What Makes Certain Foods So Addicting?

If you find yourself craving certain foods — especially ones that are considered unhealthy — your mind probably isn’t playing tricks on you, as you may actually be addicted to them. Just like cigarettes are habit-forming, some of what we eat can be equally addicting as well and you may find it hard to stop eating certain foods once you’ve started. This is because the more of these foods you eat, the more of them your brain will want even though the rational side of you knows that they’re foods you probably shouldn’t be overindulging in, and sometimes staying away from them runs a lot deeper than simply having willpower. Foods that people will commonly find themselves getting addicted to include processed foods (such as pizza), sugary foods (such as chocolate, cake, cookies, and ice cream), salty foods (such as potato chips, French fries and pretzels), hamburgers, and fried chicken.

When you eat, what’s known as the “reward system” activates in the brain and releases feel-good chemicals including the neurotransmitter known as dopamine, which the brain interprets as pleasure. However, when you consistently eat foods that are bad for you, the dopamine receptors will begin to down-regulate. The brain will then remove those dopamine receptors, which will cause you to overindulge in junk food in order to reach the same reward level as before. In other words, the brain becomes tolerant on those unhealthy foods, and without them you can start to go into a state of withdrawal. When you crave foods, it’s not because your brain is craving the nourishment — it’s because your brain has an increased need for dopamine.

While it’s not uncommon to have cravings, it can become problematic when you start giving into those cravings on a regular basis. This can be either the result of food addiction, or you may be experiencing something known as emotional eating, which can be caused from things like stress, anxiety, and trauma. The difference between food addiction and emotional eating is that those who tend to eat unhealthy whenever their emotions are running high will only do so during that time and is often only a temporary thing, whereas food addiction can occur at any time and can be quite frequent.

There are many negatives that can occur as a result of unhealthy eating, especially when food cravings and addictions are involved, as they can promote things like overeating and binging, which can also lead to obesity. If you are obese, your risk of developing things like heart disease and high cholesterol will also increase exponentially. People with food addictions are also at risk of developing further problematic psychological problems and addict-like behaviour, poor self-esteem, depression, as well as other physical problems.

People will food addictions will often try to keep their eating habits a secret, usually because they are unaware they have a problem or don’t agree with someone (such as a healthcare professional) who suggests they do. Unfortunately, with any addiction, you need to realize you have a problem in order for any type of treatment to be successful because there’s no magical cure. However, one of the best methods used to treat food addiction and other behavioural and mental health issues is with a psychological approach known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), in which negative thoughts and patterns are challenged and altered. Because food addictions are often linked to sweets, salt, and other less-than-healthy products, you also need to work on changing your eating habits, which CBT can help with in addition to seeking help from a registered dietitian and/or nutritionist. Medication is not normally prescribed as a direct treatment method for food addiction. However, as food addiction is also linked to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, anti-depressants will often be prescribed along with CBT. If your mental health is one of the main leading causes for your food cravings and food addiction, your therapist will also help you to identify the triggers and find you healthier ways to cope.



Dr. Ali Ghahary is a Family Physician in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. http://www.alighahary.ca

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