Food addiction is when you eat for a state change, and keep eating in an obsessive way in the face of harm from it. I outlined the ways that “Big Food” hooks you into food addiction and conditioned overeating through the targeted design of foods that combine sugar, flour, fat, and salt into a hyperpalatable combination that you can’t resist. (If you have a family history of eating issues or high stress levels lead you to emotional eating, you’re even more vulnerable). Processed food seems to play an especially bad role in overweight and obese women and there are new indications that body mass index (a ratio of weight and height) may also trigger loss of control over eating.
How much you eat and how your body responds to food is controlled by many factors:
- emotional state
- moral code
- sensory information
- hormones including cortisol, insulin, leptin, ghrelin, adiponectin, plus others
- brain chemicals, such as dopamine and/or the endocannabinoid system
- past conditioning
- and stress – or more accurately, allostatic load
While some clinicians may dismiss these factors as contributors to food addiction, there are growing data showing that food addiction is real, it’s a root cause of overweight and obesity, and it causes terrible suffering for those people afflicted by it. In fact, the respected Yale Food Addiction Scale (which was discussed in the prior blog) has been cited in at least 13 studies—evidence that our most prestigious educational institutions are taking this issue very seriously.
The focus of this blog is on solutions to food addition—real strategies you can use to understand your attraction to food and get the urge to overeat back under control.
Food Rehab: A Biochemical Prescription for Food Addiction
1. Crowd out the bad stuff with MORE nutrient-dense food.
You can help control cravings through proper nutrition; that is, turning your food focus to nutrient-dense foods. That begins with an understanding of your biochemical predispostion to the way certain foods trigger your addictive behaviors.
The amount of food you eat affects the balance of brain chemistry, hormones and blood sugar levels. Over- and undereating creates unstable blood sugar, low functioning thyroid, food allergies, and amino acid and fatty acid deficiencies that can weaken neurotransmitter mechanisms. So make sure you eat enough! Most food addicts tend to restrict food intake during the day, and that can have a very negative effect on your food cravings. Remember Phoebe from the last blog entry, one of my patients who struggled with food addiction? She admitted that she usually had a “food hangover” from eating the night, which meant that breakfast was out of the question. “What’s the point? I’m not bingeing every night because I’m hungry. I’m doing it because I’m addicted. I’m gonna eat anyway, may as well save a few calories during the day. Plus I hate eating breakfast.”
This is one place where you can begin to break the back of food addiction, just like Phoebe did. Daytime is no time to be frugal with food intake. Your body is smart. Even if you’re feeling stuffed and bloated from overeating the night before, your gut is talking to your brain and saying “Hey. I’m need some good, fresh fuel this morning to stay regulated and keep the binge monster under the bed.” Don’t let your mind second-guess your body. Not every craving for food is bad, so don’t summarily dismiss them all in an attempt to bring your food addiction under control.
If you have been a nocturnal (over)eater for years, you won’t fix the problem over night. Like any learned behavior, it takes time to replace the bad habits with good ones. And yes…in the beginning, it’s going to take some real effort on your part, so start off with some easy, simple steps. Drink a protein-rich smoothie for breakfast. Make yourself eat a teensy lunch. Introduce fruit or vegetables to replace snacks. Drink lots of water. I pinkie swear that if you do this for a week your cravings will subside. You won’t have to rely solely on willpower because biochemically, you will have helped take away the urge to overeat by keeping your blood sugars level.
For some people, gluten can cause peculiar, drug-like neurological effects. In his book Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis says that morphine-like compounds created from the digestion of gluten pass through the blood-brain barrier and have the potential to generate euphoria, addictive behavior and appetite stimulation. Generally, chemical compounds like morphine or oxycodone (we call these opiods) enhance the desire to eat, while opioid antagonists decrease that desire. What’s this have to do with gluten? Well, here’s an interesting fact: Wheat gluten contains peptides that mimic opioid activity. That could explain why eating gluten can make you feel good—and why you go back for more, even if it’s not good for you. So try removing gluten from your diet for a week and see if your food cravings subside. If they do, you might have a gluten sensitivity. (This is a great example of resetting your diet, which in turn resets your hormones. I cover this extensively in my new book The Hormone Reset Diet. You can preorder a copy by clicking here).
Remember: Your meals should contain enough essential fatty acids and amino acids to build sufficient serotonin and dopamine, both of which help you inhibit your food intake (particularly the intake of carbohydrates). Pay close attention to the food that you eat during the day and say to yourself, “Am I helping or hurting my cravings by what I’m about to put in my mouth?” Think like an objective scientist. If you know that food is composed of chemical and molecular compounds that can affect your biochemistry, doesn’t it make sense to choose the ones that will make you healthy, energetic, and vital?
2. Reset your neurohormonal dashboard.
Now that you are crowding out the hyperpalatable foods with nutrient-dense foods, you have a chance to wrangle the dopamine and cortisol signals that keep you addicted. However, now that you’re messing around with the reward center in your brain, you need to give it a little help so you can stick with your new way of eating.
One of the key hormones of addiction to hyperpalatable food is CRF—shorthand for Corticotropin Releasing Factor. CRF signals the body to release cortisol, the main stress hormone. CRF helps regulate fear, doubt, anxiety, and stress. When rats are fed junk food, and then suddenly switched back to healthy food, they flip out like a drug addict in withdrawal. When tested, these rats had five times the normal amount of CRF. Let me tell you, that is one stressed and anxious rodent! Yet, when they were allowed to eat junk food again, their CRF returned to normal—but they binged.
Make no mistake about it: Junk food alters your brain chemistry and the expression of your DNA, even when you stop eating it. In fact, these brain changes can even be passed on from pregnant rodents to their babies—so much so that the baby rodents are more likely to become obese. Big Food knows this. The millions of dollars of research and their deep understanding of these biochemical processes ends up in that bag of chips or in the burger on that plastic tray. Now, you have that same knowledge, which means you can arm yourself with something far more powerful than just willpower.
Another great way to reset your neurohormonal dashboard is to connect with your inner divinity. Geneen Roth says that a women’s relationship with food is about something bigger—a search for wholeness and a search for God. Twelve Step programs teach that addiction is a physical problem that can be resolved spiritually when one develops conscious contact with a Higher Power. This leads to another approach to control your cravings: accessing the true you that’s in your mind and in your heart.
How can you do this? Try a ten-minute morning meditation. Commit to a yoga class today. Close your eyes and focus on nothing but your breathing. Right now, I’m enjoying an app called “Headspace” and their 10X10 challenge. The app is free, and the 10X10 challenge is about committing to a 10-minute guided visualization on the app for ten days. I’m seeing a lot of research that is suggesting a link between high stress, high cortisol, and binge eating. If you can control stress with mindfulness and some gentle self-care, you have yet another tool to help break the habit of reaching for food when you need to calm yourself.
3. Interrupt your pattern.
It’s hard to say when addicted overeating becomes a habit. The two go hand-in-hand. That said, your biochemical urges will quiet down if you change up your routine and avoid slippery places. Take the case of Phoebe. Her routine including a trip to the grocery store each night on her way home from work to buy her binge foods. She would hide food in her car so her husband couldn’t see it, and she would binge after he went to sleep.
Remember Phoebe, who we discussed in Part 1 of this blog? I suggested that Phoebe change up her routine. Instead of shopping at night, I had her buy food at lunchtime, right after she ate a big lunch full of green vegetables and a small serving of clean protein. (You never want to go shopping on an empty stomach!) I said that she was not allowed to take any food out of the bags after she put them in the car and that she should go to bed at the same time as her husband.
These “pattern interrupts” made a huge difference for her. By removing the behavior that directly led to binge eating, Phoebe’s fight against her food urges calmed down. While she admitted that she missed parts of her ritual, being less addicted has been worth every moment she feels uncomfortable, anxious or upset about not having her food. She knows that she has to stay vigilant, but she now has more arrows in her quiver that she can use to slay the dragons of her own temptation. And the way Phoebe feels these days, it appears that she’s become a very good archer!
Bonus Tip for Women: Bring in the Troops
Addiction is sneaky and ruthless. It strikes when you’re tired at the end of the day, you’ve poured yourself a glass of wine and you’re standing in front of the pantry, where it’s so easy to reach for the cookies and chips. This is when Phoebe calls a trusted friend; an accountability partner whom she leans on when she feels the urge to overindulge. That partner helps her fill the empty hole with something other than food. They listen to her. They offer a little motivation or good advice. They remind her that what’s happening is biochemical and hormonal—and she’s in full control. Most important, they remind her of her long-term goal of weight loss, hormonal balance, and good health.
It’s said that we need to do something 21 times before it becomes a habit. Find an accountability buddy and get started today making that phone call. Arresting your cravings begins with a little help from our friends.
Supplement Plan: The Binge Busters
In addition to balanced eating, I recommend that the recovering food addicts with whom I work start taking supplements. Here’s a list of my favorite ones.
Bifidobacteria and L-glutamine. This powerful duo strengthens and heals your gut with a load of good bacteria, helping you manage your sugar cravings.
B Complex. All of the B vitamins play an important role in combating stress.
Vitamin C. Helps nourish adrenal glands.
Minerals. Magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, chromium, manganese and selenium can help take the sting out of stress.
Emotions and Habits
For many of us, overeating may be tied to some kind of emotional distress; that is, a deeply ingrained behavior or a reaction to something that happened to us a long time ago. We may not be aware of what that is at a conscious level, especially if we’ve been carrying it around for years.
It can be frightening to consider a life where you don’t numb or entertain yourself with food. I see this regularly when my patients with food addiction issues start down a new path. That’s why I encourage small steps. If you overindulge or binge, forgive yourself and start again. Seek counseling to address any underlying emotional issues connected to your overeating. Go easy on yourself and keep your focus on the long-term goal. You don't have to change everything in one day—nor do you want to. Overcoming food addiction takes time and consistency. Don’t set yourself up for trouble by trying to do it all at once.
This is a journey to new health and new vitality. It’s about creating healthy habits that can move you in amazing new directions. It’s about understanding the root causes of why you overeat and taking mindful, deliberate steps to change your behavior. Most important, it’s about creating a new you, a vital, happy, hormone-balanced woman who can take on the world—and win.
Davis, Caroline, Claire Curtis, Robert D. Levitan, Jacqueline C. Carter, Allan S. Kaplan, and James L. Kennedy. "Evidence That ‘Food Addiction’ Is a Valid Phenotype of Obesity." Appetite, 2011, 711-17.
Cottone, P., V. Sabino, M. Roberto, M. Bajo, L. Pockros, J. B. Frihauf, E. M. Fekete, L. Steardo, K. C. Rice, D. E. Grigoriadis, B. Conti, G. F. Koob, and E. P. Zorrilla. "CRF System Recruitment Mediates Dark Side of Compulsive Eating."Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009, 20016-0020.