Food addiction is a rapidly growing problem in modern times. Addictive foods are available on the corner of every street, and food producers are using an ever-increasing blend of additives to hook returning customers. In fact, food companies engineer many foods to draw you back for more.
Whenever we pick up a newspaper and read a story about a food addiction, it’s usually about a woman. Specifically, it’s a prominent idea that food disorders don’t happen to men. Apparently, that would be weak and unmasculine when “a real man” should be powerful.
Sadly, these are all common views. Working in the nutrition industry, it’s the kind of thing I hear every day.
What is Food Addiction and How Does it Develop?
Food addiction usually appears by stealth—little by little. Often, people with an unhealthy relationship with food don’t realize they have a problem until too late.
Unfortunately, food addiction has links with a wide variety of health problems. Obesity is an obvious consideration, but over-consumption of refined carbohydrate and sugar also significantly increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
As stated above, the foods most likely to trigger addictive behavior are simple sugars and refined carbohydrate. When you consume these foods, an avalanche of sugar hits your bloodstream almost instantaneously. As a result of this, neurochemical changes happen in the brain, not unlike a drug addict experiences (6).
The Impact of Dopamine – the Brain’s ‘Feel Good’ Hormone
In simple English: our brain contains a ‘reward center.’ This place is an area of our brain which reinforces good behavior. When humans experience something pleasurable, there’s a surge of dopamine in this area of our brain. Dopamine is a ‘feel good hormone’ that makes us feel happy and content.
The idea is that because our behavior made us feel good, we’ll seek the feeling out in the future by repeating the action. If you imagine thousands of years ago, perhaps some hungry scavengers came across a huge stash of berries, ate them all, and experienced feelings of pleasure. From that point onward, they had an instinctive urge to seek out berries which increased their chances of survival.
At that time, energy from food was in short supply, and this evolutionary food reward system was a beneficial trait. Fast forward to 2016 and—unfortunately—human evolution is slow. In spite of being inundated with food choices at every turn, we still have this evolutionary reward system.
In short, we are still wired to seek out more food when something we eat stimulates our reward center. When you understand the science of how this works, it’s easy to see why so many people suffer from food addictions.
Is There Any Evidence That Sugar Addiction is Real?
The idea of food addiction is a controversial issue. A fine line exists between the concept of greed and an actual eating problem.
Further, a recent study illustrated the full extent to which sugar can cause addiction. Given a choice between cocaine and sugar-sweetened water, 94% of mice chose the sweetened water. This preference was despite having a prior addiction to cocaine instilled in them by the scientists (9).
The Problem With Modern Diets
In reality, the majority of people are subsisting on processed food these days. These ultra-processed foods—as well as fast food—are extremely dense in energy but with little by way of nutrition. Sooner or later, if someone consumes these foods regularly enough, they become habitual.
Further delving into this issue, the idea that overweight people are simply lazy is a typical yet very wrong stereotype. In short, most people of an unhealthy weight are just eating the wrong foods. Regrettably, it’s incredibly difficult for them to make a change.
A key point in all of this is the ‘war on fat’ which has taken place over the past several decades. Despite many dietary fats being extremely nutrient-dense—beef, avocado, salmon, and eggs are some of the most nutritious foods around—a lot of people avoid them out of an inherent fear of dietary fat.
In truth, the scare stories about how fat is “artery-clogging” were a primary cause of the plummeting nutritional value of our diet. Consequently, our society switched to excessive amounts of refined powders; sugar, flour, and other processed cereal grains.
Do You Suffer From a Food Addiction?
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you have a problem. Let’s cut the sexism out and acknowledge that men can be vulnerable to food disorders just the same as women can.
• The initial step in solving any food-related issue is admitting it to yourself. Once you do this, you can help fight the addiction in the following ways:
• Share your problems with the people closest to you. As the old expression goes, a problem shared is a problem halved.
• If you need help in any way – admit it. Tell people how they can assist you, because supportive relationships can make all the difference with any addiction.
• Clean your pantry of ‘trigger’ foods. Usually, this refers to sugar and refined carbohydrate sources. Typical examples include soda, bread, cakes, cookies, fruit juice, and anything containing added sugar.
• Emphasize healthy fat. Instead of cookies and pastries, eat a handful of nuts and some dark chocolate. Rather than buying a hamburger, grill a piece of beef and eat it with an avocado. These are simple changes that increase the nutrient value of your food in addition to removing the energy-dense addictive foods.
Food addiction is something that can happen to someone of any race, age, or gender.
No man should be ashamed of admitting they have a problem, as acknowledgment is the first step to resolving the issue.
Coupled with the addictive nature of many foods, the widespread availability of nutritionally poor choices makes it difficult to break the habit. The most important message in this regard is not to do it alone.
Given this, sharing your difficulties with someone close—or even an online community—can help.
You are not alone.