Hooked on Food
Are you captive of a food addiction?
By Richard Trubo
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
If the number on your bathroom scale seems to be rising faster than the national debt, and if you repeatedly find yourself piling food onto your oversized plate in an almost reckless manner at all-you-can-eat buffet lines, could you be captive of a "food addiction"?
Most people know that the physically addictive properties of caffeine can make giving up your first (and second and third) cup of coffee in the morning a harrowing way to start the day. But some doctors believe that people are also driven to eat foods like beef and cheese with just as much compulsion, and the reason may be an unrecognized food addiction.
Neal Barnard, MD, for example, says he believes that cheese, meat, chocolate, and sugar are addictive foods in the diets of millions of Americans. Barnard, the author of Breaking the Food Seduction and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says that these foods contain chemical compounds that stimulate the brain's secretion of opiate-like, "feel-good" chemicals like dopamine, which drive our cravings for them.
Alan Goldhamer, DC, co-author of The Pleasure Trap and director of TrueNorth Health Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., agrees. "A large percentage of the population is vulnerable to the effects of this hyperstimulation [from foods that trigger dopamine production], and they get caught up in an addictive cycle," he says. But unlike the addiction to drugs, which is widely acknowledged, this problem remains largely unrecognized, according to proponents of the food addiction theory.
Food Addiction: Where's the Beef?
Not long ago, when ads for a potato-chip manufacturer were teasing consumers with the challenge, "Betcha can't eat just one!", they may have really meant it!
Food manufacturers have done an exquisite job of recognizing and tapping into our cravings, using persuasive ads and alluring packaging to keep their products tumbling into our shopping carts. "There are so many processed foods that are not only calorically dense, but they also stimulate dopamine production that makes us feel good," says Goldhamer.
On the other hand, many nutritional experts believe that there are more important risks associated with processed foods that have nothing to do with addictions. "The problem with processed food is that you digest it so quickly that it's out of your stomach in no time and you still feel hungry," says Michael Roizen, MD, author of Cooking the RealAge Way. "If you take the fiber out of food, you get a lot of empty calories."
While lobbyists for food manufacturers may minimize the risks of plates brimming with meat, cheese, and other high-fat items, Roizen says he believes that eating more than 20 grams a day of bad fats such as saturated fats and trans fats can contribute to breast and prostate cancers, as well as what he calls "arterial aging," which may lead to heart disease, stroke, impotence, memory loss, and even skin wrinkling.
The same goes for sugar, says Roizen, professor of medicine and anesthesiology at the State University of New York College of Medicine in Syracuse. "The main reason to avoid sugar is that it ages your arteries," he says. Add to that the recent lawsuits against fast-food chains for contributing to obesity and chronic illnesses, and the food industry may feel it is under a siege of supersized proportions.
Getting to Be a Habit
When words like "food addiction" are bandied about, there are plenty of skeptics who hesitate to put foods like cheese and chocolate into the same category as widely acknowledged addictions such as cocaine or alcohol. But Barnard asks, "What other term would you use for a woman who gets into her car at 11:30 at night and drives six miles to the 7-Eleven to get a chocolate bar, and does it every night? She's gaining weight, she feels profoundly guilty afterward, and though she resolves to stop this behavior, she does it every night, night after night? That's a food addiction."
In an animal study at Princeton University in 2002, researchers found that after rats binged on sugar, they showed classic signs of withdrawal (such as "the shakes," anxiety, and changes in brain chemistry) when the sweets were removed from their diet, suggesting that sugar may have addictive properties.