Am I Addicted to Food?

With all the self-proclaimed "chocoholics," "carbohydrate cravers" and "sugar addicts" out there, there’s no reason why we shouldn't call ourselves “food addicts.” Or is there? Do you think food addiction is real?

In one way, we are all food addicts. Eating is not an optional choice, and there is no way to go "cold turkey," if you will. We must eat for survival, so the view of food addictions cannot be thought of in the same way as drugs, alcohol or nicotine. Think of what happens when we don't eat—growling stomach, headache, dizziness—all symptoms of food deprivation. If we're physically hungry, any food will do! But when we think of food cravings, it's for a particular kind of food.   

The Science

Pleasure centers in our brains are stimulated by many pleasant activities—this is normal biology. Whether it's food, being in love, exercise, sex or getting some sun, brain neurochemicals (like dopamine and serotonin, among others) are activated. Drugs, like cocaine, also activate these brain chemicals, but in a damaging and destructive way, which creates physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms when the drug is removed. So, many of our food struggles, which might seem biological, are not related to true hunger and fullness for survival, but are based on a behavioral dependence, not a physical one. We must learn to accept that we do have control over these behaviors and can learn to manage them.

There are so many "trigger" foods, and they are different for everyone, which promote that uncomfortable sense known as a "loss of control."

Here are five important steps in managing food cravings and maintaining some control:

  1. Identify the problem foods.
  2. Determine whether portion control or substitution with another food will be effective to satisfy—but not trigger—overeating.
  3. Eliminate specific foods (not whole categories) that trigger rather than satisfy.
  4. Avoid settings (both at restaurants and at home) that trigger overeating.
  5. Substitute another behavior for the act of eating—learn to knit or chew sugarless gum.

Here are three major categories where people struggle the most:

Sweet tooth

  • sugar only (gummy bears, licorice, soda)
  • sugar and fat combinations (chocolate, cakes, cookies, ice cream)

Fat tooth

  • creamy mouth feel (cheese, mayonnaise, sauces, ice cream)
  • crunchy, chewy and salty (chips, french fries, fried chicken, hamburgers, bacon)

Starchy carbohydrates

  • bread and pasta
  • rice, potatoes and cereals

There are no "right" answers for everyone. This is truly a personal choice and some of the best solutions are found by trial and error. What works for you might not work for someone else. So, be open-minded but realistic in your quest to conquer food cravings. It can be done... you can regain control.

Check out a few more suggestions that have worked for my patients and me—the pistachio nut addict!

For a sweet tooth:

  • Sugar-free gum and mints—try cinnamon or peppermint (strong flavors stimulate your taste buds)
  • Sugar-free Jell-O and Popsicles
  • 60-calorie Jell-O pudding pack (chocolate or caramel)
  • Low-calorie hot chocolate (25 calories)
  • Don't like low-calorie sweeteners? Try single-wrapped peppermints, such as Life Savers, peppermint Tic-Tacs and Altoids, Dum-Dum lollipops, mini Tootsie Roll pops and chocolate-covered Altoids.

For a fat tooth:

  • Single-serve bag of baked chips
  • Bag of carrots
  • Bag of pre-washed salad (eaten right out of the bag)
  • 100-calorie pack of plain pretzels, chips or popcorn
  • Laughing Cow light cheese wedge
  • Mini Bonbel Light cheese (mini-wax serving)
  • Non-fat or low-fat yogurt—look for extra creamy (Yoplait or Dannon)
  • Turkey pepperoni (1 serving)
  • Ballpark white meat turkey hot dogs

For the carb lovers:

  • Whole wheat, thin sliced bread (under 50 calories per slice)
  • 50-calorie, whole wheat tortillas (La Tortilla Factory brand comes in several flavors)
  • 100-percent whole wheat matzo (one sheet)
  • Mini pita bread (70 calories)
  • 1/2 cup couscous
  • 1 cup Special K High Protein
  • 1 cup Barbara's Puffins (regular or cinnamon)

These lists could go on and on, but I hope this gives you a jump-start to keep working on this really tough aspect of healthy eating and weight management.

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