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Am I addicted to food? This is a question that many of those who struggle with binge eating, ‘emotional eating’, ‘stress eating’, compulsive grazing, or any other form of undesired overeating eventually ask. The rational part of our brain wishes that we would eat sensibly; another part demands otherwise. With Dr. Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance (available on Amazon) and others suggesting rampant sugar addiction, it seems only logical that we arrive at the conclusion that we are some type of junk food addict.
This article explains my hypothesis about excessive junk food consumption (no, it is not an addiction to refined carbohydrates) and poses a simple theory about how to overcome food addiction or end compulsive overeating of any kind.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Is food addiction a real thing?
I think I’m addicted to food, I once wrote in my diary. I have a food addiction and I brought it upon myself. Why am I addicted to food? As I sank further into years of disordered eating, I had no doubt that my behavior seemed addictive.
Authority Nutrition blogger, Kris Gunnars drew the same conclusion:
I’m a recovering alcoholic, smoker and drug addict with a history of many rehabs, jail more often than I can count and several trips to the emergency room due to overdose.
……I’m here to tell you that food addiction is the same as addiction to drugs… exactly the same.
The term ‘addiction’ has traditionally been reserved for those who repeatedly over-consume alcohol and drugs, however, it is now evident that certain behaviors (such as gambling) affect brain chemicals in the same way. In a study titled Neurobiology of food addiction Daniel Blumenthal and Mark Gold state:
Recent work on food use disorders has demonstrated that the same neurobiological pathways that are implicated in drug abuse also modulate food consumption. […] Work presented in this review strongly supports the notion that food addiction is a real phenomenon.
On Prevention.com, Ashley Gearhardt, co-creator of Yale University’s Food Addiction Scale, writes:
…a growing body of research […] puts “food” – or the processed chemicals that pass for food these days – in the same category as drugs of abuse.
Just as with other addictive substances or behaviors, those who engage in binge eating, compulsive eating or excessive overeating are left with similar sensations of misery. Wikipedia lists the symptoms of food addiction as, among other things: withdrawing from activities (due to the shame of fluctuating weight); feelings of guilt; feeling as if you have lost of control; depression and erratic moods.
Regardless of what you believe, something seems to compel people to consume large quantities of junk food despite the knowledge that doing so damages their health and life. When we engage in a behavior, at our own detriment, over and over again, we call this addiction.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines addiction as the:
…persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.
In the lives of ordinary humans, therefore, food addiction is real. But why?
What are we addicted to?
If something about food is addictive – what is it? What causes us to repeatedly consume excessive calories? Is there an addictive substance within the food? Is there something inherently evil about sugar, junk food or fast food? Is there something addictive in the behavior of binge eating itself (the act of shoveling food in by the fistful) that snares people in the same way as gambling?
Most people blame food addiction upon fructose, sugar in general and/or the excessive presence of refined carbohydrates. We fear the hyper-palatable nature of modern junk food: the irresistible combination of sugar, fat, and salt. Stephan Guyenet, for example, a well-respected obesity researcher and neurobiologist, makes the hypothesis that food reward and palatability are the driving factors in obesity.
I have a different theory.
Motives for action: pleasure and pain
I believe that addiction comes from a substance’s inability to satiate: the failure to deliver a benefit that your brain predicts will arrive. This theory is based upon an insight that I had after reading Addiction: A Disorder of Choice by Gene Heyman (and many other great books) and is explained in more detail below.
Pleasure and pain have evolved to encourage us to repeat beneficial behaviours (ie. those that improve the survival odds of our genes) and to avoid behaviours that disadvantage us (ie. those that reduce our survival). We feel anticipation and desire before something that our brain perceives as good for us; and pleasure while the activity itself is carried out. In situations that we have evolved to cope with, our levels of pleasure and/or anticipation rise and then subside, as a need is filled, leaving us satisfied, so that we return our attention to something else. If an important need is not satiated, our brain has the capacity to down-regulate everything else, to increase our chances of fulfilling that need. In other words, we automatically prioritize all present survival needs, so that we make the best choice we can at any given point in time.
Pleasure and pain are created within us: sensations turned off and on by our brains in response to our perception of the surrounding circumstances and environment. Scientists used to believe that pain was a physical sensation created by an injured part of the body, however, in the book The Brain That Changes Itself (available from Amazon) Norman Doidge M.D. makes it clear that even the pain ‘from’ a severed leg is not a function of the injured flesh itself, but a signal that arises in the brain, IF your brain decides that pain is beneficial. (Ordinarily, of course, in the case of injury, pain is beneficial: it reduces movement and prompts us to seek assistance; to avoid the dangerous activity, rest and heal). There are times, however, when the situation is so dire that our life is at stake. In these cases, our brain needs all effort to be focused upon staying alive and it may choose not to signal pain at all. According to Wikipedia, this is called episodic analgesia:
[Episodic analgesia] may occur under special circumstances, such as in the excitement of sport or war: a soldier on the battlefield may feel no pain for many hours from a traumatic amputation or other severe injury.
Pain – like pleasure – therefore, is crafted within the brain. It is a created response to our perception of the environment and the situation that we find ourselves in. Our desires and wants are NOT permanently fixed to a particular substance or behavior. They are always driven by our perception of our survival needs and our anticipation of a solution, at any given time. When we no longer feel that an action will fulfill a need (through a change in circumstance – or, more accurately, through a change in our understanding of the circumstance) the desire, too, is gone. When this happens, an obsession dissipates instantly and we turn our attention to something else.
Addiction boils down to one thing: you want it, you crave it, because deep down you feel that it fills a need. When you least expect it, your body is filled with wanting and you feel unable to say no.
Addictive substances and behaviors are a con: they offer a promise. They deceive us with the allure of a benefit that never arrives. What is worse: they create that very need you are attempting to alleviate.
When this deception is exposed and held up, irrefutably, clear, in the light of day, our desire changes. When we see a version of the world that is a little closer to the truth, arguments topple in our brain and we make a different choice.
The capacity for instant change
Here’s an example to illustrate how human cravings for something change, as a situation changes:
- Imagine that you are a cavewoman (or caveman) about to consummate a relationship with the love of your life – the most perfect mate you have ever encountered and someone that you have been dreaming of for a long time. They are standing near you, bathed in the gentle sunset. In this scenario, how high is your sexual desire?
- Imagine, now, that you are trapped in a storm, freezing cold, about to die of hypothermia. As you claw through the frozen snow-drifts, how high do you rate your desire to consummate the relationship?
- Imagine that your lover is traveling to a neighboring clan and, while they are gone, your food supplies are ransacked. You have not eaten in many days and are so weak that you can barely move. Your children are crying and clinging to your empty body. Do you have a strong desire to consummate the relationship?
- Now imagine that you are sick, with a high fever, runny nose, and clogged eyes. Are you filled with sexual desire?
These examples illustrate that the desire to carry out a particular action fluctuates dramatically as our knowledge of a situation changes. We are blessed with a responsive brain and body that adapts to the surroundings, calculating and recalculating needs so that we are primed to take the best course of action in every given moment.
Here are some more examples to illustrate just how quickly our brain can change its response to the same stimuli, after the acquisition of new information:
- You are swimming with a friend and feel a hand lightly brush your leg. You turn to smile, only to discover that they are gone and a pool of blood stains the surface. When something brushes against your leg again, the same sensation triggers a terrified scream.
- You have sought the affection of your latest crush for several months. At a party, they are seated opposite you. When they begin to play footsies under the table, you feel a rush of euphoria. This ends immediately when you discover that it was the office sleaze.
- You have a dull ache in your side, after colliding with a ball. The ache is annoying but not severe and you mention this in passing to your Doctor when you see her about something unrelated. When the Doctor examines you, she tells you that there is a small chance that the discomfort has been caused by a tumor, rather than a collision with the ball. Immediately, the dull ache throbs and swells into a panic-filled pain.
In all of these situations, your brain and body respond differently and immediately when new information comes to hand. A new viewpoint changes desire and action in an instant. There is nothing we can do to will ourselves to change, unless this is accompanied by an alteration of circumstance or in the supply of new information that reorganizes our understanding of the world. Change occurs when what we know changes – when information tilts the existing interpretation in our brain.
Supernormal Stimuli: an accidental trap
In Supernormal Stimuli (available from Amazon) Deirdre Barrett describes the work of scientist Niko Tinbergen, who conducted ground-breaking experiments, showing that animals can be tricked into responding to artificial objects that exaggerate key cues found in the natural environment. He demonstrated that if the right cues are present, an animal will respond to an exaggerated cue with more enthusiasm than it will show for the real ones: often with dire consequences. They are conned, despite the ‘fake stimulus’ being absurdly unrealistic in other ways.
In 1973 Tinbergen, along with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns”. The award recognized their studies on genetically programmed behaviour patterns, their origins, maturation and their elicitation by key stimuli. – Wikipedia
Examples of supernormal stimuli are as follows:
- Herring gull chicks will beg for food vigorously from a red knitting needle with three white bands painted around it, begging with more enthusiasm than they will from a realistic 3D model of an adult herring gull head (adult gulls have a red spot on the yellow bill – the chicks normally peck the red spot to signal that the mother should regurgitate her food).
- Small songbirds will sit on fake eggs that are much larger and more intense in pattern and color than their own. They will sit on fake eggs that are so large that they repeatedly slide off them – while ignoring their own, paler, dappled eggs.
- A greylag goose will roll any nearby round-shaped object into her nest, even a doorknob or football sized fake egg.
- Male three-spined stickleback fish, which have a red belly, will vigorously attack a wooden float that is painted a more vibrant red, while ignoring a realistically shaped model – unless the belly is also painted red). The fish even responded to red trucks driving past their tank.
- Julodimorpha beetles confuse the dimples on the base of discarded brown beer bottles for light striking the wings of a female and sit atop them, attempting to mate the bottle. The beetles are often eaten in the process by predatory ants, whereupon another beetle will immediately mount the bottle and take its place (this is shown in the video below).
- Frogs will flick out their tongue to catch a flying insect, when they sense movement. If a frog is surrounded by dead flies, on the other hand (ie motionless things to eat) it will starve to death.
- Moths repeatedly fly into human lights. Despite getting burnt, they keep it up until they die.
The anticipation and pleasure that animals feel towards objects and behaviors that traditionally boost survival odds seem to be easily mimicked and manipulated by artificial means. Surely we would not be fooled by such techniques?
It may be disconcerting to consider that women routinely lavish faces with makeup, brightening lips, highlighting eyes and even, in extreme cases, adding breast implants or undergoing other cosmetic surgeries – all of which attempt to exaggerate the cues of human femininity. Men and women embark upon exercise regimes and extreme dieting in the hope of achieving the ‘ideal human form’. Whether a stimulus is exaggerated or merely isolated from the natural benefit that we expect it to provide – it seems plausible that all addictive items have this trap at their center; a con – a lie about a survival advantage that is never received.
Luckily, the human brain allows us to examine the past and envision the future, running endless simulations with this knowledge, arriving at a conclusion that modifies or turn off our initial response. You might think that overriding instincts is impossible, but if this were the case, the human frontal cortex would never have evolved and our species would not be where we are today: dominating the planet. If you could see that the large plastic egg you been sitting on is nothing but a con job; that rather than hatching superior offspring, you are sitting on an empty plastic shell that CONTAINS NOTHING; you would climb off in an instant.
Low nourishment food: the false promise
Junk food cons our brain into thinking that it will provide vastly more nutrition than it does. We know, consciously, that junk food contains little nourishment, but it looks, smells, and tastes like delicious food. Our body expects two things in this situation: energy and nutrition. Junk food does not deliver what it promises. In our stomach, where foodstuffs are disassembled, broken into their parts, measured and delivered to our body, we discover the truth: what we hunger for has not arrived. If you consume a low-nourishment snack while starving, or in a state of withdrawal [misery] from prior consumption, you will find the allure of the substance exaggerated, because you have a higher survival need. In these situations, fake food tastes much better than it normally does and our brain remembers this: it files away the memory; the records the moment of trickery; the moment we are fooled into thinking we are consuming the most wondrous food on earth.
On the Weston Price website, Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD, record an quote by explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, describing what happens when animal fat in the traditional diet of Native Americans becomes scarce:
This trouble is worst, so far as North America is concerned, among those forest Indians who depend at times on rabbits, the leanest animal in the North, and who develop the extreme fat-hunger known as rabbit-starvation. Rabbit eaters, if they have no fat from another source – beaver, moose, fish – will develop diarrhoea in about a week, with headache, lassitude and vague discomfort. If there are enough rabbits, the people eat till their stomachs are distended; but no matter how much they eat they feel unsatisfied.
No matter how much they eat, they feel unsatisfied. When a need is not fulfilled, the craving doesn’t goes away. After dieting, I ate and ate and could never seem to get full. Sometimes I baked fat free, white flour free, sugar free, f*cking everything free muffins and devoured the entire tray in one sitting, destroying my intestines with the onslaught of indigestible fibre and feeling endlessly ill and bloated, but never satisfied.
Scientists have queried whether there are flaws in an obese person’s ability to recognise leptin (the hormone that, among other things, should reduce hunger and suppress food intake). Obese people often appear to be ‘leptin resistant’ – in other words, they have high levels of leptin present in their body, but these are ‘ignored’. It is suggested that something in a fat person’s body is malfuntioning and not behaving as it should: that, for some reason or other, they are metabolically broken. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, over two in three American adults are overweight or obese. Is it really plausible that that many people have been born with a malfunctioning body?
A study titled The Malnutrition of Obesity: Micronutrient Deficiencies That Promote Diabetes makes it clear that:
Despite excessive dietary consumption, obese individuals have high rates of micronutrient deficiencies. Deficiencies of specific vitamins and minerals that play important roles in glucose metabolism and insulin signaling pathways may contribute to the development of diabetes in the obese population.
A meal comprising of flour, sugar, artificial additives, rancid fats and/or any other ingredient that delivers calories and exaggerated taste with minimal nutrition has a tendency towards over-consumption because we need to eat more if we hope to survive; our life depends upon it.
Does a glass of oil appeal? No. Does a glass of sugar appeal? No. Because your brain sees them for what they are. It doesn’t matter how sweet those white crystals are, you are not tempted to chew down cupful after cupful, because your brain is not that stupid. We can see the trick. It doesn’t matter if we know that sugar is sweet and tastes nice on your tongue, the desire to gorge upon cupfuls of pure, refined sucrose crystals does not exist. It is only when these things are combined with artificial flavors, fake colors and other manmade concoctions (and tiny sprinklings of other ingredients) that we are fooled into thinking this is food. When our eyes and tongue assess the situation and we arrive at ‘food containing nutrients we need’, our brain signals pleasure. The promise of food is never fulfilled, however, because no matter how much we eat, we don’t get what we need.
The addictive element in modern food is not in an ingredient or a toxin, but a mismatch between what is promised and what is delivered. We need a wide range of raw materials to build ourselves – the building blocks of life (saturated fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and, of course, energy). When we embark upon a restrictive diet, and plunge into psychological and physical misery, we end up gorging upon low-nourishment food. Perhaps, for the first time in our life, we eat a meal-sized (or banquet sized) serving that is almost entirely devoid of nourishment, but yet tastes delicious. This act leaves us confused, hungry, unsatisfied: worse off than before. The cycle of addiction begins.
Starvation, junk food addiction and the fear of impending restriction can all be removed in the same way: acquiring new information that changes your automatic perception of needs, and thus alters your cravings and desire, allowing you to eat normal, nourishing meals, once more.
All addictions are the same
The notion that things become addictive when they lack benefits that our brain expects to arrive fits with other addictions, as described below.
Marital relations typically deliver offspring, increased affection and love from a family group (all of which benefit your survival chances – and those of your offspring). Viewing pornography, however, leads to social isolation, depression and (perhaps surprisingly) impotence. It is incorrect to say that the sensation of arousal is addictive, but that, when the benefits of a traditional relationship no longer exist (the benefits are removed, through the absence of an actual partner) the behavior becomes addictive.
Caffeine promises the escape from tiredness. It momentarily cons your brain into feeling alert and refreshed as if you had just woken from a wonderful night’s sleep. Unfortunately, caffeine does not provide any of the restorative brain function that sleep delivers – the genuine benefit of rest; rather it forces your brain to enter an artificial stress mode, pumping stress hormones to your cells. When the effect wears off, you are more tired than before. In addition to the original tiredness, you now have an extreme low caused by the artificial high. Thus you are prompted to take another dose. The downward cycle of ever-increasing caffeine consumption is caused by the fact that the offer of alertness is an illusion.
Video game addiction
Solving complex problems and climbing social hierarchy in the real world brings prestige, wealth and support from a community. Solving challenges within a video game, populated by online ‘friends’, triggers the same sense of elation, achievement, and belonging, however, it causes the gamer to withdraw from real acquaintances, postpone real-world responsibilities and sacrifice the time available for other pursuits. This increases isolation and cements an addictive cycle whereby the game is played over and over again. The benefits your brain expects to arrive when you accomplish virtual challenges do not exist.
Junk food addiction
A nourishing meal is not addictive. It satisfies and fuels your body, allowing it to grow strong and healthy. Flavoring agents coupled with an absence of nutrition, is addictive. It is not the great taste that is the problem – but artifical addition of taste to different foods. Without this, there is no cue to stop: satisfaction never arrives.
How to beat food addiction: help me. please help me.
People throw a lot of ideas around when it comes to addiction. They speak of ‘addictive personalities’ and an alcoholic’ gene. We refer to those who are trapped as addicts, as if that is who they are, rather than a person who has stepped into a trap that they didn’t know was there. We compare patients who are given morphine in hospital settings to those who fall into addiction, after trying it once on the streets. We are scared that there is something different about us: that addiction – to food, nicotine, drugs or alcohol – implies gullibility, a weakness. We fear that we are depressed human beings, doomed to self-medicate or suffer for the rest of our lives. We fear that our course of action has damaged us, ruined us beyond repair; leaving us unable to recover and or access normal levels of human control.
Allen Carr, an accountant who cured his own nicotine addiction instantly and then went on to cure millions more (including many alcoholics and drug addicts) shatters this illusion. He makes it clear that the danger of addiction is not in you, it is a cunning trap in the substance or behavior itself. Engaging in an addiction leaves your life worse off – and when your brain senses this, it signals pain. Unfortunately, this pain often drives you to find salvation in the very thing that causes your pain.
Diagram 1: The precursor to addiction
Diagram 2: The downward cycle of addiction
The Pain of addiction
Those who have never experienced it, cannot ever really comprehend the misery that addiction creates. The situation is serious – every aspect of your being is compromised. When you suffer, rational thinking and the ability to summons effort towards long term goals is difficult. The pain of addiction is the equivalent of a leg spurting blood onto the ground. It is an emergency that must be solved now. We can SEE, logically, that ceasing the addictive behaviour would cause our happiness levels to normalise and set us free…but when we are caught in the trap, it seems too hard. We thrash in quicksand, unable to see the solid ground beside us. As with any addiction, junk food addiction creates gradual, incremental physical damage and social ostracism, slowly eating away your life…but the unbearable part is that we feel to blame. We did through our own actions. This knowledge creates unbridled hopelessness and shame. We know that something is wrong, something so confusing and terrible that all of our effort seems only to have made it worse and for some absurd reason, we can’t quite put our finger on what is wrong. We know we must, must, MUST fix it. We must get rid of this pain and hopeless and ridiculous behavior, but we don’t know how. Please, get rid of it now? So we do. We make the pain vanish, for this moment, using the only way we know.
This is the trap of addiction.
It is not a personal failing, but a mistake. It is a misunderstanding. Your brain attached happiness to something that caused pain, and you didn’t realise, until it was too late. You see, there’s something insidious about addiction: each layer of pain is so mild that you don’t notice the difference, until you’re so deep in the trap that you suddenly wake up.
Please don’t despair. There is a way out.
How to break food addiction easily
Just as your brain can choose not to signal the pain of a severed leg, when it realises that your life is at stake, it can stop the pain of addiction, using logic: truth. It can turn off those feelings and replace them with exhilaration, when you realise that escape is not only possible, but that you can do it. The right information can turn off your cravings, because the misery you feel is not related to your slowly eroding physical state, it is mental. It is a sensation that arises in your brain based upon your perception of the situation; your evaluation of the situation as hopeless. This evaluation can be changed, instantly, when you are presented with conflicting evidence that stands up to the beliefs in your brain.
Let’s not mince words. This is not just about aesthetics or social ostracism (which should not be minimized, because that threatens a survival need too: if you cannot find a mate and/or if society threatens to outcast you, this is a real threat to your genes)…but this is even worse than that. If you sacrifice real food for deceptive food on a continual basis, your life is in danger. Obesity (or rather, the chronic ingestion of food-like meals that deliver insufficient nourishment) causes more death than alcohol and drugs combined. This quote from the World Health Organisation (emphasis mine), outlines some of the risks:
Raised BMI is a major risk factor for noncommunicable diseases such as:
- cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke), which were the leading cause of death in 2012;
- musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis – a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints);
- some cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon).
NOTE: This does not mean that all fat people are unhealthy, or that BMI is an adequate measure for determining health (indeed, it seems that those who are overweight but not obese are the most healthy of all, probably because they do not endure restriction and thus meet all dietary needs), but it means that is there is a serious correlation between poor health and diet (whether this results in malnutrition and low bodyweight or malnutrition and obesity).
There is only one reason you eat excessive quantities of food. You crave it. Your brain has evaluated the data, thinks you need it and has generated a craving.
We’re going to examine every speck of that need. We are going to look at the self-perpetuating pain of addiction, that feeds upon itself and grows unnoticed, and expose the needs and fears for what they are. We are going to dismantle the misconceptions, piece by piece, until your brain realises it is ridiculous and turns the pain off. Then, you can transform discomfort into joy.
How to stop eating junk food right now
Cravings are triggered by knowledge in your head. You choose to eat deceptive food, because your brain presents this as the best course of action. You have repeated this so many times, that the behaviour runs on autopilot, but even if it did not, you would choose to do it. When the right information is presented to you, you choose differently.
To end a junk food addiction, you must eat normal, honest food. For most of us, normal eating means three meals a day, interspersed with occasional snacks if hungry. But in order to do this – in order for this simple task to make sense – there are several pieces of key information you must absorb. (For example, it seems obvious that the way to end a nicotine addiction is to stop smoking. Smokers know this, but struggle with how to make themselves do it. In a similar way, we know that if we set aside all of our crazy, disordered eating habits and just ate normal meals we would be fine, but we don’t know how. We often get stuck in years of attempted ‘intuitive eating’ while we wait in vain for our food intake to normalize (I spent three years trying to eat normally, while slowly growing fatter and fatter. The binge eating subsided, and became just perpetual, constant grazing).
My upcoming book aims to outline systematically the pieces of information required to make this transformation easy: to make it exciting, awesome and possible to end your junk food addiction. Read more here.