Food addiction: Why addictions to certain foods can be so difficult to overcome

Addiction therapist breaks down cause, effect of food addictions

DETROIT – When most people hear the word “addiction,” they think of substances such as alcohol, prescription pills or drugs, but an increasing number of studies suggest food can also have highly addictive qualities that are difficult to overcome.

We need food to survive, but certain foods -- especially those rich in sugar, fat and salt -- can trigger chemicals in the brain that make us feel good, such as dopamine. When you feel that, it can make you want to eat those foods again.

The health portion of my life was more about having a stack of Oreo cookies with a glass of milk at 10 o’clock at night while I’m watching TV in bed," said Don Prince, who struggled with food addiction. “I’d justify the cookies and say, ‘Well, I do like Oreos.’ Or I’d eat oatmeal cookies because they had raisins in them because, ‘That’s got to be healthier than the Oreos or the chocolate chips.’”

Dr. Cali Estes, PhD, an addiction therapist, said there is research-based evidence that suggests foods high in sugar, fat and salt can trigger the pleasure sensors in the brain, creating feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.

“At 10 o’clock at night, when you’re bored, you stick your hand in the bag of Oreos, and that’s when food addiction occurs,” Estes said.

Like drugs and alcohol, food can be used to suppress emotions, Estes said.

“It’s a numbing out effect,” Estes said. “It’s a short window while you’re eating it or thinking about it, but it’s enough serotonin, dopamine to make you happy for a short period.”

When that high is going, Estes said people can go through stages of withdrawal, starting with irritability and fatigue and eventually lead to insomnia, headaches and restless legs.

“All the same symptoms of heroin on a lesser level,” Estes said.

But through cognitive behavioral therapy and direct coaching, people can change their mindset about food and learn to replace addictive eating behaviors with healthier alternatives.

“It’s going to be little changes as you go and as you feel better, you’ll want more change,” Estes said.

Getting over his food addiction not only helped Prince eat better, but also become more physically active.

“I never considered what I did as a diet,” Prince said. “I just considered it a lifestyle change.”

Along with psychological factors, there can be biological factors that lead to food addiction, including hormonal imbalances, brain chemistry abnormalities and medication side effects. Those need to be addressed with a doctor.

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