Can Food Addiction be Cured?

The average American has a dysfunctional relationship with food. This is simply because of it’s availability. Our culture is centered around food. We eat when we are happy, sad, and bored…because we can! This has caused us to be disoriented when it comes to how to eat, what to eat, when to eat, and when to stop! Along with societal pressures, this is has given rise to eating disorders and a staggering obesity rate.

Processed foods and the irresponsibility of large food companies is causing mass confusion about what is healthy and what isn’t. These companies have stripped away vital parts of whole foods, added chemicals, and sweeteners and marketed these foods as “healthy”. As a result, people have developed food addictions.

I personally do not believe that food addictions are caused by genetic psychological disorders. What I do believe is that people self-medicate with processed foods because of the physiological effect that it has on the brain. Have you ever heard of someone having an addiction to apples or broccoli? Me neither.

Our bodies are genetically coded for survival. That means that behaviors that ensure our survival are “rewarded”. This reward response occurs in the Limbic System of the brain responsible for our emotions and biological drives such as hunger and sex. When you eat, our brains release a chemical called Dopamine (along with serotonin), which acts upon the limbic system and gives us a sense of pleasure. Some foods elicit this response better than others. Concentrated sugar has a major impact on this response because it is absorbed quickly by the body. This is because sugar is further broken down into glucose, the body’s primary energy source.

While some whole foods have naturally occurring carbohydrate (sugar), other nutrients are also found with it. Other nutrients such as fiber, fat, and protein balance the effect that the carbohydrate has on blood sugar levels. This is important because the higher blood sugar levels rise, the quicker the body tries to clear it from the blood stream using a hormone called Insulin. Insulin is the hormone that allows nutrients from the bloodstream to be taken up by our cells.

When a person consumes concentrated sugar over time, the body’s insulin response begins to weaken because the cells that are responsible for secreting insulin become desensitized to glucose. That means, it takes higher and higher amounts of glucose to signal insulin to be released so that the cells can receive nutrition. When cells become “starved”, a hormone called ghrelin is released to “tell” your brain that you are hungry and dopamine levels drop until you eat again. This may be responsible for why food cravings occur, especially to sugar.

The answer to this problem is to slow the transit of foods in your system by regularly drinking water and eating whole foods full of protein, fiber, and healthy fats. The hormones responsible for telling your brain that you are hungry or full are also controlled by the stretching of the stomach and small intestine. Foods with high fiber, protein, and water content stretch the stomach and small intestine signaling leptin to trigger satiety. Sugar and processed carbohydrates, on the other hand, move faster through the digestive system because they are absorbed quickly by the body. The faster something is digested, the more ghrelin is released to tell you that you’re hungry. Eating nutrient-dense foods will eventually fix dysfunctional insulin and hunger signaling responses. Another way to fix the problem is through Intermittent Fasting (IF), which can reset the insulin and hunger signaling response.

Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent Fasting (IF) is one of the newest dietary strategies being studied specifically for its fat loss effects. IF involves going short periods without food, such as 24 hours once per week or 16 hours each day. Some of the positive benefits include an increase in immune system function, improvement in blood lipids, improvement in brain function and mental clarity, improvement in insulin signaling, and increase in fat utilization as fuel.

Here’s how it works. When you eat, it takes several hours for your body to break down the food and clear sugar, fat, and protein molecules from your bloodstream. Where these nutrients go depends on many things including your metabolic rate, nutrient demand, and the amount of insulin utilized to clear these molecules from the bloodstream. Most importantly, the more insulin that is utilized, the higher the potential to store those nutrients as fat. When you fast, insulin levels stay low and fat becomes released from fat cells into the bloodstream to be used as energy. When it’s time to break the fast, chances are, your body will respond quickly with insulin and you may even feel full sooner.

While there are mixed results on the effect of IF on fat loss, there is a very logical reason for doing it. It allows you to engage in gradual caloric restriction as opposed to sharply decreasing it. This is important because a rapid decline in calories, especially when exercise is a part of the weight loss plan, can cause hormonal imbalances to occur. This will most definitely halt your fat loss progress and may even cause you to gain weight. IF allows you to restrict your calories for a relatively short period of time and then return to a normal eating pattern.

Intermittent Fasting and Food Addiction

Have you ever felt like you are addicted to food, especially sugar? This is because your brain releases dopamine in response to eating carbohydrates, and more specifically sugar. This is because your brain utilizes about 25% of your total carbohydrate intake to maintain its function and is also easily broken down and taken up by the body to be used as energy. It is a survival mechanism.

Dopamine is known as the “pleasure” hormone. It acts upon the pleasure center of your brain to “reward” you for behaviors that ensure your survival. When you expose your system to sugar frequently your body needs more and more sugar to get the same dopamine release because the receptors that recognize dopamine, become desensitized. There is some evidence to suggest that IF can reset your dopamine response to eating because you deplete your body’s carbohydrate stores during IF.

Adam Eckart MS CSCS FDN-P
Co-Founder, Critical MASS Training Systems
732.889.3319 ext. 2

P.S. For more information on intermittent fasting and other nutritional weight loss strategies please give us a call or email us.

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