Food Addiction: How To Retrain Your Brain

refridgerator(BlackDoctor.org) – You hear about it all the time. Or, you go through this personally – eating something, anything all day long, drowning in chocolate or any other food that honestly feels like it’s helping you get through your day. And many pounds later, you wonder if there’s any way to stop. It seems that everywhere you turn—dinner parties, your best friend’s kitchen, bookstores, even talk shows—someone is confessing to having a food addiction. For years, experts scoffed at the notion that you could actually be hooked on chocolate or chips. Some still do. But recently, high-tech medical scans have revealed surprising similarities in the brain chemistry of drug addicts and chronic overeaters—resemblances that have caught the attention of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We’re involved in studies of brain changes associated with obesity,” says Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of NIDA, whose 2001 study pioneered some of the food-addiction research. “We’re doing it because many compounds that inhibit compulsive eating may also inhibit compulsive drug intake. The neurocircuitry overlaps.”

The behavior of compulsive eaters also lends some new support to this idea of addiction—the cravings and preoccupation with food, the guilt, the way these overeaters use food to relieve bad feelings, and the fact that binges are frequently conducted at night or in secret. Now some addiction and obesity experts have started to use the “A” word in connection with food and even to speculate that it may be partly responsible for America’s rising obesity rate.

“Food might be the substance in a substance-abuse disorder that we see today as obesity,” says Mark Gold, MD, chief of addiction medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
No one—Gold included—is suggesting that an addiction to food could be as strong as the one that drives people addicted to cocaine or heroin. Still, the research into the connection between overeating and addiction isn’t just academic. It may finally put to rest the idea that anyone who eats excessively simply suffers from a lack of self-discipline. More important, the emerging evidence points to some very concrete steps anyone can take to eat in a saner, healthier way.

Blame It on the Brain

It’s not all about willpower. Research at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York suggests that adequate brain receptors for dopamine may be missing, a chemical that is part of the brain’s motivation and reward system. “Dopamine is the chemical that makes you say aah,” says Gene-Jack Wang, MD, clinical head of positron emission tomography imaging at Brookhaven and leader of a series of studies investigating the brain chemistry of chronic overeaters. “It gets us to go over and grab something that will make us feel good.”

“If you have someone who is not responsive to natural reinforcers, that person may be more vulnerable to taking drugs,” Volkow says. “If you get stimulated only by food, guess what happens? You can easily fall into patterns of compulsive eating.”

What the Compulsion Feels Like

It doesn’t take a brain scan to see the similarities between someone addicted to drugs or drink and a compulsive overeater. Like the alcoholic who continues to drink despite seeing her life crumbling around her, the overeater will consume food to the detriment of her social and family life. She may know that her eating is harming her health, but it doesn’t matter, says Gold.

“I actually passed out once,” says Terry Young, 40, of Cincinnati, who calls herself a sugar addict. “It was a total binge, with a gallon of ice cream, cookies, candy bars—like an alcoholic on a bender.”

Is It Nature…or Nurture?

Addiction and obesity both run in families, and experts believe that genetic components account for at least some of a person’s vulnerability. But animal research also suggests that the environment—mainly, how often you’re exposed to an addictive substance—can shift brain neurochemistry, increasing the likelihood of addiction. One hint that environment plays a role comes from studies in which animals were repeatedly given cocaine: Frequent use actually decreased the number of dopamine receptors, says Wang.

If that’s the case, we live in an environment perfectly designed to nurture food addictions. For decades, food-industry scientists have been working hard to figure out how better to hook people, claims David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, CT, and author of The Flavor Point Diet.

Manufacturers now excel at hitting the sweet spot—making us crave more and more of a food. “In a supermarket recently, I actually found a pasta sauce that, serving for serving, contained more sugar than a chocolate fudge sauce, though the sweetness was hidden because the pasta sauce was so salty,” Katz says. “The question is, why would anybody pour a packet of sugar over their pasta? And the answer is that if you get used to that much sugar, another pasta sauce will taste too bland. The food industry wants us to need more and more of the substance to feel satisfied, so we’ll go out and buy more and more of it.”

It’s possible that repeatedly bingeing on sweets could actually change the circuitry of your brain”—and make you want ever-increasing amounts.

Get The Facts Straight

Researchers aren’t ready to declare the case closed on the causes of our collective weight problem. “The research is interesting, but I’d never say that people who struggle with food and weight issues are addicted in a clinical sense,” says Martin Binks, PhD, director of behavioral health at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. “The evidence just isn’t there. And the implication is that if you have an eating problem, you’re destined to lose control—there’s nothing you can do.”

Yet the notion of an addiction to food may help people. Whether you look outside or inside yourself for the determination to stop your destructive behavior, researchers agree that it’s important to recognize that you can change. High-fat, high-sugar foods may trigger some of the same brain effects as drugs like cocaine or heroin, but their impact isn’t as powerful, say researchers, who point out that addicted rats, for instance, will choose cocaine over food.

While it may feel at times like a runaway train, how you eat isn’t out of your control:

1. Don’t go cold turkey
Although treatment for life-threatening drug or alcohol addiction generally requires abstinence, an all-or-nothing approach is impossible for food addicts—everyone has to eat. Besides, some weight loss experts believe that such rigid thinking can make you crave the offending food more than ever.

2. Control your home environment
Just as someone with an alcohol problem shouldn’t buy a magnum of champagne, you shouldn’t overstock your kitchen, says Gold. “You have to assume that every food or drink you buy will end up in your mouth. You’ll see a TV commercial or some other trigger, and that food will end up in your mouth.” Exercise purchase and portion control, Gold advises.

3. Temper temptation
Sometimes it’s not just a food that sets you off but also the place in which you eat it—and that’s why putting yourself in a situation where you used to eat excessively can be a recipe for trouble.The sight of the bakery where you used to buy brownies might melt your resolve. So shake up your routine. If tortilla chips are your weakness, don’t go to Mexican restaurants. If you always have ice cream while watching TV, read a book instead.

4. Retrain your brain
In order to be satisfied with two cookies instead of an entire bag, you need to change the way your brain sees food on the plate, says Gold. First, switch to smaller plates and bowls to automatically reduce portion sizes. “This can make people very distraught because the brain looks at the smaller portions and decides they’re not enough,” says Gold. “But over time, the brain gets used to it.”

5. Adjust your tastebuds
One of the best ways to gain control over your eating is to restore your sensitivity to flavors, says Katz. You can do it without depriving yourself: If sugar is your downfall, keep sugar cookies in your diet, but when picking prepared foods that aren’t supposed to be sweet—such as pasta sauce, bread, and chips—look for ones without added sweeteners. Check ingredient labels for all the names that sugar goes by, including fructose, dextrose, and corn syrup.

6. Exercise regularly
Milky Ways and Big Macs aren’t the only things that satisfy the pleasure centers of your brain—so does exercise. In animals, at least, research has found that it increases dopamine levels and raises the number of dopamine receptors in the brain.

7. Learn to eat only when you’re hungry
One classic tool that weight loss experts use to teach people how to better manage their appetite is the hunger scale. The scale ranges from 0 to 10, with 0 being ravenously hungry and 10 being overstuffed. Eat when you begin to feel hungry (2 or 3 on the scale) and stop when you feel comfortably satisfied (5 or 6). Though it’s obvious that you don’t want to eat to an overstuffed 10, using the scale to gauge when you should start munching is important, too: If you wait until you’re at 0, you may eat all the way up to 10.

8. Deal with your emotions
Even if a brain scan at Wang’s lab were to show that you have a physiological basis for food addiction, it’s likely that there would be an emotional element, too. It’s important to stop using food to cope with your feelings, says McQuillan.

No one’s saying that it’s easy – we’re programmed to eat, and eating makes us feel good. But just think how good it’ll feel to eat better and deliciously while feeling healthier and fitting into those new jeans.

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