by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
It’s an all-too-common scenario: You wake up in the morning swearing today’s the day when you’ll eat clean, nourish yourself with a healthy breakfast at home, and pass up the glistening bakery goodies that tempt you every day. You make it to work without incident and then stress hits—any kind of stress, from a new project deadline to a caustic remark from your boss. A little while later, you find yourself with pastries in hand, wolfing down sugary anesthetics and wanting more. When you finally pop out of your food trance, and the reality of what you’ve done begins to settle in, the ensuing feelings of shame and guilt stoke your stress levels more and you’re already plotting your next food fix. You wonder: Why do I keep caving to these cravings? Where’s my discipline and willpower?
This is your brain addicted to food.
That’s right. Addicted. You might tell yourself, I’m not addicted to food. I just love a good sweet now and then. Well, I’m here to tell you that food addiction is real; it affects more people than you know, and manufacturers actually design food products so that they are as addicting as possible. Yes, that perfect combination of salty, sweet, and savory was created to make sure you keep reaching for more. That’s why I wrote The Hunger Fix, because I want to change the game that is rigged against you.
Here are 6 ways to beat food addiction:
1) Take the test. First, you need to find out if your relationship with food is a healthy one. Take my Food Addiction Quiz. This is a special assessment developed by Yale University researchers to evaluate your relationship with food. Experts believe that the majority of people who are overweight or obese have some level of food addiction. However, anyone of any age and size can have this issue.
2) Know your staples from your treats. Our brains are rigged to seek out the delicious reward of natural carbs like berries from a bush or veggies from the ground. We savor healthy fats from avocados, olive oil, and fish and lean meats. Our brains drive us to forage around to find these foods so that we have quick energy (from carbs) and long-lasting fuel (from fat). These natural whole foods have sustained us since the dawn of time. Our brains were acclimated to the taste of these rewards. Every now and again, we’d savor a treat that contained more natural sugar (grapes) or fat (dairy or meat). This mix of staples and treats became our natural balance of healthy nutrients. Flash-forward, and now we have manufacturers creating “hyperpalatable” foods—full of sugar, fat, and salt. And because they are ubiquitous, cheap, and easily accessible, fewer people cook. Grab and go is now the way to go.
3) Rein in your reward center. When hyperpalatables compete with natural foods, your brain’s reward center, which secretes the pleasure chemical dopamine, gets hijacked. Insulin levels go up and push you to want more and more. Suddenly, that bowl of fresh berries can’t compete with the über rewards of a Pop-Tart or a chocolate-coated breakfast bar. An occasional treat, such as a birthday dessert, also leads to a dopamine rush, but then your brain settles down to more normal levels of dopamine. But when you can get your hands on hyperpalatable foods 24/7 and you start the day with that sugary/fatty/salty pastry and grande sugary coffee drink, you end up with an endless appetite for more.
4) Recognize the “False Fix.” After constant exposure and consumption of these hyperpalatables, which I refer to as “False Fixes” in The Hunger Fix, your brain actually changes. The brain cannot tolerate this level of hyperstimulation. As a result, it decreases the number of dopamine receptors so that you no longer feel it as overstimulation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that by doing this, your typical serving of food is no longer as rewarding. You find yourself not feeling as pleased and satisfied. You know the end result. Not satisfied, you end up with second and third and fourth portions, packing on weight along the way.
But wait, there’s more: At the same time your reward center is being hijacked, the brain’s CEO, the prefrontal cortex (tap your forehead and that’s where the PFC is located), is becoming damaged and impaired. The PFC can no longer help you rein in impulses or stay focused and vigilant. That’s why, when someone is in full-on addictive mode, moderation is a moot point. Revolutionary and groundbreaking new studies funded by the National Institutes of Health funded have shown that the brain scans of food addicts show the same changes and damage as those of a cocaine user. And, for your information, research also shows that table sugar (sucrose) is more addictive than cocaine.
All right, what’s the solution? Science-based detox and recovery from the foods and beverages that you know are causing you to lose control and overeat.
5) Know your enemy. Make a list all of your False Fix foods that you know will lead you to feel out of control and overeat. As you prepare to detox, look around you and inventory the persons, places, and things that enable your food addiction. This isn’t just about switching up False Fix foods for Healthy Fixes. It’s also about examining your entire lifestyle so you can make new, healthier choices to support your recovery. You’re not going to change everything overnight, so you’ll start with small but powerful steps to ensure sustainable, long-term success.
6) Remember these words: MIND, MOUTH, MUSCLE. That will help you organize how you’ll detox and recover.
- MIND: Reclaim your brain. A strong PFC is absolutely required to repair and reclaim your reward center. And you can repair your PFC with transcendental meditation and mindfulness. The key is to practice them daily to stimulate new brain cell formation and to repair damage. When you meditate you cause actual brain changes to help repair and strengthen brain cells.
- MOUTH: Get high…naturally. Achieve a natural “high” from whole foods that increase dopamine production naturally. Specific foods—watermelon, spinach, avocados, tofu, and sesame seeds, to name a few—perform magic and reestablish normal reward responses for natural foods. Also, use powerful protein and fiber combinations—carrots and hummus, peanut or almond butter and apple slices, for instance—that satisfy and stop the urge to splurge on sugary/fatty/salty foods.
- MUSCLE: Every step you take during the day stimulates brain growth, including your PFC, which translates to a bigger, stronger, more focused brain. And one of the mottos of The Hunger Fix is BIG BRAIN, SMALL WAIST. You’ll make smarter decisions and shed extra weight if your brain is healthy. Research has also shown that regular physical activity will also keep you calmer and decrease the chance of relapse. All you need is regular moderate exercise to make this work. Walking is the easiest way to go for most people. Doing it outdoors and stepping up the pace when you can enhances the entire experience and results. I’m not talking marathons here, folks. Just getting up and moving.
The bottom line is that food addiction is real—it’s been acknowledged by world-class scientists—and we need to start taking it seriously. And, more important, we have the ability to reverse the damage and reclaim our healthy, natural relationship with food.
For more, check out my book, The Hunger Fix.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Dr. Peeke is featured as one of America’s leading women physicians in the National Institutes of Health Changing Face of Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her new book is the New York Times best-seller The Hunger Fix.