I am a self-diagnosed food addict. When I tell people that, they sort of laugh and say something like “yeah so am I” or “aren’t we all.” The sad reality is I think many Americans do indeed have some sort of addiction to food, but everyone reacts to it the same as my example. They laugh it off. But the joke is on us, America.
We are getting fatter and fatter, and today’s children are the first generation whose lifespan may actually be shorter than their parents’. What’s the reason behind this? The simple fact is: we overeat. And we eat the wrong types of food. The question is why? What compels us to eat the way we do? According to Web MD, some doctors now believe that certain foods, such as beef, cheese, and sugar can actually cause addictions in people because of the compounds contained in them that have effects on the calming chemicals in our brains such as dopamine. It becomes a never-ending cycle similar to drug addiction. A person feels bad or bored or tired or sad, so he eats a huge meal or some ice cream or a block of cheese and crackers, and the calming chemicals kick in and that person feels great for a while, until the inevitable crash sets in. Those chemicals start wearing off and the person hits a low again, until he gets his next fix with a cheeseburger or pizza or supreme nachos.
It may sound a bit ridiculous to some people to analogize food cravings with drug addiction. But I bet there are many of you out there who have had that late night food craving that would not go away until you drove to the supermarket at midnight to buy that candy bar or drove through that fast food restaurant to get the #5 value meal, super-sized please. Food can become a dependency, a coping mechanism.
I myself turn to food out of sheer boredom. If I’m sitting at home with nothing to do, eating fills that space. It takes my mind off the fact that I have nothing else to do. And I can tell you that I do experience a sense of calm for a while until the inevitable guilt of overeating sets in. But does that stop me the next time? Of course not, and that’s the addictive aspect.
Let’s all stop for a moment and take a communal shot of honesty. It’s not apples and carrots we crave when we need a food fix. It’s not a big leafy salad or a lean, white meat chicken breast. It’s fatty, carb-filled, sugary, processed foods we crave. These are the foods that trigger the pleasure sensors in our brains, so these are the foods we gravitate toward. And believe me, food producers and marketers are well aware of people and their food habits, and they use it to their full advantage. Did you ever wonder why fast food, pizza, and junk food commercials come on heavily in the evening and later at night? It’s a marketing technique to trigger the home viewer to action. If there’s one thing a couch potato will pry herself off the couch for, it’s a refill on food. Marketers even use the packaging of processed foods to target you in the grocery store. You never see a bag of chips in a dull gray bag. Marketers appeal to all of the senses to get people to try their products.
You may wonder why I’m picking on processed foods when it comes to the causes of food addiction. It’s because processed foods contain all the ingredients that trigger people to want more. They are full of sodium, sugar, and fat, while they are stripped of nutrients and fiber that would be beneficial. (What do I mean by processed foods you may ask? Think crackers, chips, cookies, party mixes, sugary cereals, cereal bars, white breads and pastas, sodas, ice cream – basically anything that comes in a package). Snack food is basically made to keep you wanting more. The typical snack food is full of calories, but without the fiber and water content found in natural, whole foods, these foods go right through the digestive tract, and you are hungry again in no time. This goes the same for sugary desserts and snacks. They are all empty calories. Even the low-fat and low-calorie options, while better, are still devoid of beneficial vitamins, nutrients, and fiber. They leave you wanting more, which usually means that you will eat more…and more…and more.
So here is the dilemma: unlike people who have problems with drugs or alcohol, people who overeat cannot give up food entirely. Food is meant to sustain us and keep us alive. We need food to live, but it is slowly killing us in the form of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and the list goes on. However, this seeming Catch22 does have a solution. EAT NATURAL, WHOLE FOODS.
Every time we go to the grocery store or the market, we have to make a conscious effort to remember that while we need to enjoy what we eat, we also need to benefit from what we eat. This means we need to choose foods that are nutrient-rich and sustaining. Eating is so central to so many things we do, that we tend to forget it is essentially a way to nourish our bodies and give us fuel to not only live but thrive. So, does this mean no more snacking? No, but maybe instead of tortilla chips and cheese dip, choose whole wheat pita and hummus. Or instead of Frosted Flakes, choose oatmeal with blueberries and honey. The choices don’t have to be drastic changes. Every little tweak will help break the dependence on processed foods. And the more you rely on whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, the less your body will crave the sugars, fats, and sodium found in processed foods.
While food cravings and overeating may not be an addiction in the traditional sense of the word, they can effect our lives just as heavily. Any action that can lead to death, in the form of diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other obesity-related ailments, needs to be taken seriously. Making smart choices at the supermarket is the first line of defense against this problem. So, to quote my favorite food author Michael Pollan, the key is to “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”