Do you often find you eat more than you really want to? Does it kind of feel like the time you wanted to quit smoking (or drugs, alcohol, weed, vaping, shopping, gambling, relationships or sex) and found that you couldn’t — or that it took a lot more effort than you had anticipated?
The common factor in these stressful experiences is the presence of an addiction. Often, we don’t know that we’ve become addicted to an activity or a substance until we want to put the brakes on and find that they’re not working. We keep doing or using something even though we regret it.
The desire to stop an undesirable behavior can become desperate and frightening. That’s the tragedy and agony of having an addiction. No matter what the activity or substance is, whether it’s excessive spending or out-of-control drinking, it’s frightening that we want to stop and yet we keep engaging.
Evidence is growing that people are experiencing the signs of addiction in the consumption of processed foods. Research pointing to an addiction to processed foods has grown substantially since I and my colleagues first described refined food addiction in the academic press in 2009. For example, a recent debate in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found consensus that addictive eating exists and is a mechanism in the epidemic of obesity. It explains the paradox that people continue to eat unhealthy processed foods even as diet-related diseases are developing.
This is the seeming paradox of all addictions. Why does the heroin-addicted person continue to shoot up even at risk of death? It’s the same reason people regularly consume donuts and sugar-filled lattes, even though they know that each bite can worsen diet-related diseases.
Although some people can control their consumption of these processed foods and avoid developing diet-related diseases, increasingly, others are finding that they can’t. In 2018, American adolescents were consuming approximately 67% of their calories in processed foods, up from 61% in 1999.
In the late 1990s, brain imaging technology solved the mystery of irrational self-harm of drug and alcohol addiction. The same technology has also shown why so many people fail to improve their diets.
Addicted brain cells in the reward region of the brain become hyperactive. They flood the brain with pleasure neurotransmitters — and wowie, that feels so incredibly great! But the reward cells become depleted, which produces a crash that feels awful. The addicted person is compelled to use the substances again to feel better.
A Quiz for Signs of Food Addiction
What to do? Start educating yourself.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are 11 diagnostic criteria for alcoholism. These translate handily into behaviors associated with unwanted eating. This is not surprising but strangely comforting as it helps affirm that we’re on the right track in framing unwanted eating as an addiction.
Here are the signs of addiction to processed foods, and it only takes a yes for six out of 11 to suggest the possibility of a severe addiction. The first six are the most common. Here’s a to take the quiz yourself.
1. Unintended use. You plan to eat a certain way, but you eat more. You intend to eat only one, but instead you eat the whole package in one sitting. You’re not planning to stop for food or drink, but your car drives itself into the line. You plan to eat clean but by 10 a.m., you’re standing in front of the vending machine. Sure this can happen to all of us, but when this happens regularly, and especially when you feel guilty afterwards, this could be a sign of processed food addiction. In our online self-quiz, 96% of the 3,316 respondents reported having this experience.
2. Failure to lose weight when dieting or keep weight off after dieting. Weight-loss is a $33 billion industry. Research shows that most weight-loss success is followed by weight regain. Given that over 70% of Americans are overweight or live with obesity, it’s not surprising that this sign of addiction was chosen by 96% of site visitors who took the self-quiz.
3. Eating for reasons other than hunger. Food is for assuaging hunger. Of respondents, 95% reported eating over anger, depression, emotions in general, headache, pain, stomachache, boredom, loneliness, numbing, cravings, etc.
4. Constant cravings. People are so accustomed to constant food cravings that they don’t know that cravings aren’t normal. It’s not normal to think about food when you’re not hungry. Food cravings can grow into obsession, making it hard to think about anything else. It’s a beautiful relief in early-stage recovery when cravings start to ease off. Cravings were experienced by 93% of site visitors.
5. Time spent. Processed food addiction soaks up time in planning, getting, transporting, hiding and consuming the food. Spending a lot of time was experienced by 82% of site visitors.
6. Eating more over time (61%). This looks like more fast food stops, larger containers and eating more times a day.
7. Relationship problems (50%). When you have a truly supportive partner who wants you to stop because they’re worried about your health, but you can’t. You may find yourself wanting them to go to bed so you can eat alone.
8. Eating under hazardous conditions (50%). This can be driving with your elbow while both hands are holding fast food.
9. Failure to fulfill roles (45%). This can happen because we’re too brain-fogged, depressed or tired to get much done.
10. Giving up activities (29%). Sometimes we just don’t want people to see that we’ve gained weight. Plus, we’d rather go home and eat.
Again, if you’re experiencing six or more of these sign, then you may be in the middle of an addiction to processed foods. The good news is that you’re not alone and that there are more resources to help you than there were a decade ago. Loss of control was never your fault. Knowledge of addiction to processed foods opens the door to getting the right recovery program.
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