Food Addiction In A Time Of Fast Food
Over the last four decades, fast food has increasingly encroached on everyday life. The hot dog or the hamburger have become just as much as symbol of American culture as the Statue of Liberty or the Star-Spangled Banner. Fast food certainly has its place in today’s society. With our ever-more hectic lifestyles, longer working hours and greater societal pressures, it’s no wonder that more families than ever before are turning to the Drive-Thru after a long day in the office rather than cooking a delicious home-prepared meal.
However, junk food has proved to be at least in part responsible for another serious problem in the USA today – the obesity crisis. In 29 states, the obesity rate is currently over 30%, and almost 15% of high school students are severely overweight. Not only is obesity a growing problem but food addiction is also becoming more prevalent. Around 5% of the population is believed to be addicted to food, while current statistics show that almost 3 million U.S. citizens suffer from BED or Binge Eating Disorder. This makes BED the USA’s most prevalent eating disorder – even more common than better-known conditions like anorexia and bulimia.
How Is Food Addictive?
Fast food may be easily accessible and convenient, but it also contains unhealthy ingredients which may taste delicious, but which deliver limited nutritional benefits. When junk food is everywhere and Drive-Thru windows are on virtually every corner, it’s all too easy to see how we can become unwittingly addicted to food that is bad for us.
New scientific discoveries have shown the processed and industrial salt, fat and sugar-laden foods are biologically addictive. If we imagine a plate full of broccoli next to a plate full of cookies, it would be virtually impossible to imagine anyone uncontrollable snacking on the broccoli, while we can almost all picture someone, if not ourselves, chowing down on the cookies until they’re all gone. This is entirely due to the addictive ingredients that the cookies contain. Broccoli contains no fat, sugar or salt so it doesn’t have the same addictive appeal.
The problem is that telling people to simply say no to junk food is a bit like telling a cocaine addict to refuse their next hit. Nobody goes out with the intention of becoming a cocaine addict and nobody willingly chooses to become addicted to junk food either. The overeating behavior arises from the brain’s neurochemical reward center which is activated by the addictive substance. This causes your willpower to be overridden and your biological signals which should control your hunger to be overwhelmed.
Fast food addiction develops in the same way as any other kind of addiction. Positive reinforcement paves the way, while regularly eating unhealthy food poses just as many health dangers to the addict as taking illegal drugs or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
Research has proven that an ongoing diet of junk food programs the brain into wanting even more fat, salt and sugar. At the Florida Scripps Research Institute, scientists discovered that lab rats became addicted to an unhealthy diet in just the same way as people who develop a dependency on heroin or cocaine. In the study, it showed that when rats were allowed unlimited amounts of calorie-laden foods like candy, bacon and pound cake they, needless to say, gained huge amounts of weight. The bigger they go, the more compulsive their eating behavior became. Even when they were given electric shocks when they ate junk food, they carried out eating it anyway. Even more bizarrely, when the obese rats had their junk food replaced with a healthy diet, they stopped eating at all for two weeks.
Researchers learned from this that it’s likely that a diet which contains highly-rewarding foods such as cake, sausages, and candy, causes changes to the reward system in the brain. As the rats became more obese, the chemical balance inside their brain circuitry which is responsible for reward deteriorates progressively. The bigger the rat became, the less responsive their pleasure centers became. This led them to rapidly develop compulsive eating habits, eating ever-larger amounts of high fat, high-calorie food.
The scientists even went on to examine the brains of the obese rats and discovered that the dopamine D2 receptor levels had declined in the same way seen in cocaine or heroin addicts. Drug addiction is characterized by changes within the brain reward system and the exact same result was seen in the rats who had become addicted to unhealthy food over time.
This may also be applicable to human subjects, and it supports what obese people have been saying for years – that it’s incredibly difficult to switch to a healthy diet after living on junk food for any length of time. Not only do they gain weight, but they also develop an additional compulsion to seek out even more unhealthy food, trapping them in an ongoing cycle of eating and craving candy, fries, and burgers.
Another study showed that rats who were weaned off high-calorie diets suffered from similar withdrawal symptoms to drug or alcohol addicts who were going cold turkey. All of this evidence goes a long way towards highlighting that fast food addiction may not simply be the result of a lack of willpower in the individual but actual changes within the body’s chemistry that makes it exceptionally difficult to give up the habit of overeating.
Am I Addicted To Food?
In these days of fast food, most of us grab a burger or some fried chicken from a takeaway outlet a few times a month. However, when it turns into several times a week or even every day, that’s when it becomes more likely that you’re beginning to develop a food addiction.
If you’re worried that you’ve developed a problem with an addiction to junk food, here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Do you always end up eating considerably more than you intended once you begin eating specific foods?
- Do you carry on eating unhealthy food even if you don’t feel hungry any longer?
- Do you carry on eating until you start to feel ill?
- Do you worry about not eating some food types or worry about needing to cut down on specific kinds of food?
- If certain types of food can’t be found, do you go above and beyond to get hold of them?
People who have a food addiction also find that it impacts on other areas of their life too. Here are some things to watch out for in your own lifestyle to determine whether or not you’re developing an addiction to food.
- Do you eat specific foods so frequently or in such huge amounts that you end up eating rather than spending quality time with friends or family, participating in recreational activities or going to work?
- Do you avoid any social or professional situations at which certain foods will be available because you’re afraid you won’t be able to control your eating?
- Are you struggling to function effectively at school or work because of eating and food?
People who answer yes to some or all of these questions are probably already in the throes of food addiction. The effects on their personal life are very similar to those experienced when someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol. The level of impact is equally severe, with the consequences being almost the same. Social isolation, problems with employers and family upsets are all part and parcel of food addiction just as much as they are a key component of addiction to cocaine or hard liquor.
Some other questions to ask yourself to find out whether you could be developing a food addiction relate to the withdrawal and psychological symptoms you experience if you stop eating certain foods, and the impact of your food choices on your feelings and emotions. They include:
- Do you feel anxious or agitated when you don’t eat salt, sugary or fatty foods?
- Do you feel anxious, depressed, guilty or experience self-loathing when you eat certain foods?
- Do you need to eat even more junk food on an ongoing basis to reduce your negative emotions or give yourself more pleasure?
- If you eat the same amount of junk food as once did, do you find that it no longer increases your pleasure or reduces your negative emotions?
When your response to these questions is yes, you should seek some help for your food addiction.
Why Get Help For Food Addiction?
Some people struggle to see why they should get help for their food addiction or fail to recognize that it is actually a serious problem. We have become conditioned to thinking that people who are obese are just lazy and lack the essential willpower that they need to lose weight and shed the pounds. However, thanks to the recent research, we’re beginning to realize that it isn’t necessarily their fault. With so much availability of junk food these days and such busy, hectic lifestyles, it’s no wonder that so many of us are so tempted to chow down on convenience foods which are, unfortunately, laced with unhealthy ingredients like salt, sugar, and fat – all of which have been proven to be highly addictive.
While some people think the worst problem associated with food addiction is the aesthetic problem of gaining weight, in fact, the most serious issues are health-related. The lifestyle effects on those who can’t stop eating junk food can be severe and long-lasting.
People who eat fast food regularly are more at risk of developing a wide variety of medical conditions including:
- High cholesterol
- Type II diabetes
- Kidney and liver problems
- Heart disease
- Impaired cognitive function
This only goes to show that there are lots of parallels between addiction to food and addiction to other dangerous substances. We acknowledge that those who are addicted to substances such as illegal drugs and alcohol are more at risk of developing heart, kidney and brain problems among other diseases. These aren’t too different from the health conditions which are caused by overeating unhealthy foods.
If you believe that you’re addicted to fast food, you should seek professional help as soon as possible. You can wean yourself off an unhealthy diet and enjoy a better quality of life as well as better overall physical and mental well-being, but, like with any other addiction, getting the right support is essential for success.
How To Get Help For Addiction To Food
At present, scientists are still working on understanding the basics of food addiction and thus to develop appropriate treatments to help sufferers. Some believe that recovering from a food addiction could even be more complex than recovering from other types of addiction. After all, an alcoholic can ultimately stop drinking alcohol, however, those who have a food addiction still have to eat food every day.
Although compulsive overeating is a serious problem, it is one that can be overcome with the right help and support. A doctor, psychologist, nutritionist or counselor with a background in food addiction can offer you the help you need to break the cycle that you are trapped in. There are even more programs being developed these days to help people suffering from food addiction. Food Addicts In Recovery Anonymous is just one of these programs which take their inspiration from the Alcoholics Anonymous style of 12 step program which has proven to be helpful to so many addicts over the years.
Some food addicts are too embarrassed to seek help. They feel as if they’re asking for support with a problem which they should easily be able to solve themselves by simply quitting their daily visit to the Drive-Thru and avoiding the baked goods aisle in the supermarket. However, this certainly isn’t the case. Medical professionals and therapists today are aware that food addiction is a very real problem which is widespread across the nation, and even the world. It is only by seeking help that you can get the support you need to ditch the junk and to move onto a healthier and happier lifestyle.
Struggling with food addiction? Let The Meadowglade be the first step on the road to recovery. Our dedicated team of therapists work with you to get you back to where you want to be when it comes to having a healthy, healing relationship with your body and the food you consume. Contact us today for more information about how our facility can help you!