Imagine that a mischievous imp comes to live in the brains of children. This imp is annoying. It’s constantly putting thoughts of processed foods into children’s heads. Urges for sugary breakfast cereal abound. Pleas for fast food and other branded processed foods are constantly in the air. The child develops a “weight-problem.”
As the child grows up, so does the imp. It grows into a monster that influences many actions of the adult. Hours are spent thinking about the next bite of processed food or recovering from the last one. Outings are organized around the availability of processed foods.
Relationships are evaluated for the potential to share consumption of processed foods. Medical consequences pile up, but incessant food cravings and obsession for sugar, fat and salt win out over restraint. Regret, humiliation and self-blame become the norm. Medical professionals are frustrated as diet-related diseases progress and blame the patient for lack of willpower.
Unhealthy Food Addictions
The monster is the modern scourge of addiction to processed foods. Millions of people suffer from it unknowingly. It’s easy to identify the signs of processed food addiction because they resemble the signs of other addictions such as alcoholism. However, medical professionals miss the diagnosis because they’re trained to identify consequences of the addiction, but not the addiction itself.
The result is millions of preventable deaths due to diet-related diseases. These include heart disease, diabetes, stroke and obesity and can be accompanied by fatigue, joint pain, insomnia, asthma, irritable bowel and depression/anxiety.
Processed food addiction has no regard for the well-being of its host. Like any addiction, untreated processed food addiction can drive its host to the grave. Addicted brain cells dominate thoughts and behaviors in pursuit of a processed food fix above any other priority. At least 1,800 Americans die from diet-related diseases associated with processed foods every day. That’s a million Americans every two years.
Causes of Junk Food Addiction
The food industry uses a marketing model developed by the tobacco industry called “surround marketing.” First, food addiction merchants addict the reward centers in the brain by hiding large quantities of very addictive sugar, fat and salt in processed foods.
Then, they stimulate intense cravings by activating the addicted brain cells with advertising and availability at cheap prices. In the grocery store, for example, lots of choices, brightly colored packaging, dance music, multiple addictive smells, urgent announcements, free samples, special prices, coupons, high ceilings, large carts, impulse buys at the checkout, are just some of the factors that combine to create loss of control. Industry research shows that 60% of purchase decisions are made after the shopper enters the store — under intense bombardment of addictive craving triggers.
Research shows that processed food addiction is deeply imbedded because it starts in early childhood, involves many different addictive food-like substances, is missed in treatment and is intensely reinforced by the food industry addiction business model. These factors combine to create a complicated addiction, which is difficult to treat.
The food industry targets small children, even newborns, with sugary processed foods, including baby formula. In the seven years following Big Tobacco’s takeover of Kraft, Nabisco and General Foods in the mid-1980s, cartoon commercials for processed foods increased from about 160 per Saturday morning to 560. Nickelodeon carried those addicting commercials to 65 million American households. Childhood obesity rose 50%, from 10% prevalence to 15% prevalence. Within 20 years, overweight and obesity went from 45% of all Americans to over 70%. Today, 67% of the calories consumed by Americans are from processed foods acting on the brain like addictive drugs.
Treating Food Addiction
Severe addictions have historically been treated in long-term residential facilities. Practically, this is not an option for the two billion people worldwide who are overweight or obese. Classically, for drug and alcohol addiction, the next level of treatment has been intensive outpatient programs conducted at hospitals. However, this pathway is not available for processed food addiction.
Fortunately, people can take steps. As with any addiction, there are four steps to start putting processed food addiction into remission:
Step 1. Define the situation accurately.
Overeating is an addiction similar to tobacco addiction. This means there are many, many things that overeating is not.
Overeating is not childhood issues, genetics, self-sabotage, not-trying-hard-enough nor laziness. Nor is it lack of willpower, motivation or commitment. It is not an eating-disorder, just like smoking is not a breathing disorder. Overeating is hyperactive cells in the reward pathways of the brain that release a flood of craving neurotransmitters in response to cues for addictive processed foods. That’s all it is.
Step 2. Get a clear picture of all the benefits you might get.
Weight loss is not enough of a motivator. Learn about the research showing that processed foods are associated with over 100 mental, emotional, physical and behavioral disorders. That’s better motivation.
Step 3. Get a clear understanding of why nothing you’ve tried has worked.
None of those weight-loss or eating-disorder programs addressed a severe addiction. So keep going. You have never failed. This is not your fault. You’ve just never been in the right program.
Step 4. Look for a program that is science-based and focused on restoring brain function.
Look for kindness, patience, understanding, compassion and a record of long-term success. Look for training in cue management because cravings are often ignited by advertising and marketing messaging, smells, sights and memories, so learning how to recognize your triggers is key.
Meal management is also important. This means learning how to have fruits, vegetables, starches and proteins ready on hand, which is a skill set. A program with knowledge in this area will teach you how to shop for and store these types of foods so that you can always have healthy options ready for preparation.
A program should also teach you how to manage your relationships because interpersonal stress is a leading cause of relapse and overeating. Things like boundary setting and conflict resolution, for example, are skills that should be addressed.
Avoid short-term programs and programs with stressful deadlines, unrealistic goals or rules that don’t make sense to you. Stress is a leading cause of relapse. Make sure that the program gives you control over timing and offers easily doable steps.
The most important thing you can do if you feel you’re suffering from an addiction to processed foods is to learn more about it and find a community of people who can help motivate you to get onto the path of healing without judgment.
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