use the instruction sheet for the scale, visit the Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous page or call Estes at 1-800-706-0318.
5 tips to resist highly-processed foods
2. Avoid getting less than 6 hours of sleep.
3. Manage damaging stress with positive-self-talk, enjoyable activities, meditation, planning, and organization.
4. Adopt an exercise program.
5. Drink water when a craving hits and before meals.