We all know what we should eat: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. So why are we pulled instead to cupcakes and potato chips? Is there such a thing as "food addiction"? In my new book The Hunger Fix, I explore the groundbreaking science of food addiction and offer tips to help you gain control.
Hand Over the Chocolate and Nobody Gets Hurt
Whether or not you’re overweight, there’s a good chance you know what it is to crave something sweet or salty, and probably full of fat besides. Fried chicken. Burgers. Cupcakes. Doughnuts. Chips. This doesn’t make you crazy or weak. You’re hardwired to like these tastes. When our ancestors foraged for food, they learned that things that tasted sweet, like berries, provided quick energy, while foods with fat packed a punch for sustained-release energy.
But flash forward to the present. Today, an endless array of food products are manufactured to include high levels of sugar, fat, and salt to ramp up the tastiness and plump up sales. Suddenly, the taste of those berries pales in comparison to the sweet breakfast pastry or chocolate-covered snack bar. Did this shift from "natural" to "processed" and "refined" food affect our brains? You better believe it did.
Land of the False Fixes
Neuroscientists are studying the effect that processed foods have on the brain. With their high levels of fat and sugar, these foods are “hyperpalatable,” or what I call “false fixes.” They trigger the release of dopamine, the “feel good” chemical in the brain. Our modern-day diet keeps this reward center overstimulated, and science has found that for many of us, this results in the same organic changes observed in the brains of cocaine addicts. So we eat more, and need more of our false fix foods—for the same reason a drug addict uses more of his drug more frequently -- in an attempt to get the high we crave.
This is Your Brain on Sugar and Fat
More bad news: As your reward system is repeatedly highjacked by false fix foods, your brain’s CEO, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is damaged. This means it has more trouble reining in impulses, which means you’re less likely to resist that chocolate chip cookie or doughnut.
To add to the problem, chronic levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, also stimulate cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods. Once you’ve tasted those foods, it’s easy to get into the habit of reaching for them to anesthetize the angst of life’s challenges.
The Way Out: MIND, MOUTH and MUSCLE
I wrote The Hunger Fix to let those who struggle with their food impulses know that they aren’t weak, lazy, or crazy—they’re fighting a problem with biological and psychological roots. Breaking free from false fixes is based on my trademark holistic trifecta:
MIND – Learn to meditate. Meditation will help you to heal and power up your prefrontal cortex; as it gets stronger, it becomes easier to resist the lure of a false fix. Start your meditation practice with just 5 or 10 minutes of sitting in a quiet place. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. When thoughts intrude, notice them and let them go, returning again to your breathing. If you’re someone who can’t sit still, start with mindfulness meditation, which means consciously engaging all your senses in whatever you're doing. Take a walk and really pay attention to everything around you, like the sound of birds and the breeze on your face. Do this mindfulness meditation when you eat, as well, really looking at your food, smelling it, and chewing it slowly and carefully.
MOUTH – Switch up delicious, pleasurable Healthy Fixes for your False Fixes, using food combinations that kill cravings by providing protein and fiber, like carrots and hummus, low-fat cottage cheese with fruit, or a smoothie made with banana and milk. Incorporate foods like spinach, avocado, and sesame seeds, too, as they increase the body’s production of dopamine. Kale chips are easy to make at home and make a crunchy, delicious snack and sliced avocado makes a great stand-in for butter on a slice of whole wheat bread.
MUSCLE – Exercise, of course. You grow a bigger brain with every step you take, stimulating the formation of new brain cells and circuits by being active on a regular basis. You don’t have to run a marathon, or even train for one. Just move your body. Wash your car by hand instead of taking it to the car wash. Take the stairs instead of the escalator. Buy a pedometer and make it a point to get at least 10,000 steps a day. You’ll get a hit of “feel good” hormones from a workout and aid the recovery of your prefrontal cortex at the same time.
The Bottom Line
Food addiction is real. It’s high time we take it seriously, and deal with it as we would any other addiction. You recover by making mental, nutritional, and physical activity changes in your life. You also need to recognize that it's not just food you need to change up. If food addiciton is a problem, you also need to take inventory and perhaps make hard decisions about the people, places, and things in your life that enable your overeating. The great news is that you can reverse the damage, reclaim your brain, and shed any unhealthy weight. Most importantly, you’ll be rewarded with a well-deserved and joyful life of wellness.
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